10 Dare To Doubt

Chris and I recently shared some thoughts on the word ‘doubt’.  For me the word is not a threatening one because I find myself with many others to be an heir to the liberal tradition of the 18th  century Enlightenment where doubt was seen as a key to knowledge.  If you did not doubt, then new truth was impossible.  The motto of this great movement of the Enlightenment was ‘dare to doubt’.  In this way doubt comes to be a tool for discovery and  for learning new things which go beyond the old certainties.  Because doubt challenges the old certainties and traditions that were around in the 18th century as well as today,  it is highly subversive to the vested interests and those who guard them.  These interests include religion, politics, philosophy and even science.

In contrast with this somewhat radical view held by the followers of the Enlightenment, the vast majority of people even today have little patience with this 250 year old intellectual revolution.  This fundamental idea that doubt is part of a creative process of questioning and discovery is unknown to most people.  People prefer to have certainties and they find these in facts that their minds can grasp.  Some facts are grasped in the course of life’s experience and others are transmitted as part of  the educational process  that most people are exposed to.  It is today a cause of regret that at school level facts are the mainstay of the educational process.  Religious education is not immune from this process and  teachers of religion, past and present, have focussed on imparting facts and making rote learning the highest form of understanding.  Knowledge of the Bible in the sense of being able to recite it and quote it has come to be seen as the mark of an educated Christian.  This way of teaching the factual content of the faith and requiring people to accept it has traditionally been understood to be the task of the Church.  The facts of the Bible and of  traditional Christian teaching have been handed on and in this understanding, doubt is seen as an enemy of the process.  Facts and the certainties they bring are the traditional currency of the Church.

The problem of this kind of teaching facts is that it is a trap.  It is a trap for people both within and outside Christianity.  Some people on the outside of faith have been taught that certain facts make it impossible for Christianity to be true.  T he ‘facts’ of science contradict the statements of the Bible eg the Creation story.  Others within the orbit of traditional Christian teaching and who are taught the ‘facts’ of Christianity are trapped in a equally mind-numbing place.  They are taught the entire body of Scripture and the Creeds are all ‘facts’ because that is the only one possible way to understand them.  Conservative scholars spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to reconcile conflicting facts in Scripture

Both sides of this argument have been thoroughly betrayed through this kind of teaching.  Behind this emphasis on fact is a philosophy known as ‘propositionalism’.  Put simply it says that truth is only contained in statements of provable fact.  This philosophy is a variation of materialism, the idea that matter is the only reality we can know.

Before I go on to criticise these philosophies, whether used to attack Christianity or trying to stay within it, I must come back first to the way that people have been let down by this false teaching.  Chris has communicated in his writing his own experience of betrayal and ‘agonies of despair’ when he discovered that faith and salvation presented as a series of facts and the Bible as a text of true fact were not as they seemed.  He recognised that his own position as a barely literate young man in the 1960s had been taken advantage of by Christian leaders with a gift of words.  He had been sucked into a system which fed on people’s longing for certainty.  The evangelical machine reassured him of various things.  He knew truth, his longing for certainty could be satisfied and he was ‘safe’ in this world and in the one to come.  The moment that the bubble of this certainty was pricked, Chris had nothing with which to replace it.  He had been living in a binary universe where truth and falsehood, black and white were presented in stark contrasts.

This blog is wanting to talk about a place where we can find a place to stand which does not insist that we have to be certain about everything all of the time.  The blog also maintains that Christianity is always about a becoming and not an arriving at a destination.  The journeying image seems so much more biblical than any other and I (SP) am much happier with the journey analogy complete with the attendant doubts and grey areas of as-yet undiscovered reality.

To return to the ideas of materialism which seem to lie behind the false teaching which Chris has imbibed and have been the source of so much pain and suffering to him and many that he knows.  Materialism is inadequate on two fronts at the very least.  First it cannot make any sense of ideas of value, beauty and love.  It is a description of a universe without what we would call ‘soul’.  Facts of course exist, but as we humans experience them, they come packaged with value, meaning and sometimes beauty.  To isolate them from these attachments is to do violence to their real significance.   In this way materialism and ‘facts’ are a shallow and incomplete description of the world as we know and experience it.

Materialism is also undermined by what we are discovering of the sub-atomic universe.  Matter simply does behave in a common-sense fashion when we enter the quantum dimension.  I am not proposing to do more than hint at the way the discoveries of quantum physics undermine many of the old certainties that were grasped by classical physics.  The implication of these findings are relevant to our pursuit of truth whether as a Christian or not.  At the very least the post-modern quantum world is one where words should only be used  and statements made with a degree of hesitancy and humility.

So the 21st century world has returned to the 18th century in a significant way.  It is a world where people ‘dare to doubt’.  They do not do this in a negative spirit but in a way that allows reality to impinge on us gradually and in a many faceted way.  If Christianity is ‘true’, it is not true as a list of provable facts about life.  It is true because it brings us into touch with a reality that transforms us in some way.  The faith is something which combines a knowledge of story, experience and inner stillness that resonates with the Christ event as found in Scripture.  More of this in a future blog.







About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “10 Dare To Doubt

  1. I do believe doubt to be the natural condition of humanity. You worrit over things, well if you’re normal you do. Many people believe science is about facts, and they believe that to be a synonym of certainty. And they think science has done away with religion. But science actually believes all facts are mutable. Let’s face it, we now know the world is built upon the uncertainty principle. People crave certainty. All over the world, I’m sure. Here in the UK, the churches that thrive are those that peddle certainties. Ministers control the Bible translation you read, and impoverish the Biblical education of their congregations by giving page numbers instead of references, so they become incapable of looking it up anywhere else. When I was a child, my mother used to say, “Oh, I don’t know, let’s find out”. I did the same with my own children. I never found it threatening, and neither did mine. Why would anyone think that a congregation of adults cannot cope with being told that there are lots of things out there we do not know?

  2. English Athena we seem to be on the same side on this. But does not the church appear so often to be on the side of teachers who want to teach certainty? The trouble is that this black/white way of thinking appears to be all that children up to a certain age appear to cope with. But there is no excuse for peddling this kind of thing to adults as so many churches do. You would have to have an enormous level of slavish trust in someone to take on this approach. Perhaps this is why conservative churches combine fundamentalist teaching with a cult of personality. A few names come to mind!!!

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