Distinguishing doubt is important. Sometimes we doubt ourselves. Other times we doubt others. Even on occasion we doubt God. We may not doubt God’s existence. We may doubt his presence, his nearness. As a young boy I wrestled with doubt. I really never doubted if there were a god. I tended to doubt myself in relationship to the God in whom I believed.
When I read Scot McKnight recommend Robert N. Wennberg’s little book, Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters, I went over and ordered it. It is a book I do wish had been written almost 30 years ago. The particular branch of the Christian tradition of my experience did not give space to doubt. Doubt represented sin or a lack of belief. We did not mention doubt. In fact, I recall hearing an evangelist at youth camp declare doubt an indication a person had really not been converted. He did not bother to help us distinguish our doubts. Instead, it was an occasion for more conversions if we classified all doubt as a demonstration of a lack of faith.Over the years I learned to distinguish the doubt of skepticism and existential doubt. It is this issue Wennberg takes up. He marks out early the book is not an apologetic. It is for those who experience existential doubt. It would have been a great book for me. And, it was good for me to read all these years later. I have already lent my copy out for reading. So, from the notes in my Moleskine I offer a few, though not exhaustive, thoughts.
First, for Wennberg existential doubt is best illustrated by the experience and writing of Saint John of the Cross and his reference to a “dark night of the soul.” The reality in question was our experience of the nearness of God. While Wennberg suggests some never experience such a night, he acknowledges many indeed do.
Second, Wennberg pointed out the “undulations” of the human experience. Our “troughs” or valleys create a good number of questions. And, considering the variety of causes for those troughs we honestly wonder, “where is God?” Wennberg offers Mother Teresa as an illustration. In her zeal to follow Jesus and his call to her to care for the poor in Calcutta she pressed forward for the creation of her order. Always refreshed by a sense of the nearness of Jesus Mother Teresa was emboldened. Then, after enjoining others to share the love of Jesus to those in great poverty she entered a period where that same nearness seemed all but lost. Wennberg seemed to wonder if Jesus was indeed near to her as she was aided to become empathic through her experience of an absence of God.
Third, Wennberg makes a point some would as soon ignore. “Certainty and hope are incompatible.” A friend saw me “Tweet” that quote and he noted he had a “hope for certainty.” It is a simple and maybe too simple an illustration, but hoping for, say, a particular item or experience takes a back seat to my realized experience of that particular item or experience. One in my hand, it is no longer hoped for. It is the activity of the Spirit of God that mediates to us a sense of confidence in that for which we hope. But, short of its very real present experience, it remains a hope and not a certainty until it is mine.
Wennberg does a good job of helping to think through the experience and implications of existential doubt, the dark night of the soul and the need for a theology of absence. With helpful and occasionally provocative chapter titles, Wennberg may be of help to you should you be wrestling through one of those dark nights.
Thanks to Scot for the recommendation on his blog.