Many persons who lack faith claim to be disturbed by those of us who have it. In some cases, this is because the unbeliever fails to understand the nature of a religious faith. In others, the unbeliever misunderstands or misconstrues an important characteristic of religious faith: inasmuch as it is unprovable by its nature, it is inseparable from doubt. Then there are those who simply like to mock us, but they’re best left to another essay.
Certainty is an infinitely precious jewel, regardless of what it is we’d like to be certain about. When the subject is the supernatural, the existence of God, the nature of the Divine Plan, the properties of the afterlife, et cetera, certainty under the veil of Time is impossible. I could go into a long disquisition about this, but that, too, is best left to another essay. So for one who professes a faith to be struck now and then by doubts is entirely understandable. Sometimes, our responses to such doubts have an outward manifestation that puzzles those who don’t share our faith.
Occasionally, doubt overwhelms faith. I know people who’ve suffered the loss of their faith. My phrasing is deliberate: having lost their faith caused them suffering that I could observe. In each case a shaft of doubt was responsible. They were unable to overcome the wound, and so lost something that had been a vital component of their metaphysical premises. It hurt them. In several cases it turned them bitter.
Religious faith is not a baby’s blanket. It does not provide warmth and comfort at no cost. Indeed, the cost of a mature faith, to one of high intelligence, is considerable. And in this as in so many other areas of life, he who refuses to do the work will be denied the achievement.
This is on my mind this morning for two reasons. The first is this essay, which I encountered at Mike Hendrix’s place. The second is what has often been called the Problem of Pain, or alternately the Problem of Evil. Many an unbeliever is thwarted by one or the other of these things. They ask “Why would a benevolent God create a universe in which His beloved people suffer?” or “If God is all good, then why does He tolerate evil?” Militant atheists hurl these questions at us like spears, secure in their conviction that they are insuperable…which they are not.
The belief that Divine omnipotence makes a universe without pain or evil possible is at the core of the problem. Yes, a universe without pain or evil is possible. However it would lack the dimension of time, and the human attribute of free will.
Our temporal universe possesses natural laws and the dimension of time. Time makes change possible. But natural laws – behavioral patterns built into all matter and energy – mean that change will sometimes be painful. Consider death as the most dramatic example.
Free will is inherent in each man’s awareness of his individuality. Without it we would be automata without a moral-ethical nature. With it, evil – the choice to do harm to undeserving others – is possible. Combine free will with time, and the matter becomes clear.
But these propositions are not provable in the mathematical sense. In a way they are as much elements of faith as is any statement about the supernatural. We can observe the world around us for as long as we like without seeing a disconfirming event. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t see one if we were to observe just a little longer. So while we may have a high degree of confidence in these concepts, we can never regard them as proven.
This is both the case for faith and the case for doubt. For the reasons above, he who holds to a faith will occasionally be afflicted by doubt. The two conditions can never be separated permanently, death as a trivial exception.
It is not unusual, for the reasons given above, for believers to strive to reassure themselves. Doubt is like that; if the proposition affected is important enough to the one stricken by doubt, he will strive to dispel it by one or another means. This is as observable in the sciences as it is in religious matters.
The responses to a shaft of doubt are of many kinds. Some strike the more intelligent unbeliever as a manifestation of low intelligence: an “I can’t hear you / go away” reply to an objection that should be grappled with through reason and evidence. Sometimes that’s true, even if it’s unkind. But in many cases it’s merely an expression of the believer’s irritation at having to fend off arguments he’s heard and dismissed on quite enough occasions already.
We are at the beginning of Advent, a time when Christians prepare themselves to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ in mortal flesh. It’s common for doubt to manifest at this time, in part because of the militancy of militant atheists during this season and because the season itself presents special challenges. There’s no reason to think you’ll be exempted from that aspect of the “Christmas rush.” But the plus side is considerable: Faith grows stronger for being tested and surviving. It’s a frequently overlooked blessing.
May God bless and keep you all.