In praise of doubt

After some rapid writing trying to keep up with the evolving events at Brentwood, I thought I would post something fairly short this time. I will not mention Brentwood, except to say that the situation continues to develop. We can expect much more drama before anything is finally resolved.

Over the past couple of days I have been rewriting the welcome page at the front of the blog. It has brought me into touch once again with the aims and objectives of what I’m trying to do. I believe that in order to help individuals who’ve been part of ultraconservative groups, I need from time to time to be able to provide them with a different theological perspective. So one part of the purpose of this blog is to address some of the intellectual confusion that has been sown in their minds by years of exposure to what I would call bad theology. I also see that it is not enough simply to criticise poor theological reasoning. It is also necessary to set out an alternative way of doing theology. It is here that my vulnerability to some of my readers becomes clear. I am by conviction and education and unashamed theological liberal. Not everyone who has been part of a conservative group will be ready to take on board some of my ideas. They will think that I am going too fast and too far. Nevertheless it is the nature of liberals, whether in politics, science or religion, always to question and scrutinise evidence that is put before them. Truth is something which is not the same as certainty. In other words, a liberal may take a stand on an aspect of belief without claiming that he or she is absolutely certain about it in the sense that nothing more remains to be said. There will always be a certain hesitancy in their position and this allows them also to be tolerant both to possible change in the future and also in relation to another position which may be quite contrary to the one they hold. They may want to discuss it but they will never want to rubbish it as though it threatened the position they identify with at present.

In writing this short reflection, I want to think about the word doubt. Doubt is one of those words which brings terror to conservative Christians. It seems to imply that a doubter is on a slippery slope to a denial of the Christian faith. For the liberal, doubt is, by contrast, the means whereby a doctrine can be thought about and examined, as well as discussed. The liberal, much to the horror of many conservative Christians, reserves the right to put to one side doctrines may appear to have little meaning or relevance. He is aware of the tradition within science that every hypothesis has to be questioned, if scientific discovery is to be furthered. Doubt is at the heart of new knowledge and new understanding. There is a theologian called John Hull who recently died. He taught theology at Birmingham University and I invited him to lead a day at my parish in Gloucestershire. I remember his comments about difficult areas of belief. He said that if we come across something that does not make a lot of sense to us, we should not worry about it, but, metaphorically speaking, we should place it on top of the wardrobe. In saying this, he was trying to help people to see that it is much more important to discover what we do believe rather than worrying about what we think we ought to believe.

The liberal Christian does believe many things and certainly they respect the words of Scripture. But, having said this, they refuse to be tied to a pre-existing idea about what Scripture is saying. They try to read it as though it is fresh each time they come to it. In this way they want to read for what it actually says rather than what others have told them it says. Too often conservative Christians learn about doctrine first and then are shown how it can be read out of the text of Scripture. A typical example will be the meaning of the word gospel or good news. It is quite clear that conservative doctrine will opt every time for the Pauline meaning of this word rather than the meaning that is given to it by Jesus. The liberal Christian will want to affirm both meanings of the word gospel, but there will be no suggestion that one has to be referred over the other. There are of course many other examples of New Testament words being far richer in their interpretation than is captured by a single dogmatic translation.

‘In praise of doubt’ is a kind of summing up of one part of what this blog post seek to do. It wants to introduce the reader to the idea that there is a freedom in seeing the Christian faith afresh and the text of the Bible with new eyes. Doubt allows one to begin at the beginning of seeking to understand, without being weighed down with any heavy dogmatic presuppositions. I hope that my reader, who may be struggling with the aftermath of a heavy religious indoctrination, may find this approach refreshing and new. Even if it represents a way of thinking that is totally novel, I hope that it will help him or her to make progress in a rediscovery of the Christian faith which, as I have often said, is always new.

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.

6 thoughts on “In praise of doubt

  1. In my opinion, Liberal Christianity is good and works to a certain extent, but there will come a point where safeguards will have to be imposed. The reason for this is because there are idols in our hearts. We may erroneously think that certain viewpoint reflect the heart of God when they do not. It therefore follows that the practice of Liberal Christianity is susceptible to deviation from Scripture, often (or sometimes) unbeknownst to the person who practices it. Doctrines, on the other hand are faithfully ‘teased’ out or ‘distilled’ from years of studying and meditating on Scripture by gifted and scholarly men and women (experts) who are in tune with the Holy Spirit and in my opinion are of paramount importance.

  2. Doubt that is created from abuse, will often lead to doubt that God exists.
    There is an intellectual labyrinth that I see in my minds eye, and I see theologians like; Keith Ward, and Don Cupitt on a Helter Skelter waving to each other, Don holding a test tube saying to Keith; ‘I got him in here! I think but…”

    Peace,

    Chris

  3. Much of Cupitt’s thinking clearly belongs to the philosophical tradition rather than to theology. I am more interested in latter than the former..

  4. Thank you Anon’

    I find you comments very interesting and thought provoking. I am interested to hear more from you.
    Don Cupitt is a man that interests me. The Atheist Professor Freddie Ayer called him “Tricky”. I find Ayer’s comments quite true. The doubt that Stephen is talking about has a idea of excited quest ‘new every morning’ about it.

    Don Cupitt was a priest in the Church of England and he had the front to have a year long TV series, “The Sea of faith”. A Sea of faith in a God that he did not personally believe in.
    I and, most importantly other victims of abuse, know nothing of his world of cloistered academia, where he could work out his personal jig saw and say; ”I reserve the right to define the word God” Well, cosmic for him! But I would draw attention to the countless unseen masses that simply don’t have the time to indulge in those social niceties’?
    Philosophy and religious belief are hardly helpful to them.

    I would praise any doubt that got us to really focus on them?

    Chris Pitts

  5. Yes, as a priest of my acquaintance once said, “It depends what you mean by doubt”. Not being too infallible is good. But some people do think you have to be dogmatic, or really, you don’t believe at all.

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