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Why Christians should own up to doubting

03 March 2011

The faithful should be more honest in probing their doubts: questions are an essential part of religion, argues Mark Vernon

FEW believers make the mistake — which is widespread in our secular culture — that faith delivers cer­tainty as conveniently as Ocado delivers food. Doubt is part and parcel of the life of faith. Yet, when I was researching the subject, I strug­gled to find a church leader, or churchgoer, who thought that the Church handled doubt well.

“Over the years, religious leaders have given the faithful the idea that these truths are certain,” explained the historian of religion Karen Arm­strong. “They are in fact distorting the faith they are trying to defend.” So what has gone wrong? She argues that two problems stand out.

First, we live in a world in which science is taken as setting the standards for truth. This mentality owes much to the thought of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. He was deeply impressed by the ability of math-ematics to deliver certainties, and so en­couraged the view that math-ematical rigour was the best grounds for knowledge. Modern science is his direct legacy.

Religious extremists are deeply impressed by this, too, and so present faith as if it were a kind of science. It is not done in a test tube, but with scriptural texts. Yet this is a big mis­take, Ms Armstrong believes.

Most religious traditions teach that God is encountered only when everything you thought you knew about God has been doubted. This is why idolatry is such a heinous crime in monotheism. The evidence of texts, if evidence is what they pro­vide, takes you only so far. What matters more is personal experience and divine encounter. Hence, when doubting Thomas asks for evidence, he believes not when he touches, but when he encounters the risen Christ (John 20.24-29).

The second issue, Ms Armstrong continues, is that people in the pew are detached from religious scholar­ship; so when they hear about biblical criticism from the lips of an incautious theologian, the im­pression is given that the game is up. But this is not so.

Biblical criticism offers a live­lier way of engaging with the text. The Bible is transformed if, instead of instructing readers in what to think, it provokes them into strug­gling over what might be being said. That way it becomes their own — though it is a way that is found only through a serious type of doubt. “The faithful should be en­couraged when they hear a clergy­man say: ‘I do not know about this,’” Ms Arm­strong says. “They should fall to their knees in gratitude.”

THE difficulty with doubt has to do with the shape of religious in­stitutions, too, argues Philippa Garety, Professor of Clinical Psychology at King’s College, London. She works with people who suffer from de­bilitating delusions. Their suffering can be understood as resulting from holding too tightly to beliefs, such as, perhaps, that they are being per­secuted or misunderstood.

Mental health returns when they learn to tolerate alternative points of view and the uncertainties of life. This, she suggests, is difficult for Churches, which, in practice, en­courage the polarisation of positions.

“The debating chamber of the House of Commons would be the least effective way of dealing with difference and exploring different per­spectives,” she observes, “or in­deed the synodical government of the Church of England.” Neither system rewards discussions across strongly held positions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury concurs that it is hard for anyone in public life to admit to doubts. This goes for politicians as much as priests: confess that you are not sure about something, and you leave yourself open to all manner of media attacks. (Conversely, he also notes that whenever someone does try to pin him down on what he believes, he can see in their eyes that what they really want is a tidy certainty to dismiss tidily.)

That said, Dr Williams is not convinced that the pulpit is the best place to rehearse doubts. Rather, it is the place to set out the richness of the tradition, and then, equipped with those resources, the individual can explore difficult questions in a more pastoral setting. “What you need is a stable environment of wor-ship, imagery, prayer, and imagina­tion,” he suggests.

The mistake is to assume that the Bible or particular doctrines deliver certainties of themselves. Rather, they are collections of imaginative stories, and assemblies of intellectual scaffolding. Equipped with them, a person can discern the mystery of God. What they offer is like a win­dow that opens on to another way of looking at the world, or, to switch metaphors, a mirror that reflects the world in a different light.

MY RESEARCH also gave me the chance to talk to Dr David Jenkins, a former Bishop of Durham. He re­tired in the same year as he ordained me a priest, 1994, and it was good to have the chance to sit with him at his kitchen table.

He informed me, with a glint in his eye, what he has discovered re­cently by reading the Bible: “They are wrestling with things, going wrong, and goodness knows what,” he ob­served energetically. The good book is nothing if not repeated stories of doubts, fear, and mistakes.

Then he reminded me of another vital factor that is required to engage well with doubt: community. You need a group of people to struggle with, whom you can trust. They will bring hope, and access to a deeper faith and wisdom than is possible alone.

So the Church should be a place of questions, not somewhere where questions are left at the door. Hence, as Dr Jenkins observed, if it is hard to live with the Church, it is pretty much impossible to live without it.

Dr Mark Vernon has written and presents a two-part series, In Doubt We Trust, on BBC Radio 4, which begins on Sunday 6 March at 1.30 p.m. His new book is How To Be an Agnostic (Palgrave Macmillan).

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