Why faith and doubt are not opposites
"In Defence of Doubt" was the title of Dr Val Webb's 2013 tour of the UK. It is also the title of her best known book. In this excerpt from one of her talks she rejects the idea that faith and doubt are opposites.
Part of the problem is that, traditionally, doubt has been promoted in hymns and sermons as the opposite of faith or belief. St. Francis’ popular prayer says, where there is sorrow, bring joy; where there is doubt, faith. Hymns about “driving the dark night of doubt away” reinforced this dichotomy. Yet the opposite of faith is to be without faith. The opposite of belief is unbelief. Neither equate with doubt.
Doubt is the discrepancy between faith and belief, between what we are taught and what we experience; and emerges in the gap when belief systems do not line up with our reason or experience. Such doubt is not weakness but strength, the ability to claim our own authority and experience. For many, this is hard to do since traditional Christianity has knocked the self-esteem out of us with tales of our sin and corruption—we have much re-learning to do.
Instead, we need to be open to life, new experiences and scholarship and to trust any doubts that arise when our experiences, reading and reason challenge theological givens.
Theology, no matter how obscure, dogmatic, opinionated and abstract it might seem, is simply the limited attempts of human beings to talk about God from their particular experience and time using available knowledge and language. All of us have to do theology—to find a working theology that can function in our personal, professional, and public lives. No one can critique all the theology that has been said over the centuries and cemented into doctrines, but we are responsible that what we do believe is not someone else’s formula, but makes sense for us and how we live. And finding a working theology is not a once-for-all event but an ongoing life process which involves a constant dance with beliefs, faith and doubts.
Traditional Christianity has promoted over the centuries the idea that “having faith” as a religious goal equalled “certainty”. The more certain we are, the greater our faith. A friend of mine was becoming increasingly excited exploring progressive possibilities of thinking and, when I mentioned this to a mutual friend, he said “Oh, she’s lost her faith”. More of us need to “lose our faith” if this is the case. As Richard Holloway wrote:
“The perils of being right points to one of the dangers of religion: our certainties - in a world where so little is certain - can make us haters and persecutors of the certainties of others, something that religion is all too prone to. But by contrast ... our doubts and loves can cause all sorts of lovely flowers to bloom, such as tolerance and compassion ... Faith has to be co-active with doubt or it is not faith but its opposite, certainty. More faith and less certainty would make the religions of the world more humble and compassionate, something that is devoutly to be wished”.
After half a lifetime of struggle, I no longer think about doubt as a separate entity but as a natural part of a healthy life, but it has taken years of study and unlearning to come to this place. Let me finish with a challenge from American process theologian Marjorie Suchocki:
“Theology is like a garment we have produced, not a universal truth. The garment, like all garments, will fit some, and not fit others. Should garments be thrown out then, because they do not fit everyone? Ah, then we should freeze in the winters of our loneliness! Better we should simply adjust the fit and see to helping others as they, too, weave their mantels”.
This whole of this talk can be read in our Resources section. The new, second edition, of Val Webb’s book, In Defence of Doubt, is currently difficult to get hold of. If anyone knows of a source please mention it as a comment.
Val Webb’s own website is www.valwebb.com.au