On Doubt and Investigation

I recently had the chance to sit down with a friend (a college student, though not one of mine) and discuss the way encountering the questions of others, and the active unbelief of others, affects us.  Some people find it easy to disengage from these encounters; others seek them out; others, having learned that aggressively seeking those encounters, or forcing them, is unwise, are nonetheless regularly called into the place where such encounters are inevitable.  Unless we simply say “Am I my brother’s keeper?” about these matters, we find ourselves obligated to at least do what we can to remove misunderstandings, to be sure we leave the situation better than we found it.

Of course, with malicious malingerers, that is not always possible.

Anyway, enough of these encounters and the honest reasoner begins to discover some skipped points, some blind spots, some stolen bases, in his own approach to expressing the truth.  That’s fine; it is a good opportunity for taking a deep breath, reflecting a bit, and looking around for a more thorough, more graceful, more complete and economical method of exposition and argument.

But of course we are spiritually complicated people, and our still-unformed character also seizes hard on our need to be right, our impatience with the stiff-necked and perverse generation, and other ways that the faithful have, since the beginning, struggled to emulate the Christ who expressed anger without sin, who questioned His Father without unbelief, who was both more authoritative and more meek than we have any right to be–who was the Rock, who gushed forth water at a word, who did not forget himself and strike the Rock like Moses, or like Peter the Rock striking the servant in the Garden.  He was not only forceful and effective, he was restrained.

So we often enter into periods of doubt ourselves after significant efforts to represent the truth to an audience with doubts–still more if we regularly meet with the sorts of bad faith that are common in our public discourse, today, or the organized opposition to the possibility of meaningful discourse that we often encounter.  There is a flatly demonic spirit abroad in this nation, in these times; we are confused by our own din.

But doubt, by itself, is just exactly an invitation to investigate.  It is a question, to searching eyes; it is a petition, to praying lips.  It is fine–simply fine, no questions need be asked–to find oneself in a season of doubt.

What I suggested was very important, though, was that my friend enter into that season–and, secondarily, into dialogues with others–aware of the difference between experiencing doubt and practicing unbelief.

Unbelief is not at all like doubt, though we often cloak one in the language of the other, whether in extenuation or in accusation.  Unbelief decides against, fails to assent to, treats as practically false what we know to be true–what God has clearly revealed, what has been proposed to us on good authority.  Unbelief is serious sin, and the grace of God cannot flourish in our lives while we continue to practice unbelief.

So, practically, I suggested that my friend watch the following distinction in himself, closely, as he lived through a season of doubt:  Am I posing questions, expecting answers? or am I defending questions against answers?

We have all experienced this distinction, I think, in ourselves–or if by some chance not, surely in another.

Yes, it is true that sometimes a question must be reconsidered and posed again where an answer is reasonably seen to be incomplete, inadequate, inapposite, or impracticable.  One should not, after all, assume that one answer given ends the relevance of every question!  Nonetheless, there is both inside me–and you–and in our conversations with others a “But…!” that refuses to accept an answer, not because it is inadequate to the question, but because it is not the one I hoped for.

There is a tight nexus between that risk of practicing unbelief–of defending my questions against their answers–and the problem of despair, in fact.  I said that it would be wrong to refuse to accept an answer “because it is not the one I hoped for.”  But why would I hope for the answer that is, in fact, wrong?  Why would I hope for something not properly articulated to reality, not capable of leading me on to things I hope for more durably and deeply?

Well, again, in honest doubt the reason might be that I am aware that the answer is actually inadequate.  I may need to continue in prayer, to continue living in hope, for a question that draws a better answer; in fact, that total growth in my hope and faith may well be a reason for entering into a season of doubt.

In fact, in the case of the friend I was talking to, I suspect that is just what is happenning.

However, you or I may also be hoping for too little.  We may not have learned, really wholly absorbed, the goodness of our God, and the way He forgives, and calls, and shapes us.  Cardinal Newman was right to note the relationship of this kind of trust in God’s goodness–which has the character of hope, and is a constituent of friendship–to our capacity to grow in faith:

Yet there is a way, in which the child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition, in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot indeed in that case assent to the proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do more than assert that “Lucern is medicago sativa,” but he can assent to the proposition, “That lucern is medicago sativa is true.” For here is a predicate which he sufficiently apprehends, what is inapprehensible in the proposition being confined to the subject. Thus the child’s mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as “The quality of mercy is not strained,” or “Virtue itself {16} turns vice, being misapplied,” she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,—not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good.

Of course I am speaking of assent itself, and its intrinsic conditions, not of the ground or motive of it. Whether there is an obligation upon the child to trust his mother, or whether there are cases where such trust is impossible, are irrelevant questions, and I notice them in order to put them aside. I am examining the act of assent itself, not its preliminaries, and I have specified three directions, which among others the assent may take, viz. assent immediately to a proposition itself, assent to its truth, and assent both to its truth and to the ground of its being true,—”Lucern is food for cattle,”—”That lucern is medicago sativa is true,”—and “My mother’s word, that lucern is medicago sativa, and is food for cattle, is the truth.” Now in each of these there is one and the same absolute adhesion of the mind to the proposition, on the part of the child; he assents to the apprehensible proposition, and to the truth of the inapprehensible, and to the veracity of his mother in her assertion of the inapprehensible. I say the same absolute adhesion, because unless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother’s word: yet, though {17} these assents are all unreserved, still they certainly differ in strength, and this is the next point to which I wish to draw attention. It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother’s veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.

Accordingly, by reason of this circumstance of his apprehension he would not hesitate to say, did his years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in defence of his mother’s veracity. On the other hand, he would not make such a profession in the case of the propositions, “Lucern is food for cattle,” or “That lucern is medicago sativa is true;” and yet it is clear too, that, if he did in truth assent to these propositions, he would have to die for them also, rather than deny them, when it came to the point, unless he made up his mind to tell a falsehood.

Sometimes, I am convinced, a season of doubt is not even about the questions and the answers.  It is about the way that faith and hope interact, drawing us into that friendship with God that is perfect charity.

So pose your questions.  Investigate your doubts.  Do not defend your questions from answers.  Pray as you reason, and reason as you pray; do not set the two against each other.  And know, when you’re right but also experiencing doubt, that God may want you to really trust His goodness in the matter–to really expect good things to follow from truth.

My friend was Protestant, but I still didn’t scruple to recommend the best way I know to let my questions simply be–real and answerable, surrendered to God’s will against unbelief and despair, but not suppressed and not clamoring:

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Because we know–even if we must keep learning to dwell more fully in its truth, even if doubt is the necessary experience of learning–that the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the reality that cuts more deeply to the heart of God than any other.  The very fulcrum of Creation and Redemption cannot fail to be more than the answer to more than the questions we know how to think of, so we can break into doxology without failing in our pursuit of truth:

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(source:  Romans 8:31-39 RSV-CE)