Weekly Edgework #53 - July 5, 2005

Faith Beyond Doubt

It seems that much of my early faith training was designed to protect me from doubt. At home sharp lines divided what was right and wrong. In Sunday School carefully crafted curricula covered the foundations of Christian belief. Sermons I heard emphasized the importance of faith – simply believing what I was told, even if it didn’t all make sense to me. If I were faced with uncertainty, I was instructed to ask God for wisdom, …without doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind (James 1:5-6).

Somehow I picked up the notion that mature Christians never have doubts. From some of the testimonies I heard I got the impression that for some all doubts had vanished at the moment of conversion. I often wondered what was wrong with me because I kept coming up with questions I was afraid to ask. In his book, The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor describes what thoughtful people often experience in a community that claims a worldview superior to all others. If you get out of step in a subculture you are often subtly made to feel if not crazy, then guilty, or stupid, or anything else that will pressure you back into the pack (p. 26).

Since those early years I have come to see the necessity of doubting if one is to grow spiritually. In his book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck suggests that experiencing the desert of doubt can be a stepping stone to a deeper and richer faith. While aware that people’s spiritual journeys can not always be pigeonholed easily, he none-the-less proposes four natural stages of spiritual development. To summarize, stage one is the pre-faith stage where no formal commitment to faith exists. In this stage one may well be living acceptably within the boundaries of a faith community or be living in a decidedly self-centered and chaotic manner. In any case faith has not yet been personalized.

Some persons do not move beyond this stage. Others do move on to stage two in which a a formal commitment to faith takes place – a conversion that brings order to chaos and provides a framework for a life of faith. Often this conversion is sudden and dramatic, although for others it is more of an unconscious experience. In any case, people in stage two tend to feel that they have arrived. They prefer to think of issues in black and white terms. They are quite certain which questions are important to ask and that they all have singular answers. Persons in stage two are afraid of uncertainty and change. Peck says that most people in most churches fall into this category. Yet, they think of themselves as mature and stable Christians – at least that is the impression they try to leave with fellow church members.

But, alas, this is only the second stage of spiritual development, says Peck. Persons who are honest thinkers and those who expose themselves to the larger world beyond closed religious communities, will naturally come up with new questions that do not have easy answers. As they enter stage three they often find themselves on a desert road. The neat formulas learned in stage two don’t seem to work anymore. As their awareness of the world widens they discover that their home church is only a tiny spot on the global spectrum of faith and life. How absurd it seems to them that their small, stage two religious community could claim to have all questions and answers related to faith and life sewn up.

To those remaining in stage two, such persons are “losing it”. They are “back-sliding” or “drifting toward a slippery slope”. While stage two persons may have had some doubts of their own, they have learned how to conceal them in order to keep their place of belonging in the community. But for stage three persons, their quest for truth is of greater value than the safety of a closed community. That is why Peck says stage three persons – those asking hard questions – are actually ahead of those in stage two in regards to their spirituality. Nevertheless, stage two persons feel themselves to be superior and are drawn quite readily into condemning those challenging their neatly crafted formulas.

Mature, personalized faith – stage four – can only be found on the other side of this desert of doubt. If one moves in a straight line from childhood or stage two faith to what is considered to be a mature faith, that maturity will most likely be an illusion. It is only by asking the hard questions that life throws at us – even if they disturb stage two persons – that we can begin to move on to maturity on the other side of the desert.

Entering stage four is something like a conversion, but usually it is not sudden or dramatic. But if you can survive the scorn of stage two believers who are trying to “get you back into line” and if you have some stage four mentors encouraging you along, you can pull through to a more personal and maturated faith. But it will be a faith that is comfortable with mystery and paradox.

It seems to me that the passage from James cited above presupposes an ambivalent situation. You doubt that the formulas given you are appropriate for faithful thought and action. But this passage affirms that God will walk with us through our times of uncertainty. It is not a mandate to avoid doubt at all costs. It confirms that, with God’s help, faith is possible beyond doubt.