On Doubt

This is part II of my reflections on some of the best passages from Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. If you missed part I, you can find it here or here.

By Greg Hurst

We figured we may as well just walk to the other bar down the street—Phil and I were home from seminary for the long weekend, and what else do you do when your favorite watering hole closes at 9:30 due to Boston getting another foot of snow?

As we walked along the side of the road, careful to avoid the slowly moving cars traversing the unpaved street yet scurrying towards our destination with some pace because “single-digit temperature”, I explained to Phil that the bar we were going to, historically, drew a rather interesting crowd of humans. I had seen some stuff happen there over the years—my Starbucks co-workers used to enjoy pre-gaming before heading there, which always resulted in fireworks of some sort. It’s where the kids who were always getting suspended from high school back in the day drink. You walk in, you’re stared at, people immediately know you’re not a regular. I’ll probably end up talking to someone from my past I never thought I would see again. 

I figured we would get a drink or two and call it a night.

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An hour later, I found myself examining the available draughts. The PBR keg had kicked, which is the hipster-equivalent of the sound system being unplugged and the lights being turned on at a rave (lots of confusion and awkward looking around, audible groans, mild questioning of one’s self-worth, etc). Meanwhile, Phil was in the middle of an intensely respectful conversation with a young man who, upon learning that we were studying to be priests of Jesus Christ, wanted to speak with us about his homosexuality. 

It was at this moment that the obligatory “someone from my past I never thought I would see again” strolled over. He had the same bowl cut hair that I remembered, nearly redeemed by his apparent discovery of trendy glasses. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to seminary and, eventually, faith itself. I appreciated my old acquaintance’s honesty:

“I just don’t see how religion is necessary anymore. Back in the day, people would see all this snow coming down and think: ‘The gods are angry. We did something wrong.’ But now we know how all of this works, we know that there is no god behind it all.”

I briefly explained to bowl-cut how the Church understands her relationship with the sciences, and when I could see on his face that it had registered, I stopped abruptly: “I mean, come on, there are better reasons to reject Christianity than that.

Bowl-cut felt challenged, I suppose, because he continued to fire off a few more objections about the alleged incompatibility of the faith with science, confident that the two were irreconcilably divorced. The conversation dragged on, as these conversations tend to do. Finally, he took a hard turn: “Fine. But what if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?The way he asked it betrayed the confidence he felt in the weight of this objection.

I wish I had a picture of his face when I told him I wrote my MA Thesis on the possible relationships of Jesus Christ to extraterrestrial intelligent beings.

Bowl-cut had had enough. “I really would like to continue this conversation, man, and it’s good seeing you” he said. Holding up his beer and gesturing to his friends across the bar, he continued, yelling over the blaring hip-hop someone had just chosen from the jukebox, “But I’m gonna go over there and, well—you know.”

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To be clear: I don’t fault Bowl-cut. In fact, I really feel for him. I’ve been there. He hasn't been given the embarrassment of riches I have in terms of exposure and access to compelling and well-reasoned articulations of the Faith. I’m more perplexed, really, by those who haven’t stared at their bedroom ceiling wondering but if we just descended from some other bipedal species then how do we maintain some sort of downward fall from paradisal grace isn't that kind of nonsensical i mean--

Or something.

The timing of this conversation was rather remarkable. The previous evening I had a conversation with Phil about a passage from Ruth Burrows’ Guide to Mystical Prayer that I found excellent, a passage that I think actually justifies both the act of faith and Bowl-cut’s bewilderment:

“Man, today as never before, it seems, thinks he can do without God; at any rate he does not need him as an explanation. Mysteries which formerly pointed to the divine have been uncovered, their earthly roots laid bare; the frontiers of the supernatural have receded so far that for many there are no longer there. Need we lament this? I think not. It is a blessing that God wills; here is the opportunity for spiritual growing up. It means God has nothing to commend himself to us but his own self, and who does not want to be accepted for what he really is? But how vulnerable, how defenceless this makes him; only love will take him in. This insight into the helplessness of God, far from ending in sentimental devotionalism, means a testing of faith to the utmost, a veritable ordeal by fire.”

In short, the achievements of modern science in shattering the naive illusions of primitive man regarding the cosmos and its elements has stripped away many of the superficial reasons for man to believe in God. This can only be a good thing. It also means “a testing of the faith to the utmost.”

The 21st century believer and the bewildered skeptic—if they are being totally honest—both are looking at the same world, the same history, the same data. And in the face of an ever-expanding universe and man’s own ever-expanding knowledge of it—if they’re being totally honest—both men should feel the dread and awe of his nothingness.

Yet one believes, and the other does not. One encounters Jesus, one does not: if they’re both responsible with their education, they both continue to observe the same world, regardless. One feels the sting of doubt and it spurs him on to read more, to seek more, to pray more—this call into deeper waters is sheer, unfiltered grace. The other stutters, or stops altogether with the search (perhaps it never even gets started)— this abortion is permitted for great reason, and we ought not be too hasty to try and articulate why.  

The believer has been gifted, for some utterly unmerited reason, some combination of an experience/encounter/education that enables him to know Christ as a person—and this relationship, as all do, permits periods of uncertainty and doubt.

Yet the one who abandons the journey towards Christ is not free from the doubt which haunts the believer.  Pope Benedict was sensitive to this reality and wrote about it with a level of honesty unparalleled in the 50 years since — perhaps everyone just read the opening chapter of his Introduction to Christianity and just gave up trying to write anything better:

“Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question whether belief is not after all the reality which it claims to be. Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world.”

And how devastating is his conclusion:

“In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”

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It is far easier to run from the temptation to doubt. 

This alternative temptation is to allow ourselves to believe that the feeling of doubt and uncertainty is somehow a clear sign of weakness, rather than an invitation to deeper trust in Christ and a maturation in faith, not to mention a maturation in one’s own humanity. It is manifested most clearly in the armchair apologist who, when proposed a reasonable question or fear regarding the faith, quickly unloads a barrage of answers he read online somewhere instead of allowing himself to even try and empathize with the person asking the question and feel the weight of the questions being asked.  

The fear or doubt is felt in the face of perfectly reasonable historical, scientific, or existential questions, but we often smother it with rationalizations (the universe is massive; let’s find a reason why it had to be this way!). Could we instead, perhaps, allow ourselves to linger in the feeling for even just a while? To lean into it, so to speak, to drink it to the dregs… to allow ourselves to cough up that salt-water of doubt that has been permitted to fill our lungs and, finally coming back to the surface, emerge on the other side of this doubt with a greater trust in and understanding of the love that created and ordered all things?

Can we humbly accept and admit that "the constant threat of unbelief" is part of our (daily?) experience as believers and get over our apparent need to pretend otherwise? Can we resist the temptation to hyper-spiritualize our faith and allow Christ to meet us precisely in our human nothingness?

Can we embrace the dilemma of being a man?

Because if we can, then, as Benedict hopes, this mutual doubt will serve as the meeting point between believer and non-believer, and honest-to-God dialogue can finally occur. No longer will we be looked at as an alien species, seemingly immune to the doubts and fears of the human condition--and therefore incapable of saying anything about either.

The world will see that we are human, and that this is no obstacle to receiving that greatest of gifts: faith in Christ.