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When Faith Is Not Enough is a creative, honest, and original discussion of faith and doubt and the search for human significance. Drawing upon personal experience, literature, psychology, philosophy, and Scripture, philosopher Kelly Clark tackles the ...
When Faith Is Not Enough is a creative, honest, and original discussion of faith and doubt and the search for human significance. Drawing upon personal experience, literature, psychology, philosophy, and Scripture, philosopher Kelly Clark tackles the difficult question of how we can live with doubt and how we can nurture a faith and develop a self of enduring value.
In section one, "The Shadow of a Doubt," Clark takes doubt (and doubters) seriously and sets out to help the reader understand faith in a deeper way. He presents a powerful case for the existence of God, offers hope for understanding the problem of God and human suffering, suggests positive ways for dealing with doubt, and affirms the excitement of embracing the adventure of life.
Section two, "Searching for My Self," is a reflection on the meaning of life. We want our lives to count, but we feel insignificant. We desire fame and honor, but we feel forgotten and ignored. Wishing for significant human relationships, we often feel alienated and unable to communicate. And wanting to live worthy lives, we feel shame. Clark probes into these conflicting emotions and addresses how God can unite the disparate elements of our lives into a meaningful and enduring self.
So many Christians seem to demand perfection in belief and speak of their unshakable conviction. What do they have that we doubters don't? In this mortal life, belief and unbelief reside in the same person just as righteousness and wickedness do. We need, therefore, to deal with one another in belief as God deals with us in our sin—with mercy.
Everyone, both the stout of faith and the infirm in belief, should be part of a caring community. We should never believe or doubt entirely on our own. I remember a close friend in college who had profound doubts about both God's existence and his own salvation. We were part of a Bible study that disavowed doubt. A little booklet entitled Doubters Welcome was passed around in the group. The booklet ironically communicated the real values of the fellowship—doubters were not really or fully welcome. Doubt was considered a condition that plagued unbelievers, and only when one was relieved of this condition could one properly take one's place in the group. The group became a place for the already healed, not for those struggling to find the cure. So my honest friend was looked upon with derision, treated as an outsider, and considered somewhat pathological in his failure of faith. "Come back when you are healthy" is the message he got.
We should understand that people are only partially sanctified in belief and should provide sympathetic care and support to those who honestly express their doubts. We shouldn't look on doubters with pity or derision but consider them fellow strugglers on life's way. We should pray not only that we may become good parents, get good grades on exams, get along with our employers and spouses, and see justice and peace prevail in this broken world, but also that the faith of our deeply divided souls may be strengthened.
I am speaking here of the doubt that comes from belief, not the doubt of unbelief. This doubt is endemic to religious belief and is distinguished from obstinate unbelief. The Bible, when it speaks of unbelief, refers to a hardness of heart, a stubbornness, an unwillingness to trust or hope in God. The sincere doubt of believers is quite different: it is the authentic expression of anguish over our wretched believing condition, and it includes a deep desire for and love of the truth. The doubt of indifference can be distinguished from the doubt that cares and seeks and hopes to find. To those who are indifferent, nothing is pledged. But those who search, it is promised, shall find.
This is where Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap. When he asks for signs from the risen Jesus he is told: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29). "Blessed," of course, means "happy," and surely people who blithely remain faithful without need of proof are happy. But God has given us inquiring minds, and some of us cannot be at peace in our beliefs until our minds are at rest. Jesus does not turn Thomas away; his reply is not a rebuke. The doubt of Thomas is one that cares deeply for the truth, that wants desperately to find the true way. Jesus gives him what he asks for and relieves the burden of his uncertainty: ``Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe'' (John 20:27). Thomas sincerely sought and found.
Scripture tells of God's faithful love in the midst of our faithlessness: ``A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench'' (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20). We should model God's patient and steadfast love in our dealings with doubters. This means honestly recognizing the lack of certainty in all of our lives. We should be the last to snuff out the smoldering wick of faith. We should be willing to pray for and support doubting brethren. We should never cast the first stone, but embrace those who have been assailed even by pebbles of doubt.
testing the mettle of faith
It is ironic that, along with tremendous reduction in human suffering, modern science has eroded religious belief. Although people now live longer, healthier lives, they find it more difficult to believe in God. Our spiritual ancestors took suffering as a test; through it their faith was made complete (even now faith seems strongest in countries that are economically destitute or where political forces are aligned against religious belief). I don't long for the days when faith was made strong by strife, but I do wonder sometimes what has happened to faith in our time. Perhaps it is through doubt instead of suffering that our faith is being made complete.
It is not only to the suffering that belief comes difficult. In times of earthly gain, we can find ourselves distant from God. Is God ignoring us, or are we ignoring him? Success at work, school, or play can create the false sense that we don't need God, that we are in control and doing fine, thank you very much. As we self-satisfyingly fill up our lives with our own accomplishments, we leave little room for God. In this situation, doubt can play a beneficial role: it can make us aware of the great good that we lack yet desperately need.
In his poem In Memoriam, Tennyson commends "the faith, the vigour bold, to dwell / On doubts that drive the coward back." Unsure whether or not doubt comes from the Devil, he nonetheless believes that doubt is a fire that tests the mettle of faith. "There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds." Honest doubt, bravely faced, can become a training ground for the soul to develop a genuine and mature faith: ``To find a stronger faith his own.''
Christians beset with debilitating doubt should act on what they do believe. Pascal's famous wager concludes that it makes sense to bet that God exists. But placing a wager and actually believing in God's existence are very different matters. Since your beliefs are not always within your conscious or direct control, Pascal suggests that if you want to become a believer, you should do the things that believers do:
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe.
Pascal suggests this approach because he believes that the primary obstacle to religious faith is posed by the passions, not the intellect. Unbelievers, he contends, don't need an increase of proofs for their intellect; they require a decrease in the influence of the passions on their will. By following the religious practices of those who are availing themselves of the means of grace, one can diminish the effect of the passions on one's will. This may open the way for one to receive the gift of faith.
When I was on the staff of Young Life, I often heard and even used the following illustration about the importance of making a personal decision for Christ: "Going to church and doing good things won't make you a Christian. Sitting in a holy place will not make you holy. That would be like thinking that sitting in a garage long enough will make you into a car!" I have come to believe that this illustration is at least partly misleading. God has ordained means through which his grace is transmitted: preaching and hearing Scripture, reading and delighting in the book of nature, breaking bread and enjoying fellowship together, praying and worshipping together. Sitting in a church can prepare you to experience the love of God because it can put you in touch with the means of grace. So my advice for doubters is: Park yourself in God's garage! Obey what you can, avail yourself of the means of grace, and search for glimpses of light.
tips for travelers
So what can we do, we who are condemned to wander about in caves? How shall we find our way in the darkness with only glimmers of light? What is to prevent us from bumping into the walls and ceilings, tumbling down steep inclines, sliding uncontrollably on the ice, inhaling noxious gases, being consumed by explosions, crushed by collapsing ceilings, or falling down hidden shafts to our death? This much at least seems clear: given our human limitations, we are more likely to go wrong than right.
But follow the light we must. What other options are there? The lights may be dim, but they are lights, and we must follow them. However faint and frail they may be, they are all we have to direct our paths. In our fumbling, frantic search for wisdom, we must grasp onto what we can. If the only path we see is indistinct, indirect, or only partly illuminated, we must still take it.
Sometimes it is our social and cultural conditioning that poses obstacles to belief in God's existence and goodness. We are born into families that are spiritually, racially, and ethnically constituted. We are part of cultures that assume values and truths that we take to be self-evident. We are indoctrinated into sets of religious beliefs (whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist) virtually from the womb. We develop decided tastes for the sensory or the rational or the spiritual. Our experiences, upbringing, genetics, moral and spiritual education, and cultural conditioning have carved out a manageable cavity of plausibilities in the immense mountain of possibilities. By the time we reach the age of reflection, we have a drastically limited view of reality and its potentialities. We are trapped in a cave of social and cultural making, with no visible means of escape.
One option we have in dealing with our situation is skepticism. We can simply despair of our ability to find truth. We can set our butts down and refuse to go in any direction. There is no reason to prefer one path to another, the skeptic contends. But this attitude fails to see that deciding not to take one path simultaneously entails a decision to take (or stay on) another. In real life, we are all on one path or another. If one chooses the path of agnosticism rather than choosing a path that leads in a theistic direction, then one has indeed made a choice. If one chooses the way of atheism, one assumes all of the risks of that path. Skepticism does not allow one to avoid the risks; it simply embraces one set of risks rather than another. There is precious little comfort in skepticism.
A second option is relativism or pluralism—whatever path you take is the right path for you; truth is relative to time, place, circumstance, and personal inclination. All paths lead to God, the pluralist claims. The relativist option removes the urgency of exploring the cave. There are no missteps because, on this view, there are no wrong paths. There is, however, a problem with this option: some paths logically exclude other paths. They can't all be right. If one person says it is essential to follow path X and another that it is essential to avoid path X, they can't both be right. And that is exactly what competing religions claim. They make essential but contradictory claims about the proper path to God. Some of these paths, though rich in tradition and sincerely followed by millions, must be wrong. There is too much comfort in relativism.
So our final option is to determine to stumble along as best we can, following those lights that God has placed along our paths. We must recognize our limitations and in humility accept God's gracious guidance along life's way. Taking this course of action assumes that there is something called Truth, but it recognizes that truth is sometimes darn hard to figure out. Such is the adventure and terror of life. We follow the lights as best we can. We accept as true what, given our best judgments, seems to us to be true. We stand ready and willing to criticize our comfortable beliefs as we receive more insight. We remain open to the possibility that we have wandered into a thicket and need to be redirected. Our hope is to continue following the clues into the arms of God. Choosing to follow a path makes faith precarious and risky. And so it is—there is no escaping it. This path, like all other paths, entails risk. Make no mistake about it: belief in God is risky business.
hints, guesses, and hope
I once discussed faith with a close friend who was reared in a Christian family. Some of his brothers and sisters were no longer believers, but other family members were pastors and Christian teachers. We discussed how such disparate stations of belief could be taken up by siblings raised in the same positive and compelling Christian home. I finally asked him if he was certain that Christianity is true, and he candidly replied: "I hope it's true." I have found his answer both revealing and instructive. It is revealing because underneath this affirmation of faith is an honest and sober confession of uncertainty. And it is instructive because it also manifests the centrality of hope to the Christian faith. The very element of confessed uncertainty allows for the possibility of faith and the vitality of hope.
Hope is a rather underrated virtue. We hear great pronouncements on faith and love but few on hope. Hope is the deep longing for a future reality that is not clearly seen. We hope our children will grow up educated and responsible; we hope for a cure for AIDS and cancer; we hope for a revitalization of the moral fiber of our country; we hope for a reduction in the budget deficit. And we hope that God's promises to redeem the world and our lives are not in vain. But our children may fall in with unsavory friends; AIDS and some forms of cancer may prove intractable; our country may grow more susceptible to the wiles of greed and pleasure; and politicians may never acquire the will to make the tough budget cuts. And the world may perish in a solar extinction, and we may die and become food for worms.
This much seems certain: without hope, the longed-for future reality will never be realized. If we give up on rearing our children or trying to cure AIDS, if we become cynical about our country and its politicians, things will not turn out as we desire. Our hopes are often necessary for the attainment of a better future. And our loss of hope may ensure our future's demise. Better to live with hope.
Of course, all the sincere hoping in the world cannot create a divine being who cares for us and wills our future redemption. We can hope against hope, but we cannot hope this caring, redeeming God into existence. But God has provided us with reasons for hope. He has given us light that directs us and illuminates our experience. Our directed experience itself becomes the vantage point from which we see the prospect of moral and spiritual progress and the ground upon which we pray that this progress will continue into the world-without-end. As the great Christian poet T. S. Eliot wrote:
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
We follow the clues that God has placed for us, obeying where we ought, believing when we can, and submitting when we must.
|Don't Skip This|
|Pt. I||The Shadow of a Doubt|
|1||Inside the Darkness||3|
|2||Moments of Light||19|
|3||Moments of Darkness||37|
|4||Fear and Trembling||53|
|5||Hope and Human Suffering||71|
|6||Help Thou Mine Unbelief||93|
|Pt. II||Searching for My Self|
|7||Sound and Fury||109|
|8||What's in a Name?||121|
|9||Searching for My Self||137|
|10||Stages on Life's Way||159|