The Benefit of the Doubt:
How Religious Doubts Can Lead to a More Mature Faith
By Martin Thielen
An abbreviated version of this article was originally published at Spirituality and Health.
“I have doubts. I have such doubts.”
—Final words of Sister Aloysius in the 2008 Academy Award-winning film Doubt
“But some doubted.”
Even though I am an ordained minister, I have struggled with religious doubt most of my life. In fact, I consider myself an expert on the subject. If degrees could be earned for doubt, I would have a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate. With postdoctoral studies.
As a doubting clergyperson, I could tell you many interesting things about religious skepticism. For example, among religious believers, doubt is predictable, inevitable, and often painful. But the most important thing I can tell you is that doubt can serve as a life-giving, growth-enhancing, spiritually enriching gift. I like to call this the benefit of the doubt.
Doubts about Holy Scripture
After my baptism at a conservative evangelical church at the age of fifteen, I did exactly what my church told me to do. I read my Bible every day and took it literally. And what I read deeply troubled me. I discovered that in “Holy Scripture” God condones slavery, commands genocide, oppresses women, tortures unbelievers, causes catastrophes, condemns homosexuals, and engages in many other troubling behaviors.
For example, I was mortified by the story about a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath. In response to this trivial infraction, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death.’ . . . The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded” (Numbers 15:35–36 NRSV). Although it’s been fifty years since I first read that disturbing story, I still remember wondering, What kind of ethical and loving God would do that?
I felt similar revulsion when I read the story about a group of boys teasing the prophet Elisha for being bald (2 Kings 2). Their punishment? Being violently ripped to shreds and eaten alive by wild bears. Hundreds of other deeply disturbing examples could be given. Still, I faithfully read my Bible every day, cover to cover, concluding with Jesus violently massacring legions of people during end times in the book of Revelation. Even though I was just a teenager and a new Christian, I instinctively knew something wasn’t right.
Eventually, my doubts about the Bible produced positive results. They helped me realize that Scripture (in spite of my church’s claims to the contrary) is not a magical “inerrant” book dropped from heaven. Instead, the Bible is a human document with all the scientific, cultural, and theological limitations of its ancient time frame. This crucial insight, born of religious doubt, helps thinking Christians appreciate the beauty of sacred Scripture while avoiding the destructive results of scriptural literalism, including fundamentalist claims that homosexuals are an “abomination” and that women should “submit” to their husbands and “keep silent” in church.
Doubts about Doctrinal Beliefs
The same principle is true when it comes to religious doctrines. For years I felt guilty that I could not believe all of the theological affirmations found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, in spite of my sincere desire to do so. In fact, I once divided up the Apostles’ Creed into twenty-one faith affirmations. Next to each one I wrote “believe,” “don’t believe,” or “uncertain.” I won’t share the exact numbers, which have changed over time. But I was troubled by the relatively low percentage of “believe” notations. However, I eventually saw the benefit of that skepticism.
Healthy doubt can save people from many toxic beliefs. For example, Christians need to doubt the horrific idea that God eternally torments people in the flames of hell for holding erroneous beliefs. Or that non-Christian and nonreligious people have no hope in this life or the next. Or that God required a violent and bloody sacrifice of God’s Son in order to forgive sins.
Doubt can also release people from outdated and incredulous beliefs like Jesus’s bodily ascension into the sky. How would that even be possible? We know from the Hubble and Webb space telescopes that the sky is made up of endless space and countless galaxies. There is no heavenly throne up in the sky where Jesus “is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” Healthy doubt helps people realize that these kinds of antiquated, prescientific, fourth-century creedal beliefs are not required in the modern era. Twenty-first-century Christians no longer have to believe that God is, in the words of Brian McClaren, “that old big white guy on a throne in the sky.”
Doubts about Institutional Religion
Another benefit of the doubt concerns institutional religion. For many people, faith is explicitly connected to the church. But this presents significant problems. Why? Because Christianity has a deeply blemished history including the crusades, the inquisition, witch burnings, and religious wars. American Christianity added support of slavery, abuse of Native Americans, backing of Jim Crow laws, resistance to civil rights, and “God and America” nationalism. And that sordid record continues into the present.
For example, in recent years in America, the evangelical church has participated in malignant culture wars and destructive partisan politics. The Roman Catholic Church has engaged in a massive pedophile priest scandal and cover-up. And the mainline church has splintered over human sexuality in a spirit of hostile rancor. These kinds of never-ending ecclesiastical failures remind me of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.” Given these sad realities, doubts about institutional religion are both justified and necessary.
I’m not saying religion is inherently unhealthy. Many churches and other religious entities build community, provide meaning, encourage compassion, and seek justice. I’ve seen firsthand that religion does a lot of good in the world, including my own personal world. But even the best religious expressions, like all human endeavors, are a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Therefore, harboring healthy skepticism about the church, including its holy book and creeds, helps people embrace the best of religion while avoiding the worst.
Finding Resolution for Doubt
For many decades I (like many other clergy and laypeople) agonized over questions like, Is God personal? Does God intervene in human affairs? Do miracles occur? Does prayer make any difference? Is there life after death? And was Jesus really divine? I also grappled with the dark underbelly of institutional religion, which deeply wounded me (but also richly blessed me).
These struggles continued through my early sixties. They finally came to a head one night in a vivid dream. In my dream I found myself working at a church. For some bizarre reason, they met on the top of the building, on a steep-pitched roof. As hard as I tried, I could not keep my balance. On multiple occasions I almost fell off the roof. One time I had to grab a tree branch to keep from falling. Another time I slipped and almost fell to my death but managed to grab the gutter just in time. Other people navigated the roof without any problem, but not me. When I woke up, the message felt crystal clear. I could no longer keep my balance in church work. A few months later I took early retirement.
Although that resolved my vocational dilemma, it did not solve my religious angst. In an effort to make progress on that front, I created Doubter’s Parish website and wrote a novel titled An Inconvenient Loss of Faith. Both served as effective therapy for my religious doubts. During that time of transition, I made a major breakthrough. I came to realize that authentic Christianity is not primarily about a book, a creed, or an institution. Instead, it’s about a way of life.
This insight hit me as I reread the New Testament. Freed from vocational restraints, I was able to fully see (for the first time) that Jesus cared little about traditional religious trappings. For example, his “Great Commandment” (to love God and neighbor), his “Golden Rule” (to treat others the way we want them to treat us), and his core teachings (as seen in the Sermon on the Mount), had virtually nothing to do with conventional religious concerns. Religiosity didn’t interest Jesus. Ethical and loving behavior did.
Finding Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity
These days I no longer fret about organized religion or its doctrines. The religious angst I carried for decades has finally disappeared. I’ve come to realize that while conventional religion can be helpful and has its place—for followers of Jesus—it’s not the main thing. Instead, living a life of love (kindness, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, inclusion, service, and justice) is what matters most. In short, loving behavior—not books, beliefs, or institutions—is the core essence of healthy spirituality. As Mark Karris wisely concludes in his book Religious Refugees, “After religion is no more and all of the hay and stubble of humanity’s religious creations are burned up, all that will remain is love.” Jesus would concur.
A few years ago I came across a quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes that has come to mean a lot to me. He said, “I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
After many decades of grappling with faith, I feel like I have finally journeyed through the complexity and found simplicity on the other side. I now realize that I will never understand all the mysteries of God, nor do I need to. Instead, I only need to follow the call of Jesus to live a life of love. It’s as simple as that. And it is enough.
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