Friday, March 16, 2007

The Doubt Catcher


I went for a coffee and a chat yesterday with a new buddy, a tutor at one of Manchester's theological colleges. Calling him a buddy might be stretching the truth a bit as this was only the third time we'd met - but the aim of the chat was to get to know each other better, so buddy will do I think. Right off the bat it was clear that we had a fair bit in common and seemed to share similar perspectives on faith, church, leadership, mission and stuff like that. But the revelation that ultimately made me feel a real connection with this guy was when he described a period during his own undergraduate studies in theology when his faith underwent real trial. He described the experience by conjuring an image which I've done my best to capture for you above - let me explain...
There are questions and issues that are strictly out of bounds in most self-respecting evangelical churches. Major themes deftly avoided or cleverly camouflaged range from the Genesis account of creation through to the unlikely dates and authors of various books of the bible, internal scriptural conflicts, dubious Old Testament morality and a whole lot in between! Put simply, if you are curious child, and naughty enough to sneak open that dusty old door with the 'Keep Out' sign, you may be in for the fright of your life. Like me, my buddy had been cocky enough to open that door and step inside. Also like me he'd found that once inside the creeping darkness and loneliness can quickly chill the soul. The language he used was of doubt-laden questions multiplying at an alarming rate until their presence became completely overwhelming. At this point I could really empathise as I recalled my own feelings of claustrophobia when unable to cope with a headful of questions far too big for me. He went on to describe how, in a very pragmatic sort of way, he'd slowly but surely begun to capture these questions one by one in jars, rather like the BFG catches dreams. Eventually, over the course of more than a year, he had them safely shelved. With the air fresh to breathe again he could now examine the infinate varieties one by one, at his own pace. There's always the danger of course that when he reopens a jar the specimen may have died, which is always a terrible shame, because doubts can be really fun as pets - it's only when they're wild they're a nightmare.

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Matt said...

I'm matt wilson too
actually i think i met you a few years ago at spring harvest
wow its so funny
we share a name
and you'\ve just articulated the over arking atmospere of my spiritual life and head for about two years
do you have any good maps out of here
or a good doubt catching jam jar

p.s. by capturing do you mean coming to grips with getting a handle on or just being able to put them out of site

Matt Wilson said...

Hi Matt - thanks for dropping by!
Yes we have met - and I also get occasional phonecalls from a very confused Jon Burns who calls me by accident when he's trying to get hold of you!
It's kinda spooky to find out about the similarity in our faith journeys. My hunch is that a heck of a lot of people from our generation are going through this its just still quite taboo to discuss openly.
re your question, by capturing the doubts in jars I simply mean finding ways of containing and labelling them so that they can be explored according to your own timescales and rules rather than having the doubts themselves dictating the state of your emotional and spiritual health. Does that make it any clearer?

JW said...

I have a few questions I am getting round to answering, and I'm really glad to have a set of leaders who I can rely on to give me a good answer, or get back to me when they have one.
Ever since I first started reading the bible for myself I have been trying to rip off all the sunday-school sheen and look at what the bible says about what we are and what we can be. But one thing I have learned is that for a time, when I used to think I trusted God, I actually trusted my own ability to rationalise. I have since learned that while I will never accept nonsense or poor answers, I can at pray about my questions and go to sleep!
I also tend more and more to relish these paradoxes as they come up, because after you see the third horible problem turn into an amazing truth, you feel a bit better about the rest.

Ben said...

My doubts are far more than pets. They make my faith real. I don't have answers to everything, but enjoy the questions, i have a solid base but around that have a lot of creative doubts. And funnily enough it is my doubts that stimulate me to learn more, think more, grow doubts are a gift of God.

spurious said...

Isn't having doubts about faith a bit nonsensical? Faith in itself is an doubt-avoidance tactic as you abandon the idea of logical answers and evidence that allows for rational thinking, and turn instead to faith. The notion of faith is banded about as if it possesses some innate quality that allows for the fact that there are no reasonable grounds whatsoever to believe the belief in question.

I'm finding the one or two comments about accepting answers from elsewhere and letting go of confidence in our own ability to rationalise a bit tragic. Your God has given you a mind, so why not use it? The hierachy of power in the sense that congregations are expected to sit sheep-like and lap up whatever answer their 'leaders' give them sums up much about what is wrong with the church.

Faith is a powerful concept, but let's not dress it up for what it isn't: faith is an admittance that despite lack of evidence (and in many cases evidence to the contrary) an individual is stubbornly committed to a belief. In my mind, it's a pretty lame last resort and fails to meet the required level of justification for a claim of knowledge.

Matt Wilson said...

I generally like your probing comments but more recently I've detected a certain boundedness in the way you seem to understand epistimology. My own position, and it would seem the position of the others commenting on this post is not that rationality is how we know and faith is what we're left with when we don't know but that faith itself is a way of knowing - a deep and ancient way of knowing that often transcends the limitations of human understanding.
I'm personally committed to both ways of knowing (reason and faith) hence these recent posts about doubts, questions etc. Sometimes reason and faith flow together well which is great, sometimes they don't which is really awkward and at this point choices have to be made about which way of knowing is best suited to the issue in hand.

spurious said...

I guess you could interpret the way that I've made some fairly definite distinctions when it comes to what I believe constitutes knowledge as being 'bounded'. To me, it's common sense. I'd sincerely love to read your thoughts on the process by which faith becomes a source of knowledge, because I don't get it. Maybe that's inevitable if it truly "transcends human understanding" but that would beg the question: how is a concept beyond your understanding known to you? An appeal to itself seems circular and absurd.

Matt said...

hehe fun times
thats so typical of jon

thanks on your clarifitcation on jars
i think i'm struggling at the mo
i find myself either ignoring them or getting lost
or getting angry that everyone else just seems so sorted and satisfied

sometimes the scary thing is seeing where some people are coming out on the other side of this experience at and not being sure if thats where you wanna end up.

Anonymous said...

It says in the bible that "faith is being certain of what we hope for." (can't remember the reference, sorry). If it was simply something we hoped for without any knowledge or certainty it would possibly just be called 'hope'... but it's more than that according to the bible.... it's being CERTAIN... therefore i would think, like Matt says, that 'faith is a way of knowing'.... cos if you didn't know, then how can you be certain? ... hmm... that probably doesn't make sense... i'm not very good with words.

At the same time i can completely identify with the people who have said they have spend years trying to work out all the questions.... I think maybe my experience was slightly different, i still believed most of the problematic areas of the bible, cos i couldn't bring myslef to reject them... but i was led instead to a place of despair and hopelessness as i concluded things were a lot more bleak than the church pretended. I have kinda moved on from there now though, although that is a whole story in itself.

spurious said...

So are you suggesting that we should accept faith as a means to knowledge simply because the bible says it is? Faith, as a concept you believe in because it's supported by other beliefs which also require faith, means that faith becomes an interconnected series of beliefs with no foundation or substance; they simply prop each other up in a way that's so simple and convenient, its easier to accept then it is to consider if there's anything there that's actually grounded.

To know something, requires your given belief to be properly justified. Otherwise, your belief that (x) and the truth of (x) is entirely coincidental. My argument is that faith does not meet this requirement. More often then not, faith is simply a label that highlights a lack of any reasonable way of justifying belief. The sheer audacity of someone willing to say they have faith in something spiritual or religious, despite there being any evidence or reason for them to, is mistaken as something we should revere and respect. In actuality, if people with 'faith' where more aware of the emptiness of their self-supporting belief structure and honest with the reasons why they have really come to believe in the things they do, the rest of us can stop tip-toeing around on eggshells for fear of upsetting those who ought to know better.

I think what's sad is that many empty claims to knowledge are supported by so many other beliefs, so many other people all mutually affirming each other, and so much time spent in environments were beliefs are protected and go without challenge, that in the mind of one of these belief-holders, certainty is inevitable. The hierarchical structure of church and the nature of a 'book full of answers' stunts the ability to think for oneself and utilize ones powers of reasoning to introspect and be brave enough to admit if it's really rock that their house is built upon...

Anonymous said...

And what are your views based on then Spurious? All you have written is based on nothing other than your 'faith' in what YOU think. Everyone lives their lives based on some kinda faith.... EVEN YOU.... You have faith that 'faith' is bad.... I'd suggest you think about what you say cos you are being slightly hypocritical here and by your own words you are making your thoughts meaningless.

spurious said...

That's a common religious answer and before I respond to it, for the record, you haven't actually addressed the points that I made.

The kind of "faith" that we all live by is vastly different from the sort of faith that we're discussing here, so different that I don't think "faith" is an accurate label at all.

Religious faith is unverifiable. It is not support by any evidence, it is incapable of accommodating anything that's contrary to its central premise, in short there seems no reasoning to it at all. In religious terms, faith exists only in a vacuum created by the absense of reason. If there were anything real or tangible to go on, faith would become immediately redundant.

What we all live by, which you're attempting to suggest is also 'faith', as if "your faith is just as bad as mine" acts as a credential to your position, is not faith by my standards. Firstly, common and widely held beliefs are generally based upon a growing understanding of ourselves and our world, discovered, tried and tested by scientific hypothesis and theory. Yes, I have 'faith' that these theories are correct, but the point is, these theories and the multitude of discoveries and tests that form them are there to go and read. And my 'faith' does not claim infallibility, so that if we find for example that the world is not flat, my faith can adapt and evolve. The idea that the scientific method necessitates faith is ignorant and wrong, and the idea that we all live by the same kind of 'faith' that we use to believe in God leads me to believe that it's you, rather then me, who needs to think about what I'm saying...

Matt Wilson said...

Spurious, have you read the novel 'The Life of Pi' or seen the movie 'Pan's Labyrinth'?

spurious said...

Hi Matt, no I've not.

Anonymous said...

i'm finding this quite useful. i'm doing a bit of catching up, finding more and more people generally not being afraid to wonder what's going on essentially, but i know that various parts of my 'me' seem to want to know about God and what's true, somehow.

People think faith is telling yourself that you're certain of what you really really hope is going to happen. it's not. it's jumping into the unknown because something in you knows it wil be OK. you almost need doubts to have faith. otherwise it's just knowing something, which is different.

I've got myself in a tangle, anyway this isn't in answer to anyone's 'point', it's just how i'm thinking right now. I actually like having doubts, except that it makes it harder to know what's really true.
Thomas has too much bad press, I think. The guy just wanted to trust in real facts, not just people - I'm inclined to agree since the only real barrier to knowing truth is the filter of another person's perception of it.