Faith and Doubt

James 1:6 speaks of doubt in rather negative terms: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” It would seem from this passage that questioning, doubt, and not believing immediately are inappropriate for Christians. However, the rest of the Bible seems to suggest that this interpretation is not quite accurate.

After all, the Bible is full of examples of people questioning God. Not only do many of the lament Psalms ask God how long or why, numerous Old Testament folk question God: Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15), Hezekiah when he’s told he will die (Isaiah 38), Elijah when he’d had it after Mt Carmel (1 Kings 19). The gospels also speak of Jesus’ disciples not understanding or believing immediately.

While we probably wouldn’t consider the above examples to be people who ‘doubted,’ it brings into question whether we might wrongly categorize questions and a desire to understand by people as being the sort of thing that James is speaking against. In fact, James – as James McGrath points out – might be speaking about exactly the opposite: a lack of willingness to question, as if one were doubting whether one’s belief is able or worth being held up to scrutiny. Or in McGrath ‘s words: “Questioning involves courage, refusal to allow one’s beliefs to be challenged involves fear. And so which should be called “faith” and which should be called “doubt”?:

Elsewhere McGrath explains what he means a bit more:

What passes for “faith” in our time is often an unwavering insistence that one is right, or in other words, a feeling of certainty about a matter concerning which the evidence you have considered does not justify that certainty.

I’d like to suggest that the above, although sometimes described as “faith,” is actually doubt.

Insisting you are right without looking at the evidence or being willing to do so suggests that you are afraid that a close examination of what you believe might cause the entire edifice of you belief system to come crashing down.

In the intersection of the university and the church where knowledge, questioning, and belief intersect – and can be understood very differently by various people – it can be  helpful to ponder what both inappropriate doubt (like that mentioned in James) and inappropriate certainty (like that mentioned by McGrath) look like.


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