Friday, January 2, 2009

Dealing With Doubt

Some recent discussions I've heard and been involved in have gotten me thinking about the issue of doubt. This is not an easy topic to talk about -- especially for those who have been racked by guilt for doubting or, in the extreme, rejected their faith as a result. I want to approach this issue over a couple of posts because I don't just want to talk about why people doubt. That seems obvious to me. Instead, I want to tackle this from the perspective of our approach to the apologetic project and the need to keep a conscious, deliberate sensitivity to it perpetually in our minds.

I don't think anyone would claim they have never had doubts about their faith. The first time I remember experiencing doubt was as a twelve year-old on a visit to the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. On a trip meant to fortify my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had just the opposite reaction my well-meaning mother had hoped I would have. I remember being overwhelmed by the gaudiness and extravagance of the wealth I saw on display in the various museums. I wondered (and actually asked my mom) "why they couldn't sell all that stuff and feed some poor people?" I remember standing in an inordinately long line that stretched outside the main entrance to St. Peter's Cathedral.

After waiting and waiting, I was stunned and perplexed when I saw reached the destination for which we had all been waiting in line -- a statue of Mary. Each of the faithful in front of me were kissing their fingers and touching the feet of the statue as they moved in front of it. When I reached the front of the line I recoiled when I saw that the tops of the statue's feet were worn smooth from the thousands (millions?) who had gone before me. I drew my hand back toward my chest, hoping my mother wouldn't notice. I'm not sure I really understood why, but it was the first time I remember doubting my faith ... and it is a moment I will never forget.

My dedication to Catholicism was never the same again. Five years later, when I was self-assured and rebellious enough to say it out loud, I rejected my Catholic upbringing altogether. Being a teenager, my self-righteous cockiness at proclaiming my independence left a lot to be desired, but that's another story.

We have all heard stories like this and worse. Those who have lost loved ones or witnessed the pain and suffering in the world that they cannot justify in their minds, have turned away in horror and anguish from a God who would allow such a thing. There are those who have been harmed or humiliated by the hypocrisy or arrogant self-righteousness they have witnessed in the church. There are those who have been demoralized by scientific arguments they think pull the rug out from under their view of God the Creator.

There is a common thread to all stories like these. Each instance of doubt stems from the lack of a complete picture of the faith against which we rebel.

Yes, I still believe my reaction at the Vatican was justified though I could never have expressed it at the time. It took years of study and reflection before I realized that my revulsion at the foot of a statue gave me no reason to doubt Christianity itself. What I was really reacting against was not God or my faith, but the manifestation of its idolatrous human corruption. Likewise, it seems that many who claim to have been serious about their Christian faith and then moved away to agnosticism or atheism, will attribute their doubt to emotional or experiential factors that they could not overcome or accept. Yet they have failed to pursue a sufficiently, intellectually rigorous examination of all the implications that converge in understanding the character of God.

Conversely, many who reject their faith due to intellectual doubt, have done so not for the purely rational reasons they insist demand their unbelief, but for emotional or experiential deficiencies their intellect cannot explain away.

Each of these causes for doubt are powerful and difficult to overcome. But, I submit, that is so because those who cling to them have not been sufficiently exposed to the whole truth -- the the Big Picture. Of course, a doubter will respond that the same could be said about me -- that I have not sought to comprehend a complete understanding of their unbelief. Maybe they are right. But I think my view is further supported by a phenomenon I will address in my next post, and that is that it seems we cannot help ourselves from believing in something. And that something must offer a holistic explanation for our experiences and our emotions. The question is, what will that something be?

Earlier this week I heard a discussion of a similar topic in which I was reminded that Jesus' disciples were confronted with this same question. In John 6, after some particularly difficult teaching which many could not accept, several of Jesus' followers gave up and walked away. On observing this, Jesus asked the Twelve, "You do not want to leave too, do you?"

Peter's reply should be thought provoking to those who doubt. He said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life."

It's a great question. Where will you go? What other view of reality makes more sense of everything we observe about the way the world we live in actually is? I think the process of evaluation is ongoing and never-ending. What I hope to address over the next couple of posts is how our knowing this should serve to affect our apologetic project.

More to follow ...

[A disclaimer: The experience I share here is in no way meant as a denunciation of the Catholic faith. My differences with Catholicism are with theologically specific issues of justification and authority. But I do not want anyone to think I am so presumptuous as to doubt the salvation or sincerity of my Catholic friends. I do no such thing. If anything, my studies over the years have served to make me more appreciative of the Catholic Church's view of tradition and its relentless defense of human life and dignity. In short, I believe we are all on the same team and sincerely hope my comments here do not imply otherwise.]

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