Faith and Doubt


The pastor at the church I attended yesterday spoke during her sermon about Mother Teresa. There has been much discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the revelation that Teresa underwent long periods of questioning and doubt. Citing Saint John of the Cross's description of "the dark night of the soul", the pastor suggested that it is likely that most people of faith will undergo similar feelings of spiritual emptiness or an isolation from God at some point in their life. I agree.

It seems perfectly natural to doubt the existence of God. I would argue that God is not a being in the sense that you and I are, but rather a kind of meta-reality, a way of describing that which encompasses, defines, or frames the everyday reality that we experience. You can't talk about God in the same way that you talk about objects or beings in the everyday world that we experience; God is therefore an inherently untestable hypothesis. God is a way of thinking about the world. And ways of thinking about the world are unprovable; they are inevitably fraught with uncertainty.

I think we need to talk about the different kinds of religious doubt. There is doubt--and then there is doubt. Questioning the existence of God is one thing; questioning certain kinds of tenets of a particular faith is another. Many religions incorporate belief in miracles as an essential tenet of the faith, and in the modern world, that is a surefire way to inspire a certain kind of doubt. It is one thing to doubt the existence of a philosophical meta-reality that serves as the ground of being, because that is a kind of poetry that guides our existence rather than something empirically verifiable. It is another thing altogether to doubt the historical validity of purported events that defy our understanding of how the world in the here and now actually works. Miracle stories are legitimately subject to not just doubt, but outright rejection, because they contradict the reality of the world we experience.

All of which is to say that while I think that doubting the existence of God is perfectly reasonable for people of faith, I also think that believing in God is itself also a perfectly reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, I think that it just defies human reason to believe that, for example, Jesus walked on water or was resurrected from the dead. We are all children of the enlightenment. When Christian apologists insist on the literal resurrection as an "essential" of faith, it is no wonder that so many people, assuming that to be religious you also have to be credulous, just throw up their hands and leave organized religion behind them.

The Catholic Church, which is likely to confer the official status of sainthood on Mother Teresa, requires miracles to be attributed to a candidate before they can be considered a saint. It isn't good enough to have fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless; no, in order to be a saint, you also have to be a magician. In practice, this means that some miraculous cure has to have been attributed to the saint candidate; this is because miracle cures are the kind that take place at the microscopic level within biological processes that lie beyond the watching eyes of skeptics. Nobody believes that modern people ever walk on water, because that would be too obvious and easy to disprove, but there is nothing obvious about a miracle cure of a disease. In any case, I'll take take someone who feeds the hungry over performing magic tricks any day of the week; and by that criterion, many people would consider Mother Teresa a saint, regardless of what the Catholic Church's criteria are.

I recently ran across the transcript of an interview with John Shelby Spong. Spong was nice enough to grant this interview to Scott Stephens, but the generally friendly tone of the dialogue stands in contrast to the blistering attack against Spong that interviewer Stephens issued in his own blog. A lot of people have criticized Spong for various reasons, and while I have my own disagreements with him, I think that the real problem that a lot of people have with him boils down to his views on the miraculous. In the interview, Spong says:

...there has been another revolution that changed the whole way that we see the world, and Christianity has got to redefine itself in terms of this new world. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo destroyed the dwelling place of God above the sky, and in effect the theistic definition of God with it. After the destruction of this God, we’ve got to find a new way of talking about God beyond theism. The only alternative to theism that our world seems to know is atheism. We’ve got to find a way of getting beyond that opposition. We’ve got to find a new way of talking about God.
Spong goes on to talk about the people who shaped his thinking, including Tillich, as well as "Isaac Newton, who showed us that the world operates according to very precise natural laws." Spong then says, "There’s not much room in the world for miracles and magic."

I think he is right on that point. I can criticize Spong for being vague on what alternative he proposes for what he calls "theism". I can criticize him for being caught up in obscure, revisionist theories (such as those of Michael Goulder) and then defending them with dogmatic certainty. I can criticize him for sometimes coming across as arrogant. But as much as I may disagree with Spong from time to time, I give him credit for trying to liberate Christianity from the miraculous. To me, that is the most important part of what he has to say. And I think that this is what sets people off the most, because he is quite blunt about this element of his message. While Marcus Borg also leans heavily against the miraculous, he expresses his views in a softer tone. Spong, on the other hand, takes no prisoners.

And yet, on this one point, I sympathize with Spong's approach. As a child, I was always interested in science. I was also taught to believe such things as that the Bible was inerrant, and that Genesis was a literal depiction of the creation of the earth. At some point, something had to give between believing in the rationality of science and believing in the miracle stories of the Bible. It took me a long time to realize that one can believe in science and reason, and also be a person of faith. Rational thinking has always been important to me, and I've never gotten over my resentment that the Christian faith is presented as one that requires one to suspend their disbelief over things that no reasonable person in other contexts would ever believe. For that reason, despite my disagreements with Spong, I still think he has something important to say.

And for me, it is also important not confuse disbelief in the miraculous with doubt about God. The two are not the same thing.


Matthew said...

"God is a way of thinking about the world."

Talk more about that, please.

In particular, I'm curious as to whether you think it is compatible with what we commonly define as "atheism".

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't think that my views are compatible with atheism at all, since I believe that there is a transcendent reality that participates in the world, and this reality I call "God". When I say that God is a way of thinking about the world, I mean that God is a sort of meta-reality that both transcends and defines the world that we can experience, instead of just a being within the world like you and me. God's special character makes him/her fundamentally different from anything that we can experience through our senses.

Atheists often say that they don't believe in "God", but, as the saying goes, tell me the God you don't believe in and probably don't believe in him either. I think that atheists are often too limiting in their definition of the "God" that they reject. That being said, I do believe that there is a transcendent reality, that I don't fully understand, but which I call God, and which I relate to via the western (specifically, Christian) tradition.

Mike L. said...

Beautiful post! I like the term "meta-reality" although I'm not sure it has sunk enough for me to use it. I feel like I've heard that term but can't place it. Where did you find it?

I also agree with your take on Spong. I've found him to be very helpful in his boldness. However, that same boldness can feel arrogant and not nearly as gentle and encouraging as Borg. Either way, the end result is that a religion which depends on belief in the miraculous is doomed.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Mike. I don't know where I came upon that term, but in any case, I'm glad you liked it.

scoots said...

I personally believe Jesus performed miracles, though I admit there are huge problems with that view. But to pick at a couple of points:

You say that miracles should be rejected because they contradict the world we experience. I can't remember where I heard this (maybe C.S. Lewis), but isn't the whole point of a miracle that it contradicts the world we experience? If it didn't, it wouldn't be a miracle.

You talk about atheists being too narrow in the god they deny –– there’s also a tendency to lump everything miraculous in the Bible into one thing, explain why a couple of those miracles couldn't have happened, and then immediately proceed to the conclusion that all miracles in the Bible are untrue. Logically, I don't think that conclusion is valid. Just because there are people who see conspiracies everywhere doesn't mean there aren't *some* conspiracies, and just because some people believe in the miraculous too easily doesn't mean there aren't *some* miracles.

The argument that miracles are real is most plausible if they're also rare. Jesus’ resurrection is described in the Bible for the most part as a one-time event, with the resurrection of the rest of the people not expected until the end of time. So it seems to me that it doesn't expect to be replicated in a way that could be proven or disproved in our experience. That doesn't make it true, but it does make it resistant to the objection that “we don't see this happening in our experience.”

Even if it turned out that most of the miracles attributed to Jesus weren't true, it would still be possible that the resurrection was true: if Jesus rose, and his disciples experienced the event as a miracle, they could have projected miracles back into the things he did in his life. So a person could reject the walking-on-the-water story and still believe in the resurrection.

Mystical Seeker said...

Scoots, you are right that miracles are supposed to (by definition) contradict how we know the world works. But I would argue that that isn't an argument for miracles being true. On the contrary, my point would be that this aspect of miracles that is built into their very definition is a strong reason for not believing in them. Miracles are not believable precisely because they defy everything that we know about how the world works, and just because that's what they are supposed to do--well, my response is, "so what?"

The problem as I see it is credulity. I could say that by a miracle I was magically transported to the moon yesterday and hopped around the craters with magical dinosaurs. It would indeed be a miracle if that were true. But no one would believe me. I think that most of us who have a modicum of common sense in certain contexts are not credulous about such things; but then we are expected to become credulous when it comes to religious matters. To me, religion should not be about believing the unbelievable.

scoots said...

I do have to admit that you're right, when you say that our experience should lead us to think that miracles don't happen. Like many believers, I often find myself wondering whether I can really believe what I subscribe to.

Yet I think some claims have better reasons to be believed than others. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead carries greater weight than your trip to the moon, both because (1) many people claimed to have seen him after he was raised (says Paul, writing just a couple of decades after the fact, when many of those people were still alive), and because (2) those leaders had little to gain by inventing the story. Christians have been making this argument since at least Eusebius, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Now I know that similar claims can be made by the Mormons, or whoever, so I'm not expecting people to just fall over in the face of the argument. Still, it’s clear that many people, Christian or not, find Jesus to be a compelling figure, and apart from blanket rejection of miracles, there’s actually pretty strong historical evidence for his resurrection.

One reason I'm a Christian is that I find it hard to believe that God would create the world and then not communicate to us in any direct way. That leaves a lot of religions to choose from, among which the Christian claim of divine self-revelation in the form of a person who loved and practiced self-sacrifice can be very compelling.

CT said...

Very interesting mystical. I like what you say about God - its similar to Spong - in that we cant use the old 'father-in-the-sky-who-looks-after-us' image any more. It's no longer of use to help us talk about God. We imagine some being in our own image, a being who is not only interested in our day-to-day affairs but who intervenes at an extremely intimate level (while ignoring more important issues).

Others may call me an atheist ?? You can call me a pussycat if you want - labels and categories dont get us any closer to the truth.

To me the bottom line of our faith is that it should stand up when you explain it to a non-believer. And it has to reflect our experience of life and knowledge of the world. If the only justification you can find for a belief is that 'it is written' then you need to look for supporting evidence.

Anyway keep up the posting - I notice you have slackened off lately.