How the Bible doesn't do doubt

Preparing for my talk at Greenbelt, yesterday, I thought to see what the New Testament has to say about doubt. I was surprised. It turns out, nothing at all – at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in ‘I doubt x is true’.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean ‘being of two minds’ or ‘disputing so as to cause division’. This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do ‘not doubt in your heart’, it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick – as if it’s saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, literally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads ‘you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea’. That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, holding to your deepest commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the use of words like diakrino and distazo are reflections on belief as a way of life not truth statements. The irony is that holding to a way of life will involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing – actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it’s like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of dark matter. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depends upon it. I understood why Rowan Williams remarked, when we spoke to him making our radio programmes on doubt, that faith is close to doubt.

What’s required is keeping faith – faith too not being about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

Most of my talk was about why we now think faith is a question of rational proof rather than courageous commitment, and I think it turns on the modern notion that the truth of life is discovered by stepping back from life, seeking a ‘view from nowhere’, rather than stepping into life and participating in it. This leads to the sense that doubt, not knowing, uncertainty is a kind of failure, rather than integral to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

But as Martin Luther, no less, realised, ‘Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.’