I wish to discuss my thesis on the importance of doubt in Christian faith. It seems that doubt has a negative position in the Christian faith, it seems that doubt is an antonym or contradiction of faith.
In this article I wish to prove that doubt is an aid to attain reasonable faith, however, it is not synonymous with faith. Besides, John encourages every Christian to test the spirits, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
Hooker says, “Even in matters divine, concerning some things, we may lawfully doubt, and suspend our judgment.” Thus, one must be an skeptic in order to reach reasonable faith. In doubting God will lead us to know the truth.
Let me discuss first the definition of doubt. Dictionary.com gives a lot of definitions of doubt such as, “(1) a lack of certainty that often leads to irresolution. (2) To waver in opinion or judgment; to be in uncertainty as to belief respecting anything; to hesitate in belief; to be undecided as to the truth of the negative or the affirmative proposition; to be undetermined.”
Most of the definitions of doubt in the dictionary are negative in essence. And if we will follow them, Sir W. Hamilton is right, “Doubt is the beginning and the end of all efforts to know.” But my definition of doubt based on my thesis is different from Hamilton.
My concept of doubt is that which is the beginning of efforts to know the truth. My “doubt” is not the one defined by the dictionaries or Hamilton, my doubt is scientific and hermeneutic. It is more of a positive rather than of a negative one as defined by Hamilton and the dictionaries.
For example, in 17th century, Galileo doubted that the earth was the center of the universe as seen by the world then, specifically Ptolemy, 2nd century Greek philosopher working in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Roman Catholic Church. Ptolemy believed that the earth was the center of the universe, around which the sun, the planets, and the stars all revolved, and beyond the orbit of the most distant star lay the empyrean, the place where angels and immortal spirits dwelled. Rigorously mathematical and highly persuasive, the Ptolemic system was accepted by virtually all educated Europeans and even the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo’s doubt led him to make researches. Galileo constructed a telescope through which he discovered spots on the sun, mountains on the moon, satellites in the orbit of Jupiter, and phases of Venus and concluded that the earth was revolving around the sun. Galileo suffered when he doubted since he was being excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, he was just forgiven by the church and lifted his excommunication in this century! I can consider Galileo’s doubt is scientific! Galileo’s doubt led him not to affirm the accepted and prevailing “truth” of his time. He doubted the prevailing and accepted truth in his time in order to go on and search the real truth.
Moreover, early philosophers believed that the cause of all things are, namely: water (Thales), indefinite boundless realm (Anaximander), and air (Anaximenes). Thales’ unique contribution to thought was his notion that in spite of the differences between various things there is, nevertheless, a basic similarity between them all, that the many are related to each other by the One. He assumed that some single element, some “stuff,” which contained its own principle of action or change, lay at the foundation of all physical reality. To him this One, or this stuff, was water. Although there is no record of how Thales came to the conclusion that water is the cause of all things, Aristotle writes that Thales might have derived it from observation of simple events, “perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat is generated from the moist and kept alive by it…He got his notion from this fact and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and water is the origin of the nature of moist things.”
Thales’ belief did not bite by his younger contemporary and pupil, Anaximander. At first he believed that there is single stuff out of which everything comes. But Anaximander departed from the belief of Thales that the single stuff is water. He believed that the primary substance out of which all these specific things come is an indefinite or boundless realm. Thus, Anaximander differentiates specific and determinate things from their origin by calling the primary substance the indeterminate boundless. Whereas actual things are specific, their source is indeterminate, and whereas things are finite, the original stuff is infinite or boundless.
Anaximenes was dissatisfied with the notion of the boundless as being the source of all things, it was too vague and intangible. In principle Anaximenes followed the way of Thales but he conjectured that the primary substance of all things is air. As the boundless, air is spear everywhere, but unlike the boundless, it is a specific and tangible material substance that can be identified. Although air is invisible, men live only as long as they can breathe, and “just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.”
Why I mentioned all of these historical accounts? It is because it proves that one’s doubts lead him to go on searching for more truth. In other words, doubt is a tool to dig deeper the well of truth. The aforementioned philosophers did not content with what they have on hands, but they doubted those prevailing and accepted truths in order to know more the truth. Doubt must not hinder anybody to go on searching and testing truth.
Rene Descartes suggested rules on how one can pass “sound and true judgments on all that presents itself to us.” It was in the book Rules for the Direction of the Mind. The book was never finished. It contains twenty-one rules instead of the thirty-six originally contemplated. Elsewhere he reduces the number to four, which we may summarize thus: (1) Accept as true only what is apprehended so clearly and distinctly that you cannot doubt it. (2) Break up each problem into as many parts as it will yield and tackle these in turn. (3) Observe an order in your inquiry, passing from the simple to the complex, from what is easy to understand to what is more difficult. (4) Make sure of covering the whole ground. Can one’s doubt lead to stronger faith?
Probably, yes. The Apostle Thomas used doubt in order to strengthen his faith in Jesus (John 20:24-31): Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. No doubt Thomas believed in Jesus but there was doubt in his mind concerning his resurrection.
And to prove that he really resurrected Thomas must see and touch the print or mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and side. Thomas’ doubt led him to know the resurrection not just by Jesus’ words by also by his experience with the resurrected one by touching his side and hands.
In our church nowadays, there are many doubting Thomas, but their doubt must not lead them to separation from God and unbelief, instead their doubt must lead them to know the truth of Christ. Scientific or hermeneutic doubt is indispensable in our Christian faith.
Since Christian faith is not blind faith but reasonable faith. That faith is “testing all spirits” as John puts it. Reasonable in the sense that faith is founded with reason, and the object of faith has undergone with “Cartesian rules.”