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On Doubt and The End of our Exploring

January 20th, 2014 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I’ve been gratified by the responses to The End of our Exploring, even if I have said little about them. While it was left off the major “best of” lists for 2013—with sincere apologies to JR Forastereos, who graciously included it—there have been a number of generally positive responses to it.

Like Chris Talbot’s recent review. Talbot kindly notices that while the central theme is questioning, there are a variety of motifs that I develop out of it, yet without leaving it altogether.  One reader told me that they thought the book read more like a series of blog posts; I don’t think that's right, at least for those who are reading carefully.  But it is certainly true that the book goes places that people might not expect from a glance at the back copy. End of Our Exploring

Talbot also has kind things to say about my footnotes, albeit by critiquing me for not including many of them in the body of the text. Many people who have read the book have found them distracting to the point of annoying. Some of my footnotes are traditional references to other people’s works, while others are more substantive thoughts that didn’t seem to me to fit the main thread with the occasional joke thrown in. Given that Talbot seems to be on the same comic wavelength as I, his opinion on this is probably not to be trusted. But Talbot also has the nicest way of saying that I’m longwinded (“his writing style...can be perceived as prolonged”), which ought to commend him as an ally to any regular reader of Mere-O.

But Adam Thies’s criticism at the Washington Institute was more substantial and worth considering carefully. He writes:

For all of The End of Our Exploring’s good points I can’t help but feel that a person in the midst of severe questioning and doubt might feel like they have simply received a list of instructions—a step-by-step process for dealing with questions that come naturally to us. Anderson calls on us to reform our inquiries through “learning to ask questions along with Scripture,” which may be a great thing for someone learning how to question, but for those who have yet to have their questions answered it may seem patronizing. His recommendation to hold to the church’s liturgies and creeds throughout one’s questions may fall deaf on the ears of those questioning those liturgies.

I find this worry surprising (and troubling), if only because I pretty explicitly note that there is no “technique” or rulebook for questioning well. As Thies notes, I do exhort everyone to hold firm to the faith that we have received—but that is because those are the very exhortations that Scripture so often gives us.

Let me try running a bit further away from that, as if Thies is right then I've failed in a bad way.  Thies collapses back together what I struggled to hold apart, namely doubt and questioning. Doubt is often accompanied by a sense of emotional and intellectual upheaval; it is characterized by an instability and unsurety that goes outside an uncertain interest in whether a given claim is true or way of life worth following. In the seasons of my life when I have been afflicted by doubt, I often find I am seeking a kind of vindication—a justification, if you will—that subtly gives my claim on an answer pre-eminence in my outlook. There is a sense of obligation at work in my thinking, a feeling that unless I see in a particular way I cannot move forward, that I am owed the optimal conditions for my willing belief. Ironically, it is that very disposition that undermines the intellectual and emotional conditions for my satisfaction, and that makes me chafe against the very exhortations I need to hear.

There is one story, at least. I suspect Thies has his own accounts here that may be different and more illuminating than my own. But I mention it only to say that in seasons of turmoil and doubt it may be (in part) the simple act of learning to carry on that helps us defang the phenomenon’s bitter potency. One thinks of Mother Theresa’s decision to reserve her struggle for the privacy of her journal while going about her business.

But then, I also don’t try to present my exhortations or encouragements as a method for finding answers the way Thies’s point suggests (“for those who have yet to have their questions answered it may seem patronizing”). If anything, I think my argument is that when we reform our questioning alongside Scripture, a posture of waiting will determine all of our seeking and exploring. (I devote several pages (117ff) to the theme explicitly.) “Answers” cannot be demanded or grasped; they must be given and received, and it may not be until we finally see face-to-face that the anxious toil of working the intellectual ground around us finally comes to an end and we can enter into the rest we long for.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.