The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Julia Baird praising Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, for telling an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there are moments in which he asks, “Is there a God? Where is God?”
When pressed if he harbored doubt, Welby answered, “It is a really good question…. The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”
I’m not so sure. Many people I know, including some very gifted ministers, have struggled with such doubts. So did C.S. Lewis, the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century. (The doubts came in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife Joy Davidman.) And one of the formative figures in my own Christian pilgrimage, Malcolm Muggeridge, told William F. Buckley, Jr., “I rather believe in doubt. It’s sometimes thought that it’s the antithesis of faith, but I think it’s connected with faith – something that actually St. Augustine said – like, you know, reinforced concrete and you have those strips of metal in the concrete which make it stronger.”
“The only people I’ve met in this world who never doubt are materialists and atheists,” Muggeridge added. “But for me, at any rate, doubt has been an integral part of coming to faith.” That is certainly the case for me, which might explain, in part, my early affinity for Muggeridge. The journey to faith was not a neat and tidy affair for me.
The author Philip Yancey points out that the Bible includes many examples of doubt. In some cases, like Job, God honors doubt. And for Christians, of course, there are the words uttered by Jesus on the Cross: “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?”
“Evidently God has more tolerance of doubt than most churches,” Yancey writes. He adds that artificially suppressing doubts, you don’t really resolve them. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.
Here it’s worth inserting a caveat. In our post-modern culture, it’s often fashionable to celebrate doubt, to declare oneself always a seeker and never a finder. Yet there are plenty of people who serve God with faithfulness and joy, who never find themselves struggling with existential and intellectual doubts and spiritual uncertainty. For them faith has always come easily. There’s no reason such people should be viewed in a less flattering light.
It’s important to recognize that faith isn’t a synonym for reason, even though it’s not intrinsically at odds with it. (Pascal said the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.) Faith doesn’t rest on logical proofs or material evidence. If it did, there wouldn’t be (as there is) an element of trust involved in it. God’s existence can’t be proved, and wasn’t intended to be understood, like a mathematical equation. It’s the nature of faith, then, to leave room for doubt. And faith itself, a friend recently reminded me, involves a relationship, and there is mystery in any profound relationship.
In the end, however, the cornerstone of faith isn’t doubt. It rests on hope, on believing in an unseen reality, and on what C.S. Lewis called “true myth” (by which he meant ancient pagan myths revealed the natural human longing for a true God). On creation bearing witness to a Creator. On being filled with awe by the starry heavens above us and the moral law within us. And on the materialist explanations of life not being able to explain the most important things about life.
It rests on the belief that we’re part of an unfolding story, a drama, that God is the author of and has entered into. And that when the story is finally written, broken areas of our lives will be repaired and redeemed; that all things will be made right; and that grace will bring us home.