It’s not about crossing from doubt to faith

by Kristin on August 30, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by hoyasmeg

This morning, as I was reading Jason Boyett’s interesting post Parenting with Doubt, I had one of those realizations that you later find out 80 percent of everyone else has already had, but it was still a light bulb moment for you.

My realization was this: “Faith” and “doubt” are not opposites. We sure tend to talk and think about them like they are, though. Most of us know faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive—we acknowledge that at any given time we feel a bit of both. But we do see them at opposite ends of a spectrum, and we see ourselves traveling along somewhere in the middle. We imagine that each step we take towards faith takes us a step further away from doubt, and every time we encounter something that makes us doubt, we are moving away from faith.

Not only do I think that common framework is off, I think it causes us a lot more grief than we realize.

We need a new model for teaching our kids

Today’s post by Jason Boyett addresses the question “How are we supposed to teach our kids about faith if we’re dealing with doubts?” It’s a great question, and I think it rightly touches on the fact that this generation of young parents is much more comfortable doubting and re-thinking aspects of our faith than our parents were. Our parents, for the most part, chose to accept the faith they were raised with, burying any doubts, or they chose to reject it, to put an end to the whole church-going charade.

My friends seem to think this faith and doubt struggle is healthy for us, but then we second-guess the best way to talk to our kids. Here’s how Jason Boyett presents his dilemma:

I’m quick to give an answer when my kids ask me a question about dinosaurs or insects or Harry Potter. I feel confident in my knowledge, and when my knowledge is lacking on a subject, I can look it up. But when they ask me about God, I’m less confident. Do I tell them what most Christians believe? Do I tell them what I used to believe? Do I tell them what I’m learning to believe now? What do I tell them when my confidence is shaky? How do I help ground their faith?

As I ponder all this, I have to admit I’m a big fan of parental responses like “That’s really complicated, isn’t it?” and “I’m not really sure—I’m trying to figure that out, too.” Do answers like that do anything to “ground their faith?” I don’t know. I don’t think my doubts will jump off of me onto my kids, taking hold like a bad virus; I just hope some of my comfort with doubt will rub off on them.
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Why faith and doubt go together

Ultimately, I think our kids can avoid a lot of confusion, stress and frustration if they see how doubt is an integral part of faith—not only do go hand-in-hand, they MUST go hand-in-hand. When we are taught about God in absolutes, faith is no longer required. We can rely on our intellect, logic, and a blind acceptance of what’s being said by those who are older and wiser, right? That doesn’t seem like *faith* at all. That seems like studying for a standardized test.

Jesus, after all, didn’t give tests. Not only was it not his style, the information he was trying to teach can’t be easily wrangled into a test.  Jesus told stories to teach people and to help them see (or at least to look in the right direction). I love that, because stories are not black and white the way math equations or scientific facts tend to be. Instead, stories shine a light, get our minds working, and offer more insight as we grow and become ready.

I think I’m going to borrow some teaching methods from Jesus. The stories in the Old Testament, the parables of Jesus, and the stories in my own life all take faith and doubt together, and point to something quite amazing.

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  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    I’m of two minds on this question, Kristin, and while I respect people like Jason Boyett and Rachel Evans (I’m sure we would be friends if we lived in the same town), I just can’t get on the doubt bandwagon. I don’t see doubt as some badge of authenticity.

    The current embrace of doubt in Christian publishing and the blogosphere seems to me no different from the generation from which they are trying to distance themselves. For both the younger and older generations, “faith” is understood as agreeing with and trusting in a set of propositions–the “Christian worldview” pertaining to dinosaurs or Harry Potter or politics or whatever. The older generation seem to assert that being a “believer” means buying into these propositions. The younger generation seem to assert the idea that being a believer means the freedom to disagree with the conventional position. In my view the problem with both approaches is they are both still focused on propositions instead of a Person.

    For me “faith” is relationship. I trust God because he is good. I believe in Jesus because I love him. I do not pretend to know the answers to propositions because I don’t hear God talking propositionally. One example: I’ve been married 25 years. I love my wife, but I don’t pretend to understand her. Do I have faith in her? Completely! Even when we are at odds, I believe the best about her. When we are unable to communicate I trust that she loves me even when I am quite clearly un-lovable. Eventually it all works out.

    As to parenting, my kids and I have bonded again and again over the simple confession, “I don’t know.” I refuse to defraud them by claiming to have all the answers, but I unashamedly tell them that Jesus is the best thing–person–in my life.

  • http://comfortjoy.blogspot.com Sharon

    This discussion is really making me search for how I use the words “doubt” and “faith.” I am also pondering Ray’s distinction of person vs. proposition as the object of faith and doubt.

    I like your movement, Kristin, away from doubt being the “before” picture and faith being the “after” picture. It seems that either one can lead to the other, from time to time. That still separates them too much. Faith is often discussed polemically in dualistic terms. I think you are trying to get us to consider another way to frame faith, and I find that life-giving.

    In the United Church of Christ, we say that we are about “testimonies of faith and not tests of faith.” Doubt as a sign of failure (“lack of faith”) might indicate that the framework is “test” rather than “testimony.” I can’t say that Jesus required or commended “no doubt” when he required and commended “faith,” which may be more of an action, even in the midst of doubt. Still pondering …

  • http://www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    I appreciate this post, Kristin. Great to talk about something like this “out loud” that is an issue for all parents.

    I agree completely…faith and doubt are not opposites or two ends of a spectrum or anything like that. “Faith,” I think is a belief in something you can’t see/touch/feel at least some of the time. Faith in my husband means I trust him when he’s not in my line of sight. As in, I trust WHO HE IS. I also know him in a personal way that I do not and never have known God. I know, I know…there’s the whole “personal relationship with Jesus” but if we are honest, that is NOT the same thing as a physical, actual, two people facing one another and taking part in interactions with one another relationship.

    This is where “faith” in God becomes difficult…he doesn’t interact with us in the same way other humans do. We can’t go to his house, sit on his couch and have an interactive conversation with him. He doesn’t physically show up, in the flesh, casserole in hand and warm, kind smile on his face when tragedy strikes our lives. But we don’t expect him to.

    Faith in God IS different than faith in another human that we have interacted with in a human way. That’s why it’s so hard. And that’s also why “doubt” (not being sure of what we can’t see/touch/feel/hear, etc.) is simply a FACT. We all have doubt. Period. Maybe you don’t doubt God’s existence but that guy over there does. Maybe you aren’t sure about some attribute of God because of an experience you have that seems to contradict that attribute. It’s entirely possible I’m comfortable having faith in that same attribute. Today. But it’s also possible that you will not feel as you do right now, tomorrow. The point is, “faith” and “doubt” are real experiences we all have. We may experience them differently, but to say we don’t have doubt, that we shouldn’t or that we can only have a certain amount of faith is ridiculous.

    I’m going to get around to the kids deal….give me a minute.

    One more thing. It strikes me that Christians talk a LOT about “personal relationship with Jesus” and yet are so often afraid of doubts/questions about that Jesus. Think for a minute about your relationship with your spouse if you have one: if you feel some “doubt” about their love for you or the veracity of their commitment or whatever, wouldn’t you want to be able to tell them about that? Wouldn’t they WANT you to tell them? We all know what happens when we have feelings like these about a spouse or significant other and we keep those feelings to ourselves. They often don’t go away; instead they fester and grow. When we finally end up talking about our doubts/fears about the other person’s love, we inevitably find out that things would have gone WAAAAY better if we had just been honest from the beginning and not let those negative feelings/fears/thoughts build up inside of us.

    Why is it any different in a “relationship” with Jesus? I don’t claim to have one, but I know those who do and for whom that relationship is very real. Why would Jesus demand a faith that is without doubt when that simply isn’t POSSIBLE? Faith AND doubt are natural responses to something that is unseen and requires trust. Of course a human mind would struggle with that…that struggle is LIFE. I have MORE faith than doubt in my husband or I wouldn’t be with him. In fact, I don’t have doubt that he loves me. Overall. On a daily basis, though, I HAVE to have a daily relationship with him and that means something happens that rocks my faith a little, or if I just feel ugly one day, or if I have a day that causes me to worry that he would be “just fine” without me, I need to (must!) talk to him about that and allow him to respond. That’s how my doubt/fear gets resolved. Anyway, that’s my take on the whole doubt/faith deal. For now anyway! :)

    As for talking to kids about it, I so often end up asking them what they think. If they ask me a question about heaven, for instance, I usually turn the question back around and ask them what THEY think. It’s as if I’m saying, “It’s o.k. to think whatever it is you are thinking right now. Your thoughts are good and important.” I think most of the time, if they ask me what I think, they are really asking for permission to think/feel what they already think/feel. They’re wanting to know if they an trust themselves and I believe they can.

    Another question I ask a lot when it comes to stuff about God is “what does your knowing say about that?” They immediately know what I mean….that place deep inside of us all that KNOWS. They are very aware of what that is and can immediately respond from that place. As an adult, I am not that quick to respond from my knowing…I end up coming back to it after thrashing around in “supposed to’s” and “shoulds” and such. But kids can speak straight out of that place with little or no editing/second-guessing.

    Like Kristin I also do a lot of “I don’t know.” I also have what I see now as a huge benefit in that my husband and I believe some different things about God. So I will sometimes say, “Well, Daddy thinks…” and then I will say, “But I think….” and then I will add, “And if you want to, you can decide what you think, or you can wait until you’re a grown-up…you don’t have to decide that right now.” Lots of times I think kids don’t need to be thinking about some of this stuff. Sometimes they need permission not to worry about it.

    Those are my thoughts right now… :)

  • http://www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Me again. Looking at the wiki for “doubt.” thought this bit was interesting:

    “Doubt as a path towards (deeper) belief lies at the heart of the story of Saint Thomas the Apostle. Note in this respect the theological views of Georg Hermes:

    … the starting-point and chief principle of every science, and hence of theology also, is not only methodical doubt, but positive doubt. One can believe only what one has perceived to be true from reasonable grounds, and consequently one must have the courage to continue doubting until one has found reliable grounds to satisfy the reason.[2]”

    Christian existentialists such as Søren Kierkegaard suggest that for one to truly have belief in God, one would also have to doubt one’s beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person’s thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the belief would have no real substance. Belief is not a decision based on evidence that, say, certain beliefs about God are true or a certain person is worthy of love. No such evidence could ever be enough to pragmatically justify the kind of total commitment involved in true theological belief or romantic love. Belief involves making that commitment anyway. Kierkegaard thought that to have belief is at the same time to have doubt.[3][4]

  • Joi

    I had an interesting experience today. The Korean roommate in my mother-in-law’s room in the nursing home was watching a traditional-type Korean movie in Korean, with Korean subtitles! It was beautiful visually. I truly wanted to know what was going on. As I have read your post today the thought came to me that knowing God is kind of like trying to watch that Korean movie and figure out what actually is happening, esp. since I did not watch the movie from the beginning — I only saw a few minutes. We try to comprehend or make human sense of our beyond-time God from creature brains, using human language and our very limited experiences. I could have watched that movie a hundred times and never understood truly what it’s all about because the language is not my language, nor do I understand Korean culture. I might eventually be able to begin to catch the meanings of some individual phrases or sentences. I might start to figure out bits of the deeper meaning of the story.

    If we allow God to be God he will always be cloaked in mystery because so much is so, so far beyond our comprehension. The “doubt” is the part we can’t make sense of because of who we are. If we believe Jesus was God in human form introducing us to an image of God we could possibly begin to learn to love (not fear) and have faith in, all we can do from there on is that strange thing Jesus invited us to do — take him in, “feed” on him, like wine and bread, and allow him to transform us into a new creation that gradually discovers the beauty of being part of God’s language and story. For children’s questions I think we need to constantly reference Jesus, allowing them to sort out what they can about “why on earth did Jesus do that?” etc. Jesus baffled his own disciples, but their experiences with the risen Christ (a new dimension) turned them into on-fire, enthusiastic men that “turned the world upside down.”

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I’ve always felt that doubt has to exist for one to have faith. If there was nothing to doubt about God and our relationship with him — as in if we had a face-to-face relationship with Him and knew everything about Him and knew exactly what His expectations are for us — then we wouldn’t need much faith to believe in him. The beauty of faith is that it helps us transcend our doubts about God and religion. Faith is believing in things we cannot prove or know for certain.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Ray, your comment makes me wonder what definition of “doubt” I’m working with, and if it’s the same as the way you and others are thinking about it. Obviously we can look up a dictionary definition of doubt, but I’m more interested in what we *mean* when we use the word. Do we mean “I have a hard time believing that could be possible” (that Jesus was/is God, for instance)? Or do we mean “while I feel certain that X is real and true, I’m not at all sure why or how to explain it”? I realize that I’m using the word “doubt” more in the second sense (which strikes me as the less accurate sense). So maybe I should use a different word, but whatever I call it, it feels more authentic to *me* than the other, all-or-nothing approach. As far as this goes, I agree completely: “In my view the problem with both approaches is they are both still focused on propositions instead of a Person.”

    Sharon, yes! I was thinking exactly the same thing—how do I use the words “faith” and “doubt”—as I read Ray’s comment. It’s an important question to spend some time with. I really like the way the UCC puts it, in terms of testimonies rather than tests—I’ve never heard that before. It translates to some really interesting ways to think about doubt, as you pointed out: “Doubt as a sign of failure (‘lack of faith’) might indicate that the framework is ‘test’ rather than ‘testimony.’”

    Cheryl, thanks for digging deeper into the definitions. I probably should have done more of that before diving into my post, but it’s fun to let my readers do some of the work. :) When you put it this way, it makes everything seem OK in it’s unclear way: “Faith in God IS different than faith in another human that we have interacted with in a human way. That’s why it’s so hard. And that’s also why ‘doubt’ (not being sure of what we can’t see/touch/feel/hear, etc.) is simply a FACT.” Also, I love your approaches with your kids—turning their questions back to them, validating their thoughts, and generally taking the pressure off having all the answers.

    Joi, I have to say, I think that analogy of watching the Korean film is brilliant! “We try to comprehend or make human sense of our beyond-time God from creature brains, using human language and our very limited experiences.” Exactly! And yet, even though we can’t put the meaning into words, we are still drawn to it, and still have a sense about it. I often feel that way about dreams I’ve had—as I reflect on the dream, I feel like I grasp it, but as soon as I try to tell someone about it, it becomes completely abstract and slips away. Also, I think this is exactly right, regarding kids: “For children’s questions I think we need to constantly reference Jesus, allowing them to sort out what they can about ‘why on earth did Jesus do that?’”

    The Modern Gal, you put this so well: “The beauty of faith is that it helps us transcend our doubts about God and religion.” Thank you.

  • http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/ Dave

    Hi Kristin!
    Your readers are very astute!
    To me doubt and faith are not external things. They are processes that are internal and ongoing within us as individuals. Doubt without faith leads to fear. Faith without doubt leads to folly. God is in both, God uses both, and God walks with us through both.

    So sorry for your loss!
    Dave

  • http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/ Dave

    Just thought of a good metaphor. Think of doubt and faith as two vines. Both are searching for the light. One by asking, “This doesn’t seem right, there must be another way?” The other saying, “This is good let’s keep going.” Neither can stand on their own but as they twine around each other they make a stronger vine headed in the right direction.
    Peace!

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  • http://www.emergingmummy.com Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Really interesting comments, K. And fantastic post. Thank you!

  • Carissa

    Thank you sooo much. The question, “Is doubt the same as not having faith?” has been haunting me for a very long time. The question dosn’t pertain to God. But I think it fits my situation just as well.

    I appreciate the peace of mind
    THANKS

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Dave, I’m so sorry for the delay in my response! Somehow these last few on this post got overlooked. Anyway, I really love what you said here: “Doubt without faith leads to fear. Faith without doubt leads to folly. God is in both, God uses both, and God walks with us through both.” Brilliant. Seems like you could make bumper stickers or t-shirts with this concept. :)

    Sarah, I love my readers. Thanks for being one of them!

    Carissa, I’m so glad this post could help move you past a “stuck place” in your life toward more peace of mind. Blessings as you move forward!