by Tabi Arrey
Can doubt be a useful component in the life of faith? In other words, in an age of rapid technological advancement and skepticism, can doubt be an authentic Christian virtue? At first glance, it seems oxymoronic to have those two words stand next to each other in the same sentence: faith and doubt. Some might argue that within the Christian imagination, these two concepts are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I would argue for inclusivity, especially because faith necessarily includes elements of doubt.
But what am I referring to when I speak of doubt in this sense? Authentic Christian doubt challenges the contents of the faith, not in an effort to tear them down or to eradicate them, but for the purpose of entering into dialogue and conversation, engaging them faithfully. In this way, my faith can have meaning not only for me, but also for those around me, to whom I am called to be a witness. This is what St. Augustine meant when he referred to the faith as one that seeks understanding, and this Christian doubt further readies me, as an individual, to give an account—should someone ask—of the hope that is in me (1 Peter 3:15). Therefore, while the love of Christ compels me (2 Cor 5:14), my faith in that love holds me accountable; and because of my Christian responsibility and accountability, I risk my faith, I ask questions, I doubt.
A faith that does not ask questions could very well lead to fanaticism and hypocrisy. In the first case, I am putting myself into an unfounded state of certitude, while in the second (hypocrisy) I am claiming to possess certitude that is otherwise absent. These two states, exemplified by the zealots (fanatics), and the scribes and Pharisees (hypocrites), were denounced and rejected by Jesus (Matthew 23:13ff). Questioning my deep and profound Christian convictions does not in any way deter me from my Christian foundations, but lets the light of faith shine ever brightly in my heart (2 Cor. 4:6), opening me up to the glory of God (John 11:40) in whose light I see light (Psalm 36:9). My ability to ask questions frees me from the sin of familiarity and comfort in my own certitudes; it opens me up to God, to a vision beyond my own, to “vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves toward the breadth of communion” (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei n. 4). In this way, my questions paradoxically become the light for my darkness: they inform my faith, strengthen it, prepare it to face the roadblocks of a world that is clouded by skepticism—and more importantly, they open me up to God.
For this reason, I would argue, Jesus—instead of providing direct answers to his critics and followers—often asked perceptive questions: “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:13)? “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth” (Luke 18:8)? “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith” (Mark 4:40)? Precisely because they evoke a sense of wonder, these probing questions offer me an opportunity to challenge my faith and my beliefs. I ask questions, I doubt, not because I do not accept what my faith offers me, but precisely because I seek understanding.
For this reason, the Christian attitude of doubt must be distinguished from the Cartesian idea of methodic doubt which is, itself, a return to epistemological skepticism. Methodic doubt challenges a truth claim and seeks logical evidence to back it up. Faith, on the other hand, suffers the lack of compelling evidence, and responding to the call demands more than a mere mathematical assent: it requires trust, love, and a determination to be part of the story that God Himself has created. Living in an age of skepticism, it is pertinent to recognize the primacy of faith as a gift from God, and not something that I create for myself. Precisely because it is a gift, I cherish it by paradoxically risking it and asking questions, not in an effort to deter myself from it, but in order that I may be able to faithfully profess: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)!