Friday, May 12, 2006

Two Views on Faith and Doubt

"When a man has become a Catholic, were he to set about following a doubt which has occurred to him, he has already disbelieved. I have not to warn him against losing his faith, he is not merely in danger of losing it, he has lost it; from the nature of the case he has already lost it; he fell from grace at the moment when he deliberately entertained and pursued his doubt. No one can determine to doubt what he is already sure of; but if he is not sure that the Church is from God, he does not believe it. It is not I who forbid him to doubt; he has taken the matter into his own hands when he determined on asking for leave; he has begun, not ended, in unbelief; his very wish, his purpose, is his sin. I do not make it so, it is such from the very state of the case....

"The [Catholic] Church cannot allow her children the liberty of doubting the truth of her word. He who really believes in it now, cannot imagine the future discovery of reasons to shake his faith; if he imagines it, he has not faith; and that so many Protestants think it a sort of tyranny in the Church to forbid any children of hers to doubt about her teaching, only shows they do not know what faith is, which is the case; it is a strange idea to them. Let a man cease to inquire, or cease to call himself her child." --- John Henry Newman (by way of this post at Pontifications)

"Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage. Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty...

"Doubt is not a permanent experience within the act of faith. But it is always present as an element in the structure of faith. This is the difference between faith and immediate evidence either of a perceptual or of logical character. There is no faith without an intrinsic "in spite of" and the courageous affirmation of oneself in the state of ultimate concern... If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern." --- Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (pg. 18, 24-25).


Patrik said...

Couldn't have said it better. ;)

Mike L said...


Forgive my naïvete, but where do you stand?


Thomas Adams said...

Mike – Thanks for the question. I was just going to ask Patrik the same thing.

I side with Tillich on this matter, although I find his concept of "ultimate concern" somewhat disagreeable. My goal in posting these quotes was to present two stark alternatives on the role of doubt in faith - an issue that many Christians struggle with. People often worry that even slightest doubt means that their faith, and thus their salvation, has vanished. Cardinal Newman’s quote only encourages this type of thinking, and forces Christians to regard doubt as merely weakness and betrayal. This attitude turns the life of faith into a terrifying tight-rope act in which the believer is afraid of plunging into the abyss with the slightest misstep. And, indeed, the result is a form of tyranny in which the “true believer” wholeheartedly submits to authority without the slightest question (of course, Cardinal Newman knew that I would say that, since my Protestant upbringing has made me incapable of recognizing real faith).

Tillich, whatever his shortcomings, understood better than most that faith and doubt exist in a dialectical relationship, and that doubt should be overcome but never eliminated. As he points out elsewhere, doubt is actually a good thing because it indicates that one is still passionate (or “concerned ultimately”) about God and faith and truth. In other words, there’s something far worse than doubt, and that’s apathy. And wouldn’t you agree that apathy, and not doubt, is what’s really plaguing our churches in America today?

Inheritor of Heaven said...

What is the doubt about? Newman seems to regard the doubt as being about Church teachings moreso than about faith in Christ and his work done for us on the Cross. If I ultimately have faith that Christ is who he says he is and faith in what he has done for me, then about every other matter is it ok for me to say, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."?

Andy said...

Their positions have more in common than might at first be obvious. Look at this quote from Newman:

"I come then to this conclusion;—if I must submit my reason to mysteries, it is not much matter whether it is a mystery more or a mystery less, when faith anyhow is the very essence of all religion, when the main difficulty to an inquirer is firmly to hold that there is a Living God, in spite of the darkness which surrounds Him, the Creator, Witness, and Judge of men. When once the mind is broken in, as it must be, to the belief of a Power above it, when once it understands, that it is not itself the measure of all things in heaven and earth, it will have little difficulty in going forward. I do not say it will, or can, go on to other truths, without conviction; I do not say it ought to believe the Catholic faith without grounds and motives; but I say that, when once it believes in God, the great obstacle to faith has been taken away,—a proud, self-sufficient spirit. When once a man really, with the eyes of his soul and by the power of Divine grace, recognises his Creator, he has passed a line; that has happened to him which cannot happen twice; he has bent his stiff neck, and triumphed over himself."

Based on this, I think Newman's problem isn't so much that I doubt as it is that I doubt. That is, the doubt Newman is attacking is the individual believer entertaining the idea that he might be right and the Church wrong.

Like Tillich, Newman assumes that the mind will waver, but also like Tillich he says that faith consists in being willing to disregard this wavering.

Obviously I won't say that they have no difference in their ideas about faith, but I will say that they have the above in common.

That said, I agree that the way he presents it encourages an elitist/fanatic mentality.

Eric Lemonholm said...

Good discussion!
A question I have is this: What does Newman mean by "deliberately" entertaining and pursuing a doubt? If it is true that doubt is an experienced reality for all people of faith who are not fanatics, as Tillich persuasively argues, then how much doubt is allowed by Newman before faith and grace are lost?
I love Buechner's discussion of faith and doubt:
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.
Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Again, as a good Protestant, I claim "the liberty of doubting the truth" of any fallen, finite human being or organization. Along with Inheritor of Heaven, I see faith as a relationship with God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Do doubts ever arise? Of course. They are a bite in the pants, a wake up call to question, to seek, to grow, to pray, that no submission to someone else's answers should stifle or cut short. Even when Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee in Matthew 28: 16-20 and they were worshipping him, "some doubted." But there is no mention of Jesus casting those doubters out. Instead, he gave them a commission and a promise too. Even when I doubt, Jesus has work for me to do, and he has promised to be with me always.