Monday, 30 June 2014

The Loneliness of Doubting

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Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” I’ve always liked this quote by Dostoevsky. Rather than painting doubt as a negative thing, it is painted as a means to a deeper faith (even if it is a painful experience for some). In recent years we have seen an explosion in books dedicated to helping those who doubt find answers. But I’ve always found it curious that there is little ink spilled on the loneliness of doubt. From my own struggles with intellectual doubts I know that it can be a terribly lonely experience to stumble out into the great unknown areas of faith. I think there are two basic reasons why intellectual doubts can make people feel lonely (and I have experienced both). The first is that one can feel a reluctance talk about their doubts for fear that they will drag others down with them. But it’s the second reason that I want to spend this blog post addressing.  

It can represent a drifting away from peers
Doubt, by nature, is when one finds the conventional explanations they have been given insufficient in the face of new information. A person in this situation is now at a crossroads with four possible directions they can go in: (1) they can accept and become comfortable with unanswered questions, (2) they can stay in a state of permanent doubt, not wanting to move backwards or forwards, (3) they can find new evidence to bolster the original explanations, or (4) they can move away towards a different explanation. It’s this last one that I want to concentrate on. Sometimes finding the answers to one’s questions involves moving beyond the beliefs of our peers. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can be a sign of spiritual growth, of moving on to a deeper understanding of faith. Sometimes it’s the result of learning that a long-held cherished belief isn’t actually all that biblically supported. The real danger now can be social and spiritual isolation from peers.

Within social psychology exists the concepts of in-group bias and out-group bias. In-bias refers to the tendency of human beings to show favouritism to those with similar views. Similarly we tend to be sceptical of those outside our group because their very existence threatens the validity of our views.[1] The interesting thing is the effect doubt has on this dynamic. When one starts to feel that they don’t fit into their own group their confidence in interacting with members of the out-group is affected.[2] They can come to feel that they don’t have the ability to defend their views from criticism.

One of the hardest parts of doubting is that it seems like everyone but you have all the answers. They may not necessarily be good answers but the people espousing them seem so confident in what they believe (both religious and non-religious). This sense of inadequacy can be further exacerbated if people on both sides are demanding answers of you as to what you believe while you’re still not even sure yourself. All of this can crush upon an individual as they come to the realisation that they don’t belong anywhere.[3]   

So how can we help those who are doubting?

It used to be that one believed before they belong, but the conventional wisdom these days is that you belong before you believe. As churches we have often focused on how we make non-believers feel they belong, but what do we do when those who believe feel they don’t belong?

Create a culture where doubt is acknowledged
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the stigma surrounding mental illness, it’s that sometimes the first step is to get respected individuals to share their stories. To a degree, former All Blacks player John Kirwan has done a lot for mental health awareness in New Zealand by his openness to talk about his battle with depression. I suggest something similar within the church. Leaders, be open about the fact that even you have questions at times. Sometimes people need to know that despite our questions we have managed to keep our faith. Someone with doubts is also more likely to approach someone who has asked the same questions as them.

Look to the example of the Church Fathers
I suggest looking at the example of the Church Fathers for two reasons. The first is that many of the questions people struggle with today were relevant questions when the Church Fathers were writing and one can find a wealth of spiritual wisdom in their writings.[4] Secondly, there is a great diversity in how the Church Fathers interpreted Scripture. We have already seen in a previous post that although St Irenaeus and St Augustine would have agreed on the essentials, they had vastly different interpretations of the Adam and Eve story. Randal Rauser has written a great post about the dangers of offering a doubter only one solution to their questions when there is really a wide array of beliefs one can hold within the context of orthodox Christianity. Of course, not all beliefs are negotiable. I firmly believe that the resurrection of Christ is essential but Christianity. But Young Earth Creationism isn’t. Nor is the rapture or political conservatism or many other issues we tend to (falsely) exalt as important Christian beliefs. Part of supporting those who doubt is to prayerfully consider when we need to speak up and when we need to let someone come to a conclusion we don’t necessarily hold.

Helping those who doubt is going to be a messy process that will challenge us and force us to engage with culture but it has to be done, especially with a younger generation with unprecedented access to information (and disinformation). To step away from this challenge is something the church cannot afford to do.   

[1] I want to quickly counter two misconceptions that could arise here. 1. In-group and out-group bias don’t necessarily go together; it is possible to respect those outside of your group. 2. This phenomenon is not particular to a group of people; it affects people all over the political and religious spectrum. In fact, to claim that it only happens to one group of people is a pretty clear cut case of in-group-out-group bias.
[3] In all fairness, not all doubters handle conflict maturely. I know from personal experience that when you are in the vulnerable state doubting it can be much easier to mock and delegitimize opposing viewpoints than it is to engage them. Ultimately this is not a healthy way to deal with doubt and can lead to the doubter pushing those away who may be challenging them out of genuine concern.
[4] The idea that religion is simply wish fulfilment is by no means a new concept (contrary to how it is often presented). In 60BC Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote in his book De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) that humans made gods in their image and that practices such as prayer, public religion, and spirituality were attempts to ease our fears and suffering. Funnily enough, it was Medieval monks who rediscovered De Rerum Natura after its disappearance and made multiple copies of it for distribution as reading material. 


  1. I write on Bipolar Disorder sometimes since I have it, and I fully agree that discussion of anything helps by putting it out in the open. I'd never heard the quote you started with, but I love it. It's like poetry (and I'm a poet). I think everyone struggles with faith. I know I can doubt a little occasionally. So far though, my struggles with faith have been more emotional than intellectual. I'm a very intellectually based, mentally oriented person. I believe and love His Word because I believe it to be true. Where my difficulty lies is in feeling the kind of emotional connectedness to God that so many I know say they have. I don't pray much because it doesn't feel like a conversation to me. I only pray to say thank you when I know I've really lucked out and don't deserve it, or to ask for help for someone when I and everyone else are out of ideas as to how to help them. I can't get personal too easily.

    I'm so glad I found your blog!

    1. Thank you for your comment. A few years ago I heard a speaker talk on two different ways people encounter God: intellectually and emotionally. It really opened up a new way of seeing spirituality for me as I definitely find it more natural to connect intellectually. Unfortunately I think the Western church (save some traditional churches) often focuses on emotional connections with God to the neglect of those who intellectually connect with God. Fortunately there exist some great practices within the Christian tradition that can help those of us who are more intellectually-orientated. If I may offer some suggestions:

      1. Lectio Divina
      Lectio Divina is a Benedictine practice that involves meditating, praying, and contemplating on Scripture.

      2. Praying Scripture
      The Medieval monks used to recite and pray Scripture during their day to day tasks. This can work great with the Psalms as they are usually short but very deep in meaning. A traditional prayer book may prove useful too.

      3. The Daily Examen
      This is an Ignatian prayer where one reflects on their day and where God was in it.

      One last thing: the function of prayer is not only a conversation with God. Soren Kierkegaard once said "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays." Just something to think on.

      - Micah

  2. Sad to say as I grew older, and as I am growing older. I have a lot of doubt when it comes to religion mostly because like you said I have a lot of questions, I try to rationalize the answers. I add in my own morals and what I think is right and completely alter everything i've been taught and learned when it comes to God and religion. I am trying to get back, but I am not sure how I can. This helps so thank you for sharing.

    1. I'm glad my post helped you, Jazmine. I can relate to having a lot of questions. N.T. Wright once said that "The reward for finding the answer to one question is finding three more questions. That's what keeps life exciting."

      Part of what has helped me deal with doubt has been reading about the epistemology of faith. Two sources I can recommend are Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and Fr Robert Barron (he's a deeply intelligent Catholic thinker with a Youtube channel where he discusses faith and other issues:

      Another thing that helps is simply finding people to support you in your journey through faith. We weren't made to do it alone.

      I hope you find your way back to the path.

      - Micah

  3. Love this Micah,

    I have encountered doubt several times in my own journey of faith. At times these doubts have seemed insurmountable. I am reminded of how God dealt with Job's doubts; not with an answer but with an encounter. This has often been the case for me. That in the furnace of doubt I have been met by God who allows me to understand that he remains true and real even in the face of confusion, fear and unanswered questions. This was none so true as in my theology studies and having to confront different ideas around creation. The thing that got me through was knowing that Jesus Christ was a real person who walked this earth, created miracles, established a living movement and died and rose again. And I know this because history says so and because God meets with me today. With this knowledge firmly clutched to my chest I can walk my doubts through with the God who loves me and leads me into deeper knowledge of him. This is sometimes very painful. I have been lucky as I have friends who can sit with my doubt and have trust that God will get me through it. If you are struggling with doubt, having even one person who can offer you this type of brother or sister hood can make all the difference. I think that as a church we need to be more transparent about where we doubt and how we get through that.