Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Strategy of Doubt

In 1908 G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy wrote (p. 55):

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert -- himself.

That was a hundred years ago, when doubt was amoeba-like compared to the fully grown creature it has become today.  Doubt is not a positive trait in the New Testament.

Romans 14:23 And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

James 1:6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

The middle voice of diakrino most expresses what we would understand now as doubt, reflexive action, someone arguing with himself.  It is translated "wavering" in James 1:6.  It is expressed in Romans 14 as the opposite of faith.

On the other hand, certainty is positive.  Nowhere does the Bible says it's bad to be sure.

Hebrews 3:6 But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.

Hebrews 6:19 Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil;

2 Peter 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

I'm not talking about the strategy that doubt possesses.  I am talking about doubt as a strategy.   We know Satan wanted Eve to doubt.  But today doubt is being portrayed as a positive trait, the skepticism that authors scientific empiricism.  Doubt leads to investigation leads to discovery leads to benefit.  That's all fine as it applies to mankind.  We're all free to be skeptics of opinion.  When we see a deal too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true.  It's important that the White House press corp have a healthy dose of skepticism in what they presently hear from Jay Carney on a daily basis.

There are things that are doubtful, but they are not scriptural things that are doubtful.  We can dispute in non-scriptural matters, paper or plastic, Heat or Pacers, Jim Harbaugh or John Harbaugh, okra:  fried or boiled.   Doubt doesn't relate to God.  We may doubt, but it isn't what God wants from us.  He wants surety, certainty, as it relates to Him.  It doesn't mean that we can't question ourselves, but we shouldn't expect doubt with reference to God.  After Job's friends got through with him, he had doubts, but God came along with the certainty, the assurance that God gives.

You've heard it said that the only two certain things are death and taxes, but we know that not to be true.  And I say "know."  We're certain that death and taxes are not all that is sure.  But that's what many say and would want others to think.   People use doubt to fulfill their purposes.  To sell soap, you might want people unsure about cleanliness.   If you're not sure about the lock on your front door,  that might sell you a security system.  Uncertainty is being brought into the equation by those who need it to buttress a point.  It's curious to see doubt buttress anything, but certain highly valued outlooks require doubt.   Here are three:  

A Strategy as Opportunity for Lust

People want what they want, but authority gets in the way of what they want.  To diminish authority, they cast doubt.  They attack the spokesman.  They attack clarity.  They attack dogmatism.  In the world, the attack is all-out.  Question authority.  The infamous modernist Gertrude Stein wrote:

There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.

Ironically, the merchants of doubt, and they are con men, have marshaled the evidence of science to further their agendas.

Peter said that doubt is important for lust when he described the scoffers walking after their own lusts (2 Pet 3:3).   Solomon said, hear your mother and father, hear your mother and father, hear your mother and father, and then there is a strange woman.  Strange women come along, and we need to listen to our parents to help avoid her.  Lust is held back by someone who will step in, unlike what Eli did with his sons.  He restrained them not.

While people are trying to decide what they believe, because they are not sure, they can use that liberty to do whatever they wish.  At some point in the future, they might get it figured out, but the doubt, in the meantime, has a very liberating effect.  They call this freedom.

We can't be sure what is right and wrong music.  Convenient.  Lust likes wrong music.  Doubt works nicely to protect all sorts of behavior.

What is modest and what is immodest?  I don't know.  So you can't judge me, because this is uncertain.  You're dealing in "doubtful disputations." Meanwhile, I'll be at the beach.  And since we can't be sure where to draw the line, my blue jeans and shorts will be good enough for church.  Again, don't judge me without the certainty that must be required for such matters.

A Strategy for Popular Coalitions

I listened to someone "preach" about unity recently at one of the most conservative church conferences in the United States.  And he said that unity was an internal thing, a spiritual thing.  This was a conservative preaching.  It can all be reduced to salvation, to the gospel, to the entrance requirements for heaven.  So there we go.  You'll hear this described as "core driven."

Doubt about what scripture says is a strategy, first, to keep the wrong view of unity alive, and, second, to make way for popular coalitions. 

There is doubt about eschatology, about ecclesiology, about pneumatology, about divorce and remarriage, about standards of living, even about what scripture is.  So you can't be dogmatic.  Dogmatism causes disunity.  You'll have people separating over baptism, over the Lord's Table, over the nature of the husband-wife relationship, over church polity, and everyone knows we can't have that.  We've got to have unity.  And we've got to have unity, because we'll be isolated, and then we'll be ineffective.

With doubt, we can get along with almost everyone.  We'll be more popular.  Our coalition will be bigger. We'll seem like a greater success.  Doubt is a means to an end.

On the other hand, the more sure you are, the more people you exclude.  Exclusion means smaller.  Smaller means less influence.

Doubt comes in handy here.

If you get too small, you can't meet payroll.  You might lose your job.  You might have to become bi-vocational.  If you're bi-vocational, people won't think you're a success.  If you're big, you can sell books.  More people will buy your books.  People who you exclude don't buy your books.  That's why certain books aren't even published.  They are too narrow.  To be sold, the book needs to be a little more broad, which requires more doubt.  You get the picture.  Doubt is a strategy.

A Strategy for a Bigger Church

This is related to the second one.  I've recently talked about a sweet spot, the sweet spot between the assurance of salvation and pet worldly desires.  People want to go to heaven, so you've got to be sure about how to get there.  Set.  People don't want to look like oddballs, so you can't be sure about worldliness, about application of scripture on cultural issues.  Match.   People want to miss hell, so you've got to maintain certainty about that.  Check.  People want all the convenience and comfort that anyone else in the world has and can still be a Christian.  Checkmate.  This explains the church growth movement.

Unity in essentials.  Essentials are a shrinking list, as short as the menu at the hot dog stand.  Liberty in non-essentials.  Non-essentials are a catalog the size of the dewey decimal system.   These are the biggest churches.  Since they're big, they must be right, right?

Doubt has become a new currency for success.  It's a credit card you can swipe again and again.  Men by nature don't want any bosses.  They want to operate as a free agent with no controlling legal authority, as Al Gore once described the vice presidential residence from which he made campaign phone calls.

I'm finding that folks don't just want space for doubt.  They want you to respect their doubt as a higher form of theological formation.  Their doubt gives room for contradicting positions.  It's an eclectic taste of paisley with greek key thrown in.  They do nuance.  Sometimes they just haven't decided, because it doesn't really matter.  They're not sure when to go at a four way stop.  People in no hurry to get there are so much cooler than punctual, fashionably operating at their own pace.

Certainty be damned in a postmodern society.  Diversity is strength.  Variety is a spice of life.  Surety is burning a question mark in the front lawn.  Doubt is a strategy to be employed.


Jonathan Speer said...

Thanks for this article. You make several good points with which I agree.

I'll share an anecdote about how I have seen uncertainty used in a church.

Over a year ago, I was attempting to have a thoughtful Biblical discussion regarding Calvinism with the newly elected pastor, but we couldn't make any headway because the "leadership" kept arguing from a position of uncertainty. In other words, every time I would make a declaration based solidly upon scripture, their response invariably began with "We can't know how ______ happens" or "We don't know _______ because _________ is a hidden mystery of God."

In an attempt to keep the church as big as possible, their strongest points were maintained through uncertainty.

(It was not a true uncertainty, though, because they knew full well what they believed and why they believed it, but they couldn't articulate their beliefs openly because it would have led to their loss of "leadership.")


Your last section on bigness as a goal reminded me of a message I delivered a couple of years ago at a small church near my house.

I used as my text Mark 9:42-50 and addressed a common philosophy that says "Just because ___________ am/is a Christian doesn't mean ____________ shouldn't be able to do _____________." This is a justification many parents use so that their children will be able to participate in things they were sheltered from as youths. It is also used by many church leaders to justify involvement with false teachers or adopting programs or methods that are unscriptural.

The application I made to the church was that precisely because we ARE Christains we ought to "handicap" ourselves in this world. But we should not handicap for handicap's sake. We should have a purpose to our handicaps: so that we will be the kind of salt and light that is useful to a lost and dying world, among other things.

The idea of "dying to self" amongst church leadership, and then it's membership, has largely been replaced with living only for self and anyone who is living for themselves has never done much good for anyone but themselves.

In Christ,


Great post. It made me think of Luke's prologue.
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a DECLARATION of those things which are most SURELY BELIEVED among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were EYEWITNESSES, and ministers of THE WORD; It seemed good to me also, having had PERFECT UNDERSTANDING of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest KNOW the CERTAINTY of those things, wherein thou hast been INSTRUCTED (Luke 1:1-4).