The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Postmodern Era

Here are some excerpts from speech by Peter Enns, the student of Kugel’s who was not allowed to continue to teach in a Protestant seminary. Enns, a popular speaker and blogger, as well as a Bible scholar has turned into a critic of the certainties of the prior Evangelical age. Here he comes out in favor of the existential value of doubt – not new to reader of Graham Greene, Anne Dillard, or Walker Percy- He connects this to religion’s speaking in the name of God to validate their personal preference in books, ideas, politics, and institutional style- a return to the critiques of the Evangelicals written int he 1930’s. He offers the doubt of the Psalms, some mystical dark night, some saint tales (not included in the selection) and then the sharp perception of how modern Evangelicalism is vested in the certainties of modernity; converting relgion into a cognitive science like gesture.

The following is the text of public lecture Peter Enns gave at Asuza Pacific University on the evening November 16, 2010.

When God is real in your life, it makes sense of it all, it gives purpose to our whole lives no matter what is going on. Faith in God gives us stability and coherence. The world around us may be crumbling, but God, as the psalmist says, is a sure foundation, the rock of our salvation. Whatever happens around me, I know that at least God can be counted on. He is faithful.
But sometimes things happen in our lives—a big thing, a lot of little thing—and you start having a lot of doubts. And—my experience—it’s usually the little things piling up over the years are the hardest—those disruptive thoughts you keep burying and hoping they’ll just go away. They don’t. And you feel your faith in God slipping away—and it is scary to watch it happen. You doubt that he cares, that he is listening; you doubt that he is even aware of who you are—that he even exists.
There is a benefit of doubt. Let me put that more strongly: there are things doubt can do spiritually that nothing else can do. Doubt is not the enemy, but a gift of God to move us from trusting ourselves to trusting him. Doubt feels like God is far away or absent, but it is actually a time of “disguised closeness” to God that moves us to spiritual maturity.

Sometimes we think of our faith as a castle. It’s comfortable and above all safe. But what if God doesn’t want us to be comfortable and safe?
It is very, very, very easy to slip into this idea that we have arrived—that we really think we’ve got all the answers and that we almost possess God. We know what church he goes to, what Bible translation he reads, we know how he votes, we know what movies he watches and books he reads. We know the kinds of people he approves of. Funny thing: God happens to like all the things we like. We feel like we can speak for God very easily.
So, you have 150 psalms, and in about half of them something has gone wrong—some barrier has arisen between Israel and faith in God. The psalmist feels abandoned by God and he is holding on by a thread.
One example is Psalm 88. In summary, here is what the psalm says: God, I have been on my knees to you night after night. I am so troubled, and in so much agony, I might as well be dead. I am absolutely without hope…and you don’t care. All night and all day I call to you—I’m on my knees—but nothing. I am in absolute pain and the only friend I have is darkness.
Another example is Psalm 73. Basically this is what the psalm is about: “Yeah I know God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. I know how it’s supposed to work. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve been to Hebrew school. I get it. My problem is not that I have forgotten what the Bible says. My problem is that what the Bible says doesn’t work.”
Deep doubt about God is about the worst feeling a Christian can have. It is dark, unsettling, frightening. And I am saying not only “it’s OK, it’s normal.” I am also saying, “Welcome it as a gift of God. Don’t run from it.” Because once doubt occurs, it won’t just go away—you can try to bury it all you want to. Embrace the doubt. Call it your friend. God is leading you on a journey.

This experience of deep doubt is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” That expression has come to us through the writings of two sixteenth century Spanish Catholic mystics: John of the Cross and his mentor Teresa of Avila. Many, many people have spent their lives thinking about what these and other mystics wrote concerning their experiences of God. I am not one of them, but I am learning. Let me boil down what they are saying.

The “dark night” is a sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes distress, anxiety, discouragement, despair, and depression…. Everyone feels this way, though different intensities and for different lengths of time. But the feeling is the same: they lose their sense of closeness to God and conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.
This is the dark night of the soul. Not too pretty. St. John’s great insight is that this dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty before God—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on.

This is why TV preachers drive me crazy. They say God wants you to avoid the pain—the suffering, the dying. He wants you to be happy, rich, successful, whatever. No. God wants you to be joyful—but dying is part of that. There is no shortcut
Here is the point. Some careful thinkers have said—and I agree—that the war between Christianity and postmodernism is so intense because Christianity in our culture is comfortable in the modern paradigm. Fundamentalism is modernist Christianity. A cocky Christianity that has all the answers, can casually sweep away pressing problems in the world with a wave of the doctrinal hand isn’t “pure” Christianity but a modernist version of it
Doubt shows us that God is unsafe—and that he is good. Read the rest -here.

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