It is not uncommon, especially in the modern world, for Christians to go through periods of doubt concerning the the existence of God, the inerrancy of the Bible, or the particulars of a Christian doctrine. There are many helpful guides to help Christians navigate through such experiences. Unfortunately, there are also many unhelpful guides. It is important, therefore, to wisely cultivate principles which aid in our discernment. Many crises of trust in the authority of the Bible or, perhaps, a traditional Christian doctrine or truth claim, take one of the following shapes:
1. On the one hand, sometimes (certainly not always) the group of persons who question something about the Bible or Christian doctrine can be, in their own field, extremely competent. They might know the relevant languages better than anyone, might have a much broader grasp of the relevant source material, have interesting textual insight, and what is most disconcerting, have critical opinions based upon this scholarship which (from one perspective) are somewhat plausible, widely agreed upon by the most competent scholars, and which you suspect that you’d more than likely accept if you weren’t inclined to for reasons of tradition.
2. On the other hand, you see what is taken as “scholarship” in the more traditional community, and while there are a few outliers, the latter tend to be a bit eccentric, or simply inferior in their actual scholarly performance. A lot of people claim to have experienced this in the field of Old Testament studies for example. Comparing the level of scholarship at big “liberal” universities to that at their evangelical counterparts can be somewhat disconcerting. When the conservative scholars, for instance, claim “evidence” for various biblical events—one might begin to suspect that nobody would read such a thing as “evidence” if they didn’t start out inclined to to do so. In other words, one might begin to suspect, in various fields, that evidence (and what is much more, reality itself) does not actually point in the direction of Christian or revealed truth for those who are being honest and careful.
Faced with this, the reaction will typically be one of these two things:
- a fideist retreat to commitment
- a crisis of faith.
Concerning the retreat to commitment, one approach is to get overly excited about relatively shoddy scholarship all while dismissing the value of “evidence” in the first place. How is this done? On the one hand, we might “hop on” any new “discovery” that verifies some biblical character or event—or which looks like it might be evidence for the existence of God (in the sciences, say).
But, on the other hand, we respond to skepticism about these claims (and what is more, “other” evidence) by reducing the reading of evidence to a matter of presuppositions or worldviews. So persons can often be found saying, “We all agree on the same facts, but disagree on the interpretation” as though the dispute were entirely about the latter—and the latter entirely about one’s spiritual or intellectual starting point.
With this approach, evidence (and reality itself) is basically rendered superfluous—and any honest engagement with it liable to suspicion that one has a spiritual problem or “doesn’t trust the Bible.” This irrationality with respect to evidence is ironically juxtaposed to a (kind of) rationalism that reduces all knowledge claims down to basic foundational postulates. It might not be Descartes “I think, therefore I am” from which the rest of the world descends, but the structure (and the consequent erasure of the world – communicating itself) are the same.
The “crisis of faith,” however, is perhaps more worthy of exegesis. What is often overlooked is that the progressive erosion of one’s commitment to divine revelation or to some traditional Christian claims for purported reasons of intellectual honesty is often (almost always) attended by a similar transformation in respect of spirituality, morality, and religion itself. Suddenly the “evidence” of what is “really going on” in the archaeological record becomes clear, but traditional Christian doctrines and moral claims are subject to the treatment of “messiness” of reality.
It is “really clear,” for instance, that there is no historical exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt—but gender and sexual issues are more complicated. This latter sort of transition is often communicated in highly personal narrative accounts of how one has learned to live in the gray areas of life. Fascinatingly, however, it is often also the case that what ceases to be clear in one particular moral (usually sexual ethics) or doctrinal (usually the wrath of God or the doctrine of atonement) area is juxtaposed to newfound more confidence and dogmatism about moral and doctrinal issues that were (as the complaint usually goes) overlooked and ignored by one’s previous community. The content of these latter moral and doctrinal issues tends to correspond (though certainly there are exceptions) to whatever is in vogue in progressivist politics among self-professed theologians. Here the trend is the opposite of the above. One becomes rationalist about “evidence,” and subjectivist about traditional morality, metaphysics, and orthodoxy—and dogmatic about their correctives.
My point in highlighting the above is not to dismiss any amount of honest inquiry or even the tenets of progressive politics. We are (hopefully!) Protestants after all, and we can in principle revise historically honored moral, political, and doctrinal formulations. Nevertheless, this is demonstrably and frequently done willy-nilly and with little wisdom or understanding.
In other words, we ought to “smell a rat” in most of these cases—a suspicion not born of constitutional cynicism but of a realistic conviction about the kinds of things that tend to motivate humans and provide them a sense of cognitive rest, coherent self-identity, and communal belonging.
7 Rules for Honest Doubting
What would an alternative to these options look like? A few thoughts:
1. Don’t be less intellectually honest than those who cause you to question. Attempt to be more honest. Don’t be less critical. Try to be more critical—not in the sense of always “seeing through” rather than “seeing” phenomenon, but rather in terms of responding fittingly and proportionally to phenomenon in front of you.
2. Know that there are fine-tuned minds and souls who fit into neither of the above camps. Find them. Learn from them. Let them guide you. It is common to think that one has a handle on the larger intellectual community—only to find that there are entire schools and scholars that one has never considered.
3. Along these lines, make sure that your mind and heart are trained within a wider series of disciplines that inflect and help to rightly interpret reality. Very often, popular hypotheses reign within various disciplines precisely because that discipline is isolated from considerations that it can hardly imagine within its own discursive (and internally absolutized) framework.
4. I cannot stress the importance of this: Orient yourself in basic truths. Reality is bigger than you. We are small. Life can be surprising. Frankly, if you just get to “God is…..,” everything changes. This does not change the evidence itself, but it is the answer to many critical objections which simply cannot permit His being as a part of any explanatory equation. If you doubt even this, then start in the even more basic truth that reality is bigger than you—and move from there.
5. “Listen” to reality. I am not advocating some sort of mystical posture here, but rather a more basic posturing of one’s self to a reality such that you do not assume your own understanding—that you expect correction and guidance from the world itself as it manifests to you. This will put you in the right frame of mind to accomplish the kind critical thought which is crucial to “see through” scholarly paradigms as, very often, pure impositions.
6. If you find yourself progressively persuaded of a viewpoint which is sometimes held to be in tension with other Christians truths, or which you do not know how to reconcile with other Christian truths, resist the instinct to give up on either the Bible or that truth. Resist, as well, the temptation to make an “ad hoc” synthesis of them. Reality is one, and its coherence is often surprising and greater than your imagination. Be patient and honest. Honor Scripture’s own voice and do not give into willy-nilly exegesis to make things “fit” easier. As well, honor natural revelation and inferences drawn from it. One is not a trump card over the other. Let time, reflection, and wisdom slowly help to clarify the world.
7. Finally (though first in order of activities), pray for illumination. Bravely take what faith you have in God and His revelation, and endure your crisis. And watch the fruit of your endurance as reality non-forcibly, slowly, and beautifully unfolds and flowers before you – as indeed pointing in all of its particularities and generalities to the Logos in whom we live and move and have our being. Watch Scripture come alive. Watch a deeper and more honest critical posture shatter against the infinite gravity that is God Himself as revealed in His Word. “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)