So the leader of the Anglican Communion sometimes doubts the existence of God.
The reporting of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s comments last week that sometimes he’s not really sure whether or not God’s there; or at least whether the Almighty intervenes in our world, made me like him even more.
Because there’s something beautifully human about doubt.
Even when you’re a fully signed-up evangelical like me.
Because I’m quite happy to join the Archy Bish in revealing that sometimes – occasionally while worshipping in a church service – a flicker of doubt will cross my mind. What if nobody’s there?
Maybe you’re shocked by this. But the chances are that you’re not. Because I think doubt is part and parcel of the human experience. You probably doubt too. And it’s ok.
I think back to the Michaelmas term of 2002 when I arrived in the theology faculty of Cambridge University, bright-eyed and excited about becoming an expert in All Things of the Lord.
But my first term at university saw just about everything I’d ever believed about Christianity ripped apart – the faith of my childhood demolished. I tried to cling onto my naïve kiddies’ Bible faith by attending as many church services on a Sunday as I could: the happy clappy Anglican, the conservative Christian Union church, the charismatic worship of the new churches and the occasional otherworldliness of evensong; all the while experiencing inner turmoil.
But then something – I believe that something was God – told me to let go, to not be anxious. To lean not on my own understanding. To trust that this jaw-droppingly stunning, omnipresent being was capable of surviving all the questions. I learnt little by little to strip away what was a simplistic, non-thinking faith from the God whose story we find whispering through the words of scripture.
I learnt the liberating truth of the words: ‘I don’t know.’
I’m in good company in thinking that doubt isn’t fatal to faith. Writing in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth writes: “But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it.”
I spent last weekend at the English home of the L’Abri Fellowship – a community founded in Switzerland in 1955 by evangelical theologian Dr Francis Schaeffer and his wife Edith. L’Abri – which is a French word meaning ‘shelter’ – is a place where “individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life”.
The L’Abri community acknowledges the questions rather than pretends there is never any doubt in the Christian life. Schaeffer himself is reported to have said: “In 1951 and 1952 I faced a spiritual crisis in my own life… I told Edith that for the sake of honesty I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter.”
The human mind is amazingly intelligent; and some brains will devote their entire lives to understanding God. But the truth is that even after a lifetime, none of them will come close to fully capturing who God is.
One of the things we as Christians find so infuriating about the New Atheist movement is their seeming inability to accept that they might be wrong – their refusal to let any doubt in. And that’s what they find so infuriating about us.
You see, when we claim to know everything and refuse to be moved even an inch from our pre-held suppositions; we become dogmatic fundamentalists. We become out of touch with reality. And we become unbearable to those who think differently from us.
Ultimately, we are people of faith; faith in spite of the occasional doubt. The Bible tells us so many times to have this faith. But faith is not weak; it’s not a cop-out. Faith doesn’t mean we are admitting that we’re probably wrong. The faith that the Bible speaks of is a robust faith – a faith that’s able to move mountains.
“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God” (Hebrews 11:1-40).
Increasingly for our generation, the questions people are asking about our Christianity are not about the dinosaurs or whether the world was created in six literal days or whether Jesus rose from the dead. But they are: ‘So what? What has any of it got to do with me?’
And here’s where I find yet further glimmers of hope. Because our Christianity can’t be based on certainties or explanations of things; but it will only attract others when they see a personal faith; one which transforms every area of our lives – doubts and all. I believe God’s there not only because He’s revealed something of Himself personally (incarnate onally) through the pages of scripture; but because it’s a faith that continues to transform me day by day. I can’t be certain of any of it, but as my mum says, I ‘know it in my knower’.
We are not the omniscient ones – God alone is.