Gospel of Bill: Faith, Certainty and Doubt

One of the great things about being in the 12 Step fellowships is that many, perhaps most, of the people in the rooms claim no special expertise when it comes to questions of spiritual and religious faith. In fact, many recovering addicts have had bad experiences with “organized religion” in their pasts. But because these men and women are coming new, or returning afresh, to a spiritual life, and coming with an urgency driven by utter brokenness,  they bring a level of willingness and humility, even childlike openness, to the journey of faith that sometimes eludes those of us in the churches.

Now, one area of confusion that frequently surfaces among recovering people is the difference between faith and certainty, and the parallel question about the necessary tension between faith and doubt.  But, then, it is not just in the recovery communities where such crucial distinctions are missed, but in church circles as well. I often find Christians stumbling over the fact that they don’t “believe” in some piece of the Christian Gospel the same way that, say, they “believe” in some piece of science or history. But, whether in the rooms of recovery or in the churches of Christ, it is vital to our spiritual progress that we understand deeply and clearly what faith is and what it is not, and the crucial role of doubt in the life of faith.

For, whatever else it is, faith is not intellectual certainty, and faith does not exclude—indeed, it absolutely requires—doubt.  Here, I think, Christians can learn something profound from the honesty of children and the urgency of addicts. And recently I have had two encounters that illustrate all this quite poignantly and pointedly.

“You don’t really believe all that, do you?!” asked an eleven year-old especially dear to me recently, referring to the Easter Story.  The question caught me wholly by surprise, since it burst forth quite suddenly out of an ordinary conversation about what would be our upcoming church plans, and since there was such obvious pent-up energy behind it.  “Well,” I answered slowly, pausing to catch my breath and say a quiet prayer for guidance: “yes, I think I do….” An animated conversation ensued, with me feeling like I was on roller skates going backwards, as the child pressed on relentlessly, demonstrating a near textbook cross examination technique—ask closed-ended questions only, keep the witness to only “yes” or “no,” allow no space for the witness to equivocate (even as I was on the receiving end of it, for a trial lawyer like me it was a thing of beauty to see!)—all of which further reinforced my sense that she had played out this conversation in her mind many times. “So, if you believe the Bible then you don’t believe in evolution, right?”  “And you think Jesus actually walked on water and came back from the dead?” On and on it went.

Now, some answers were relatively easier: “well, it might surprise you, but I don’t think there is actually much conflict between the scientific theory of evolution, properly understood, and the biblical idea of divine creation, properly understood.”  Other questions were more difficult. Still, each time I generally answered along the lines of, “yes, I think that is probably what happened, although I don’t pretend to know for sure, and there are a lot of things about it that I don’t know or don’t understand,” or, “yes, I think it is more likely true than not true that Jesus was raised from the dead in some very real way—though I admit there is much about it that we don’t know and probably were not meant to know.”

And, then finally, I made a comment from some deep place inside me that sensed it was far more important in that moment to be wholly authentic than wholly convincing with this highly intuitive child. “Of course, faith is not the same thing as certainty, and I realize that I could be totally wrong about some, most or all of my faith.” Silence…and a piercing gaze… and more silence, which I took as at least permission to continue. “But, you know what?  Even if it turned out in the end that I was completely wrong about my faith, I don’t think I would change the way I am living now, because my faith fills up my life, makes me better person than I otherwise would be, and gives me real joy and happiness.”

“And, by the way,” I added quietly, “I said that I realize I could be wrong about all this.  But what is surprising to me is that so often all those people out there who seem so sure that Christianity is not true can’t or won’t do the same thing.  Why do you suppose that is?”  A slightly surprised and amused smile was her only answer.

The second incident was much briefer, and came from a close friend of mine in recovery, a tough-guy former US Marine who in his days of running and gunning in addiction needed no one and nothing but who has now spent the better part of 15 years working a good program and seeking a vibrant spiritual relationship with God. “You know,” he said, as he was explaining how scared he is about his family’s economic future as he stays the course on a business venture that might or might not work out, “at some point, we have to stop all this spiritual babble about faith and trust and just lay it all on the line. I mean, we either believe it or we don’t, which means we either live it or we don’t. Right?  I mean, that is right…isn’t it?  Cuz, I’m way out on a limb here, but I believe I am following God’s direction.”  The only answer I could give him was, “we’re all way out on a limb here, my friend…and that’s where I think God wants us.”

The point of both conversations, it seems to me, is that spiritual faith is not intellectual certainty, and doubt is a necessary element of faith.

Faith is not the same thing as certainty. On the one hand—religious faith, properly understood, is the intersection of reason, emotion, spirit and choice applied to our relationship to God. Meanwhile, intellectual certainty, on the other hand, is merely the kind of knowledge we bring to subjects like mathematics, biology or physics—two plus two always equals four, plants in fact use sunlight as nourishment, light can be shown empirically to bend and die in the immense gravity of black holes.  But faith and intellectual certainty are two different kinds of knowledge, and even a basic understanding of epistemology—the study of how we know what we know—reveals that we know them in different ways, with different “knowers,” one primarily intellectual, one more wholistic, only the former being susceptible to “proof” as we usually understand that term.  As I explained to the eleven year-old, most things worth knowing cannot be proven with scientific certainty.  I can’t “prove” that my family and friends love me, but I know it better than I know anything in my life, for I have seen it over and over again, I have received it, I know it to be true in the deepest center of knowledge in my being—my mind, my heart, my experience.  I have “evidence” for it, but my knowledge is not limited to forensic or scientific proof.

And secondly—and perhaps even more critical for Christians to internalize deeply—doubt is a crucial part of faith. At some level faith always includes a decision of the will. This is a quiet spiritual truth made plain and palpable ever since Peter answered a hard question from Jesus with the words, “I believe; but, Lord, help my unbelief.”  And since then, Paul and the early Church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Paschal, Dostoevsky, Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, CS Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Paul II and Annie Lamott—all these Christians have been witnesses to the hard truth that it is only by acknowledging our doubt, by owning and embracing it, and then by stepping out in faith anyway—like my recovery buddy the former Marine is doing–that our faith grows.

So, when it comes to understanding faith, we Christians can remember—with our friends the children and our friends the broken addicts—that our deepest brokenness can open us up to deeper levels of belief, and that our deepest doubts are the constant guardians, not the enemies, of faith.   For those of us who carry brokenness and yearn for healing, who believe but need help in our unbelief, these are comforting truths.

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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One Response to Gospel of Bill: Faith, Certainty and Doubt

  1. Don Martin says:

    Kelly, thank you for this enlightening blog; I have had trust in God from a very young age but when I was running and gunning with my addictions I put God aside because he got in my way. Yet he was always there, He was looking out for me. As I grow older I realized this, for time and time again I have dodged the bullet. There is no explanation for it other than some higher power is watch out for me. I have seen too many others go off the deep end and they were not much different than me. I have no proof of this yet I truly believe God is real and he has something for me to do and the doubt is there; what could I possible do? Should I become a preacher, an evangelist or a missionary or even stand on a street corner preaching. I can’t see that happening, so for now, I’ll keep too the simple things; being a good friend, showing compassion, just living in the teachings of Jesus and setting a good example. Dr. Robert Schuller says we should “expect a miracle”. I have also heard that true faith is when you believe; you “Act as though it has already happened”. I believe you are on the right track for your words have great meaning for me and give me insight as to how to answer the questions of that 11 year old; I know some 60 year olds that ask the same questions.

    Don M

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