Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without an element of despair even in thie consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” Miguel de Unanumo
The idea of God, any God is a wonderful idea. In fact when I read about the numbers of people in the United States who when polled say they they “believe in God,” or “believe the Bible” or claim to be Christian when answering poll questions I am always amazed. I say this because I am beginning to believe that what is being affirmed is not a belief in God, which presupposes all of the problems inherent in any real relationship.
If we truly believe in a personal God, or to use the Evangelical terminology to have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” such relationship cannot be reduced to mere intellectual assent or even fervent belief in impersonal dogma or fanatical orthodoxy.
Relationships are inherently messy. They involve risk and vulnerability and they evolve over time. That includes the relationship of the believer to God. The Christian and Jewish scriptures are full of the accounts of people, reckoned according to the various authors of scripture to be been found faithful or righteous by God. Doubts, faith, disappointment and anguish are shown to go both ways in the relationship of God to his people, individually and collectively. The Bible is actually quite an earthy book when it comes to these relationships. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Jeremiah, Job, David, Peter, Paul and so many others and even God himself according to Scripture are shown to deal with disappointment, doubt and anguish in their relationships with one another.
Likewise there are numerous instances in the Old Testament of God’s stated disappointment and anger with his people, and even regret for delivering them from Egypt and other oppressors. The fact that Moses more than once has to talk God out of destroying the Israelites in the wilderness is evidence enough. But add to this the various times of national apostasy where God is claimed to have given Israel over to her enemies as punishment for rejecting him. Then consider the story of the prophet Hosea who is told to marry a harlot as a symbol of how God feels about his people and you get the point. If we as Christians believe our own Scriptures it is apparent that they record an often volatile relationship between God and his people. They record the story of a God who doubts and often regrets his own choices. I don’t think that I have heard anyone preach on that lately. Maybe God is admitting in this that he too makes mistakes and has doubts but in the end his love and grace prevail over his anger and wrath. I think that should give us some hope and consolation.
Some of the great Christian writers and thinkers echo this. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Paul Tillich correctly noted that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” I think that it is a pity that so many Christians as well as other religious people regard doubt as a sin, weakness or failing, when in fact the entire narrative of God’s people found in the Bible testifies that it is both normal and quite often an element of faith’s triumph.
This has been the case in my own life. I can safely say in my life that when I was a younger Priest and more cocksure about things I would write often fiery polemics mostly condemning the errors of others. I had studied scripture, the Church Fathers, knew the Creeds and Councils, historical and systematic theology, philosophy and was well schooled in history, including Church History. I was even published in a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review. I wrote with a bombastic certitude and since the church that I had been ordained in was going through its own theological conflicts, conflicts which eventually tore that church apart, I was willing to turn my guns on others in the church in defense of the institution.
When I eventually went through my own crisis of faith resulting from my time in Iraq and struggle with PTSD I found that the certitude with which I could enunciate my faith was not enough. As I went through that valley of dark despair in which I could safely say that I wasn’t even sure of the existence of God for nearly two years, years where working as a critical care chaplain in ICUs and dealt with death every day I had to re-discover faith. In my sea of doubt I had to be present with other people, all walking through their own “valley of the shadow of death.”
It was in that time that faith returned and when it did it was not the bombastic faith of one who fervently believed the dogmas of the faith but as one who had experienced the grace of God in that dark valley. Looking back I can see the wisdom of God to allow me this experience. I believe that my previous faith, the faith of a man consumed with such certainty that I felt compelled to attack or counterattack those that did not believe correctly was a compensation for my own doubts. I think that Reinhold Niebuhr made an accurate assessment of that kind of faith when he wrote that frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but doubt.”
I have come to believe that faith is incomplete unless there is a corresponding doubt, because absolute faith is not really faith at all because it can only be faith in an idea, not in a relationship. In fact the late American Existential Psychologist Rollo May noted that the “relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. Relationships be they with people or the Divine are dynamic or they are dead. There is a give an take in any relationship. The accounts in the Christian and Jewish scriptures attest to this time after time.
As I wrote in my previous essay Belief and Unbeliefthat some people substitute an absolute belief in an ‘orthodoxy’ of some movement…and cling to it with unbridled fanaticism,” as a substitute for their lack of belief in either themselves or the God that they cannot see. While this is seen most often among religious people non-believers as well can become fanatical in their commitment to other “orthodoxies” especially political and economic theories that they believe will usher in a new order. Communism, Fascism, Socialism and Capitalism are examples of such ideologies which when embraced with the fervor and certitude of a religious movement rapidly become intolerant of dissent and persecute those who disagree.
Doubt and faith. Belief and unbelief. Eric Hoffer wrote that it is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.” I think that is equally amazing how much doubt is necessary to make real faith possible.