On Faith, Doubt and Truth

If faith is not robust enough to hold up to scrutiny, it isn’t worth holding on to.

I traveled for 12 hours in a car recently and spent most of that time listening to podcasts. I listened to interviews of Tim Keller and Os Guinness, and a joint interview of Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers. They talked about their own faith journeys, doubt and the quest for truth.

As I considered those interviews at the end of my trip, some thoughts congealed and took shape. I will try to capture them in this short piece.

Tim Keller, at the time of the interview, was leading a very successful church plant in Manhattan New York, a hub of worldly skepticism (and had been ding so for 20+ years). They discussed what helped him be so successful in that highly secular and skeptical environment.

In discussing his journey to faith, Keller said, “If it weren’t for my doubts, I would have never met Jesus.” Doubt, for Keller, was the catalyst for his faith.

Keller claims that doubt really isn’t a problem for faith. Because doubt and an earnest desire for resolution of those doubts led Keller to faith, he isn’t afraid of doubt. He welcomes it and views doubt as healthy soil for a robust faith.

With that said, Keller cautioned that concern for truth needs to be tantamount. In this way, he distinguishes “honest doubt” from doubt that is unrelated to a desire to seek the truth. Doubt coupled with a real desire for truth is healthy, but doubt disconnected from a desire for truth is not.

Keller contrasted honest doubt with the example of Aldous Huxley. Huxley famously rejected Christianity in college because he wanted sexual freedom, and he knew that admitting the existence of God would hinder him from gaining the freedom he desired. Aldous Huxley’s “doubt” was a matter of convenience for him to free his conscience for the purpose of sexual liberality. It wasn’t honest doubt that sought truth.

Os Guinness described his faith journey in the interview I listened to. His journey took place half way around the world from his parents, who were under house arrest in China.  His influences were the likes of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and other great writers and thinkers whose books he devoured during his teenage years while he was separated from his parents.

After coming to faith, and throughout his life, Guinness continued to “stretch” his faith. He did his doctoral thesis on the sociology of knowledge, which he described as “mind-spinningly relativistic”. He spent months studying under an Hindu guru (whose name I neglected to note). Guinness said that those two experiences, and others like them, were a tremendous challenge, but they ultimately served to deepen and strengthen his faith.

I strongly identify with these men. I became a Christian in college on the campus of a secular liberal arts school. It was secular, though it was historically and nominally Methodist. It was begun by Methodists in the mid-1800’s, and there was still a Methodist chaplain on staff when I attended, but not much remained of any robust faith.

I have come to observe that nominal Christianity is a lot like inoculation; a small dose is sufficient to ward off the consequences of the disease. Cultural Christianity operates the same way.

My religion professor, the Christian one, (a brilliant man) subscribed to the theory that all roads lead to the top of the same mountain. He was somewhat enamored with Liberation Theology (a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analyses). Among the lectures I attended while studying religion included a German Muslim and Hari Krishnas, among others.

In this environment, I became a “born-again Christian”. More specifically, I should say, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

That’s when everything changed. This was after having had a world religion class and being introduced to a very pluralistic and secular perspective about religion in my college courses.

Reading the Bible (for the first time) in context, comparison, and contrast to the main texts of the other, major world religious gave me a unique initial view of the Bible. I noticed the differences.  They were stark, and those differences stuck with me.

After a summer of encounter with God, I returned to this nominally Christian, pluralistic and predominantly secular environment. Even so, my faith grew strong and deep. My faith was stretched, to be sure, like Os Guinness. My doubts propelled me forward to find answers like Tim Keller. For these reasons (I think) I identify with these men.

Unlike the popular notion that is carried forward by the New Atheists, faith is not believing in something in the absence of evidence, or worse – “in the teeth of the evidence”, as Richard Dawkins says. Faith is putting trust in the evidence I have.

Robust faith involves the testing of its strength against truth. If faith is not robust enough to hold up to scrutiny, it isn’t worth holding on to. If “thing” in which I have put my faith holds up to the tests, my confidence becomes stronger.

The last of the interviews that bear on the subject of faith, doubt, and truth is an interview of two women who grew up in Christian homes, engaged in Christian music ministry, and then went through a period of doubt and “deconstruction”: Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers. Alisa Childers bounced back from her season of doubt and deconstruction with a very deep and strong faith that she has turned into an apologetic ministry. Lisa Gungor, however, still seems to float in a nebulous world of uncertainty and muddled thinking (such is the impression left by the interview).

I don’t mean to be unkind. I get the distinct impression that she hasn’t really landed anywhere solid just yet. Perhaps, she will, and, when that happens, she may have more clarity. During the interview, though, she appeared quite confused in her thinking and had difficulty expressing herself.

(I should quickly say that I am a fan of the music of Michael and Lisa Gungor, especially their early, liturgical stuff. Their current stance toward Christianity, though, takes the polish off of what they did in the past. I hope they find their way back to a solid faith.)

Childers spoke with humility, but with sacrificing clarity and confidence. One thing that Alisa Childers said sticks with me. She said that faith and doubt are not opposites. Rather, disbelief is the opposite of faith.

Disbelief (or unbelief) might be characterized as a decision not to believe or a negative reaction to belief based on something other than the truth. In this way, we might turn Dawkins notion of faith on its head and call it blind unbelief.

Doubts are healthy and normal. Honest doubts that challenge our understanding of truth motivate us to resolution, and that is good. This is a message people in the church need to hear, especially young people. It’s a message I have tried to convey myself. (See What Jesus Thinks of Doubters and Room for Doubters and Skeptics)

The anti-intellectualism that seems to have crept into corners of the Church are as unhealthy, ultimately, as a lack of honest doubt. The lack of “honest faith” has negative consequences for people who see dishonesty and lack of integrity in it.

Childers described a strong desire to know the truth that propelled her. I think this is what Keller would describe as honest doubt. Though she didn’t say it, she implied a basic belief or confidence in the proposition that we can know the truth.

Lisa Gungor, on the other hand, expressed doubt that she could even know the truth. This the post modern spirit of the age. If we start with the premise that truth cannot be known, we are likely to find only that we are right: there is no truth; nothing is certain; doubt is perpetual and inevitable. Why even bother to seek truth?

Yet, we have this instinctual urge to seek to know! This includes Lisa Gungor who is obviously not done thinking about truth. She obviously continues on her journey and spends much time and effort thinking (and blogging) about it.

I don’t want to speculate too much about Lisa Gungor or, again, to be unkind. To the extent, though, that she put herself out there with this interview (and a book, and a blog, etc.), I think it bears some comment.

Truth matters! Spiritual truth matters in the same way a healthy respect for the truth of gravity and momentum matters when we are driving a vehicle up the side of a steep mountain. I submit that moral and spiritual truth matters as much as truth that can be known by science, and we shouldn’t settle for muddled thinking about it.

I sincerely hope that Lisa Gungor presses through the fog and finds clarity (and truth) – if, indeed, she values clarity and truth more highly than other things that might be driving her. Her husband went from Christian ministry to atheism. The sea change must be unsettling for her at best.

Even so, she did not follow him that far. She did not follow him all the way to atheism, but she traded orthodox Christianity for a nebulous, uncertain spirituality that doubts Scripture, doubts any particular understanding about God, and has few, if any, parameters.

I know well the influences and pressures that bear upon a person who holds to the fundamentals of Christianity in a secular, pluralistic, and progressive environment. That was my experience from the moment I believed and asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. I returned to that secular, college environment without anyone to guide me. I had to navigate by faith through my doubts. I didn’t always fair well, especially in the beginning.

Orthodox Christians, even ones who hold to “mere Christianity”, are completely out of step in a modern, secular world. It can be a lonely place. Pressure to conform, to acquiesce, to go along and to keep any contrary thought to one’s self is tremendous.

Tim Keller asserts that the ultimate reason for faith should be that we believe it to be true. I attempt to embrace that view. There is freedom in that view. I don’t have to be afraid of truth. In that way, truth, itself, is a safe harbor.

Thus, the journey of faith is a journey of humility. Truth I not something I possess. Truth is immutable and unmovable. It exists outside of me and despite me, and I must change to accommodate truth. Not the other way around.

Os Guiness says, “Contrast is the mother of clarity.” Ravi Zaccharias was fond of saying that truth, by definition and necessity, is exclusive. Many people, though, don’t want to consider the differences (the contrast). They fear exclusivity, and so they fear the truth. As a result, they settle for sloppy thinking in which truth is nothing but a shadowy concept that deserves skepticism.


Postcript: Not that any one of us can ultimately be assured of the proof that what we believe is true. I agree with Lisa Gungor this much. We are finite beings with limited perspective. Recognizing this should produce a certain humility, however, and maybe some doubt, but it doesn’t negate the brute fact that truth exists, and it can be known.

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