Column Entry, Doubting Faith, by Mark Williams

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Column Title: Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance

Column Entry: “Doubting Faith”

By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento


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Doubting Faith

I am deeply impressed with the moral confidence of students protesting at the end of the last  semester.  To be clear, one can be impressed by something without entertaining the smallest hint of admiration; every time I listen to Donald Trump, it makes an impression on me. And therein lies an irony worth exploring because the thing that marks both the extremes on the Left and those on the Right is their unbending confidence, of course.

Faith is, by its very nature, foreign to the sort of closed intellectual certainties found in the MAGA crowd on the Right and the scope of identitarian causes on the Left.  In both groups, there is an absolute certainty in the propriety of their positions.  And that means both are utterly foreign to the depth, breadth, and relational substance of religious faith.  Take just a moment to think this through.

The very idea of faith in something is a profound admission of an absence of absolute certainty.  In fact, one of the outcomes of loving God is a requirement that we make our peace with uncertainty.  We say we are in a relationship with someone whom we ourselves admit is beyond all knowing, outside all space-time, beyond definition, without any peer, and, finally, unspeakable. There is, in the end, a Mystery here we cannot comprehend or even state adequately.

But there is even more to our hesitation than that.  We are called to compassion, and that calling requires a further descent into doubt and uncertainty.  Where someone else doubts the existence of God or challenges the goodness of God, or the goodness of Christians (the low-hanging fruit: well, duh!), then the Christian must respond with compassion. And compassion means feeling what that person feels. It means sincerely (not performatively) experiencing in one’s own body the tremors and doubts felt in that person’s soul.  The compassion of God is infinite.  In fact, in the theology of my Catholic faith, the compassion of God is so profound, and God enters so completely into the other’s pain and doubt that, at one point, he came to doubt himself.

Without such doubt, the incarnation would never have been complete.  One could make the case that, if I am certain of my faith, my faith has not yet travelled very far down the way of Christ.  Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani. 

So, when someone doubts, we understand such doubt.  That is what it means to have faith, to be on pilgrimage, to be in relationship.  We understand doubt, if we understand ourselves and if we understand faith, itself.

But what about those without doubt?  What about the inflexible certainties of the Left and Right today?  What does faith have to say in that environment?  If we know what faith says in such a moment, it may not be faith that is talking. It may be our own insecure need to keep doubt at bay and protect what we value.  But this is not the way of the cross.  At the crucifix, I surrender everything I value.

None of this means one cannot, also, have a robust confidence.  Who loses his life finds it.  That too is faith.  The Greek word is pistis and it means conviction, confidence. And here is a bit of trivia for us: Aristotle famously said that our convictions are based on careful reflection, well-trained emotion, and proven authorities who have a long, deep, and broad record in offering guidance that leads to a flourishing human life.  These three, (logos, pathos, and ethos, in Greek) he called pisteis—the plural of pistis.  These are the sources of conviction, they are “convictors.”  In Christian thought, they sit across from the accusers: they are the way to answer accusation without arrogance.

Such answers are not a source of consolation to those who walk the path of accusation because such accusations are rooted in unchallengeable certainty (Left and Right).  And every answer that comes from faith undermines that very certainty.  This is hard.  Calvin Troup, in his powerful essay “Humility and Hospitality: Two Conditions Necessary for the Possibility of Civility,” highlights a notable part of Augustine’s writings.[1]  In book 19 of the City of God, Augustine reminds his audience that faith is terribly challenging for those with unchallengeable certainty, and those who live by faith should acknowledge that.  We need to be honest: faith is hard precisely because it leaves us off balance and it is inconvenient because it throws the certainty of others off balance.

Faith requires the loss of those certainties we use to justify our accusations of others.  And if you just thought of someone else who does that, probably on the other side of your views, then it might be possible that you missed the point.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[1] Humility and Hospitality: Changing the Christian Conversation on Civility. Edited by Naaman Wood and Sean Connable (Integratio Press, 2022).

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