The Roles of Doubt in Philosophy and in Religion
This Sunday I take as my text James 1:5-8. Of all the epistles, this, the most philosophical, is my favorite. There we read that he who is wanting in wisdom should ask it of God. But one must ask in faith without doubt or hesitation. "For he who hesitates or doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and carried about by the wind." While I do not deny that doubt can close us off from the help we need, I think it also plays salutary roles in religion. I count six such roles.
The religious doubt the world and its values. What I mean by 'world' here is the fifth entry in my catalog of the twelve senses of 'world':
In the Christian-existential sense, 'world' refers to a certain attitude or mentality. A reader well describes it as follows:
But there is another sense of the term 'world' — Christians talk of dying to the world and being in the world but not of it. This world they speak of could not be reduced to the world of black holes and dark matter, of collapsing stars and expanding nebulae. This is the social and moral world that they want to die to. It is the world of spiritual distraction and moral fog, the world of status-seeking and reputation.
To which wonderful formulation I add that worldlings or the worldly live for the here and now alone with its fleeting pleasures and precarious perquisites. They worship idolatrously at the shrine of the Mighty Tetrad: money, power, sex, and recognition. They are blind to the Unseen Order and speak of it only to deny it. They are the Cave dwellers of Plato who take shadow for substance, and the dimly descried for the optimally illuminated. They do not seek, nor do they find. They are not questers. They live as if they will live forever in a world they regard as the ne plus ultra of reality, repeating the same paltry pleasures and believing them to be the summum bonum.
Crucial to being religious is doubting the ultimacy and value of the world in the above acceptation of the term. The religious person is skeptical of secular teachings, secular 'authorities,' and secular suggestions. He is keenly aware of the infernal and ovine suggestibility of humanity. That's my first point.
Second, the religious man doubts his own goodness and his ability to improve himself. He cultivates a deep skepticism about his own probity and moral worth, not out of a perverse need for self-denigration, but out of honest insight into self. He follows the Socratic injunction to know oneself and he is not afraid to take a hard and unsparing look into his own foul heart, disordered soul, and dark mind. He does not avert his eyes from the dreck and dross he inevitably discovers but catalogs it clinically and objectively as best he can. Reason is weak, but not so weak that it cannot come to know and bemoan its own weakness and its susceptibility to subornation by the lusts of the flesh.
And of course the religious train their moral skepticism upon their dear fellow mortals as well. That’s number three.
Fourth, the religionist doubts the philosophers. Well aware that philosophy is magnificent in aspiration, one of the finest and noblest expressions of man's quest for the Absolute, the savvy religionist knows that it is miserable in execution. The philosophers contradict one another on all points, always have, and presumably always will. Their guidance must not be ignored, but cannot be blindly trusted.
Fifth, he doubts the teachings of other religions and the probity of their teachers.
Sixth, he doubts the probity of the teachers of his own religion. Surely this is an obvious point, even if it does not extend to the founder of the religion. Doubt here can lead to denial and denunciation, and rightly so.
Finally, a point about reason in relation to doubt. There is is no critical reasoning without doubt which is not only the engine of inquiry but also the blade of critique which severs the true from the false, the meaningful from the meaningless, the justified from the unjustified, the plausible from the implausible, and the probable from the improbable. Critical reasoning and thus doubt have a legitimate roles to play not only in theology but also in scriptural exegesis.
Philosophy and religion are in fruitful tension as are reason and faith, but each is involved with the other and each needs the other for correction and balance, as Athens needs Jerusalem, and Jerusalem Athens.