In this season of gratitude and anxious waiting, I will be giving thanks for the gift of doubt.
After all, it’s what led Doubting Thomas to faith. It’s doubt that lets me ask the spikey, frustrating questions about faith. And it’s doubt that liberates me to pose those questions aloud within the Presbyterian congregation that I call home.
Doubt — coupled with the freedom within a church to voice hard questions and not be accused of heresy — is the road that can lead to an authentic, reliable faith. In fact, I think doubt is so crucial to finding useful answers about God and God’s purposes for us that I titled my new book “The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.”
One of the things doubt and curiosity have allowed me to do is to get a deeper understanding of the Bible. Doing that, of course, required that I not pledge allegiance to the view, still held by a shrinking pool of Christians, that the Bible is inerrant in all ways and that it confirms that God created the world — including Adam and Eve as real historical people — in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.
As Kenneth A. Briggs notes in his new book “The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America,” that literalistic approach to reading the Bible risks missing the book’s whole point for Christians. The book itself should not be worshipped (one almost inevitable but idolatrous outcome of thinking of it as inerrant and God’s literal word). Rather, it should be seen as an authoritative, sufficient and joyful witness to Jesus Christ.
Briggs notes that fewer and fewer Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative hold to an inerrant view of Scripture today, in part because many of the leaders and teachers from that branch of the faith are getting educations from secular universities, which have “inherent confidence in the scientific method.”
“The center,” Briggs writes, “hasn’t held the way it could when the doctrine (of inerrancy) was encased in cultural isolation.”
I have friends who grew up in branches of the church in which members were considered not just rebels but faithless heretics if they questioned the answers their church leaders gave them. These friends found the lack of openness stifling and eventually took their doubts and questions either out of the church altogether or to a congregation that encourages public questioning of those aspects of faith that, at least so far, don’t make sense to someone.
Suppose we couldn’t express our doubts that the Bible was dictated word-for-word by God, or that Jesus’ mother was (and is) a perpetual virgin, or that when Joshua 10:13 tells us that “the sun stood still and the moon stood motionless” we are reading about verifiable historical events.
Where do such doubts, such direct questioning get us? If we keep at it, they can get us to faith. And faith is qualitatively different from belief.
A former pastor of my congregation once asked to us imagine driving down to the foot of the Paseo Bridge in Kansas City, which crosses the Missouri River at the edge of downtown. As we sit in our cars at the foot of that bridge, he said, we can say we believe it will hold us if we try to drive across it. That’s belief. But it’s belief stuck in doubt unless we act. Faith, by contrast, means actually driving across the bridge after we say we believe.
That’s where questions and doubts can take us — to a commitment to put our trust in our ultimate support, God, and move out into life, even though, with the Apostle Paul, “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.