In praise of doubt?

In the new Circuit Rider (thanks to Katie Z for the shout out), retired elder Willard “Buzz” Stevens writes with pain and passion about doubt and disbelief.

He tells stories about clergy and laity who have given up prayer because they no longer believe God listens or cares or acts. He writes of his own struggles with doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Trinity.

Stevens asks for our worship and ministry to embrace the doubters and disbelievers in our midst more, he says, honestly. He calls for clergy to share their own doubts and disbeliefs in the pulpit.

The great Enlightenment thinker (and deist) Voltaire contributes a quote for Stevens: “Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.”

While a charming quote, it strikes me as ridiculous. Certainty is not absurd in the least. It is – rather – greatly to be desired. In many areas of our life it may be impossible to attain. We cannot see the invisible or fathom the unfathomable. But certainty – in and of itself – is never absurd.

Stevens alludes to the famous (among Methodists) advice that Peter Bohler gave a young John Wesley: Preach faith until you have it. But it is instructive that John Wesley praised doubt in his own ministry after Aldersgate.

Indeed, he did not even think of his pre-Aldersgate coldness as doubt. It was, rather, the absence of faith. As he would write of himself later, when he looked back on his early ministry he realized not that he doubted the doctrines of the faith, but that he had no true faith itself. He had no more faith, he wrote, than a stone.

So, I wonder. With so much contemporary praise of doubt and disbelief, should we heed Stevens’ advice? Should preachers doubt openly?

6 thoughts on “In praise of doubt?

  1. The issue of certainty has been important for me in that I believe that American Enlightenment influenced Christianity has often seemed like a search for certainty rather than faith. While I would disagree that certainty is absurd, what I would suggest is that it is impossible. The fact is that there is no scientifically means of proving the core tenets of Christianity that doesn’t require a faith step at some level. One of the struggles I deal with in ministry are folks who are so nervous about ambiguity that they attempt to replace faith (belief in the unprovable or unbelievable) with all sorts of crazy schema to “prove” the certainty of the Christian claim. Yet, as Kierkegaard reminds us, part of following Jesus is taking the leap of faith that moves beyond the logical into the unprovable.

    One thing that me need to be suggested in this conversation is that assurance is different from certainty. Our beloved Wesley surely sought after assurance along the way, providing the warm heart that allowed him confidence in his faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but worry, and assurance is that by which the worries are cast aside in a belief that God knows what God is doing and that we don’t have to have all the answers.

    Should pastor’s be transparent about their doubts? Absolutely, for otherwise we create a false impression of being “super-Christians” which leads others to think that doubt is not compatible with faith. Our goal is to help folks realize that wrestling with doubt doesn’t destroy our faith, but represents honest striving that can often lead to a deeper faith.

  2. Should we preach doubt openly? Yes! Blind certainty in the face of massive evidence to the contrary is one of the chief reasons that so many people find Christianity to be dishonest and unauthentic. Being honest and admitting we don’t have all the answers and that at times we all struggle is essential to bridging the massive credibility gap we have created for ourselves.

  3. I have not worked this out enough to write about it, but it seems to me that clarity about the meanings and the difference between the following words is important to the conversation:


    For instance, doubt and disbelief are distinct things. If I do not believe in the virgin birth that is not the same as being in a state of doubt about it.

    1. Yes, I think recognizing common definitions is important. In example, I may have and raise with others all sorts of doubts about the Virgin Birth, while still choosing to believe the in power of that proclamation. Other questions also arise, such as “Does belief require a choice?”, “Can one have doubts and still believe?”, etc.

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