One of the most troubling experiences for those of us who are people of faith comes when we face serious questions and doubts about that faith. Most often, these come unbidden. It may simply be that life happens and we wonder, “how can this be true and yet there be a good God?” It may be that we are pursuing a line of intellectual inquiry related to our calling and suddenly come smack up against something that poses questions about what we believed to be true–whether this concern the origins of life, or the nature of human freedom, or the rightness of certain convictions and the ways in which we have lived these out.
I think there are at least two aspects to what troubles us in these situations. One is that something, or even Someone, we have cherished as true and real is called into question–perhaps even the very existence of what we have loved is questioned. We do not want to lose what we have so loved, and has so made sense of our lives. The other troubling aspect for many of us, I think, is that we suspect that it is wrong, or there is something wrong in us, to have these questions and doubts.
In a book on C. S. Lewis, I came across some statements I find very helpful on this topic of doubt and belief. Lewis held that, “If it’s not true, God does not want you to believe it.” Clearly belief to him was not “believing in that which you know is not true.” Lewis rather believed in the thoughtful but not frantic effort to resolve the questions and doubts we face. He wrote, in a letter to Rhona Bodle:
“I don’t mean by this that you should cease to study and make enquiries: but that you should make them not with frantic desire but with cheerful curiosity and a humble readiness to accept whatever conclusions God may lead you to, (But always, all depends on the steady attempt to obey God all the time. ‘He who does the will of the Father shall know the doctrine.’)”
At another point he also writes her:
“No one can make himself believe anything, and the effort does harm. Nor make himself feel anything, and that effort also does harm. What is under our control is action and intellectual inquiry. Stick to that.”
From this I draw several insights that I have found helpful:
1. Implicit in all this is that doubt for Lewis is part of the life of faith, not antithetical to it. The antithesis of faith is unbelief, a refusal to act upon what one is convinced is true.
2. We cannot make ourselves not doubt and the frantic effort to do so only makes things worse, not better.
3. Nor should we go to the other extreme and make doubt a fashionable way station, something to be celebrated. Sometimes I fear that it is more preferable these days to talk about what we doubt and question, than what we believe and embrace, as if the latter person must always be a bit narrow-minded lacking in intellectual acuity or sensitivity.
4. Intellectual honesty is important. This means an openness to the truth, whatever that turns out to be, whether it confirms, re-shapes, or overturns what we have believed. Lewis never wanted people to believe if the evidence against their faith was stronger than that for it. At the same time, Lewis thought we should continue in our beliefs unless we were presented with cogent reasons to change them, even when we have questions and doubts.
5. For Lewis, part of the answer is disciplined intellectual work–meeting the doubts head on. Rarely do we come upon a question that others have not wrestled with, often deeply. No where is this more true than in the Bible itself. Philip Yancey makes the observation in a very thoughtful post on this subject that none of the famous atheists of the past or present raise questions that have not been raised and wrestled with in the pages of scripture. Beyond this, there are thoughtful people who have written on most of the questions that we face. To search prayerfully looking for God to give illumination about the things we struggle with is not to force a resolution but rather to express faith that God may meet us in our search.
6. The other part is disciplined obedience in what we know. The great command to love God and love our neighbor is not suspended by our doubts. Continuing in our own reading and prayer, our worship, our community with others and service are all ways we walk in the way of God who ultimately is the one to address our doubts.
What Lewis’s counsel emphasizes is that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. By “action and intellectual inquiry” we are expressing a trust that God rewards those who seek and who come to God with their questions. What I also appreciate is the recognition that belief is not merely a matter of intellectual assent but rather a deepening relational trust–a movement from believing “in” God to believing God, as we would a spouse or friend we trust deeply because of all we’ve shared together. What Lewis commends is an approach to doubt meant to take us into the knowing and being known that is the deepest longing of human beings, something never easily won, but worth the effort.