My generation talks about doubt a lot.
It’s not surprising. This so-called Christian “culture of doubt” has emerged at a time when it’s becoming clear just how much young adults crave a faith that’s authentic and aligned with their lived experience.
Instead of fiery evangelists, we are embracing Christian figures who give honest confessions of uncertainty and push the boundaries of what Christians can politely discuss. We’re interested in analysing evangelical hypocrisy or wrestling with the doctrine of hell, hearing theology from a former porn star or questioning how transgenderism fits in the Bible.
Truth is explored through conversations, not through being told what to think. Writers like Rachel Held Evans and podcasts like Bad Christian are igniting imaginations not despite their unconventional stance, but because of it.
Of course, this “doubt trend” has ruffled feathers. Critics say that this “glorification of doubt” is a postmodern hipster Christianity that ignores that the Bible deals in absolutes. It’s said that it’s putting our subjective feelings above God’s word. As one person tweeted: “In the Bible, doubt is always rebuked. In the post-evangelical culture, it is given a publishing platform.”
So, is doubt culture a good thing or not?
Without a doubt, there are two extremes
As CS Lewis would say, we tend to fall into two opposite and equal errors when it comes to doubt.
Many of us will have grown up in conservative circles where saying that you doubted was akin to saying you had cancer. Being part of a faith tradition was an “all in” proposition, and struggling with one part meant you doubted all of it. If you questioned too much, then you weren’t trusting God with that child-like faith we need to have.
But this approach has had destructive effects. We’ve seen Christians willing themselves to squash their doubts down and “just have more faith”, and many have fallen away because of it. When important and legitimate questions are not taken seriously or even understood, it drives a wedge between faith and the rest of your life. Doubts end up festering into unbelief.
The opposite approach is also slippery. Some progressive Christians embrace ambiguity so much that they become uncomfortable with any absolutes at all. What Jesus really said and did is watered down, turning blacks and whites into greys. Eventually, it can slide into pluralism.
But if you look at doubt in the Bible, you see a more complex approach. Doubts, in the Bible, are not treated as sinful in themselves, but the motivation needs to be finding truth. Think of Job, who fell into despair when his God seemed to have abandoned him. Or Jacob, who literally wrestled with God. Check out the Psalms, too. Jesus rebukes Peter and Thomas for doubting, but he also has compassion on Nicodemus and Nathanael for having questions.
Biblical doubt is a case-by-case basis. It’s neither the sin that conservatives might say, nor an excuse for complacent ambiguity. Rather, it’s a chance to sink or swim, to retreat into comfort or mature into faith.
What’s more, it’s not the opposite of faith; rather, you could think of doubt and faith as two sides of the one coin. As one writer commented:
Understood properly, this biblical view sees the role of doubt as constructive to belief… A bold Christian affirmation is that because faith in Christ is true and fears no question or challenge, doubt can be a stepping stone to a tougher, deeper faith.
What we do with our doubt is essential. Falling into sin like cynicism or disobedience is easy when you doubt. But coming to God with our questions – exploring our questions with all our mind – can make doubt a chance to hear God’s voice and deepen our faith. After all, our faith is alive and active (Hebrews Chapter 4, verse 12).
As Rachel Held Evans once said; “Doubt is the fire that enlivens faith. Doubt taught me to hold my faith and beliefs in an open hand.”
You may well ask if it’s okay to doubt. But shouldn’t we also ask if it’s okay to never doubt?
O, me of little faith
So the “doubt” part of doubt culture isn’t inherently terrible, and from my own experience, I’d argue that the culture isn’t either.
I’m no stranger to the unpleasant dissonance of doubt. But my doubt could have been toxic if I hadn’t found a weird kind of community with doubters of the world.
The boys of Bad Christian may cuss and throw grenades on tradition, but they remind me that we’re all “bad Christians with a great Saviour”. Rachel Held Evans has brought sass and crackle as she counters evangelical conceits, particularly as a feminist. Truth’s Table brings a voice to African-American women tired of white supremacy in evangelicalism. Dan Koch makes dense theology and political debate into digestible food for thought, while Pastor With No Answers is a humble exploration of all sorts of weird and wonderful people who make up the church, delivered by a pastor who fights depression.
These people are on the fringes, they aren’t afraid to speak differently and didn’t have all their ducks in a row. Their guests didn’t either. Even when I didn’t always agree with their views, my thinking has been stimulated and sharpened, and my brokenness felt less broken.
Sitting on the other side, I can say, wholeheartedly, that I’m grateful for the people who are destigmatising doubt, however scared or heretical they might feel at times. Were it not for them, I might not have known I wasn’t the only one who felt like an outsider.
Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds,” and it’s apt.
Signs of the times
More than 500,000 young people aged between 18-34 drifted away from Christian faith within a decade in Australia, and trends are similar in Canada and the United States.
Young people are crying out for a safe space to come to terms with their faith. But reports suggest they are coming up empty. They are finding themselves in a world “more complex than a simple, inherited or socialised faith could handle”, and in a church “borne of politics, unable to tolerate [their] questions and too caught up in attractional forms of ministry to be present wherever they are”, as one expert put it.
Is it any wonder that young adults are finding refuge in non-traditional voices who ask the same questions they are?
Making people into pariahs for questioning is more problematic than doubts themselves. The popularity of the culture of doubt may be just the wake-up call that the church needs.
Cheryl McGrath is a writer, editor, list-maker and blogger. She lives in Melbourne, works as a copywriter and has a background in editing and publishing. You can read more of her writing at TwentySixLetters.org.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.