A Paean to Doubt


Kyle Cupp at The Week has an interesting post in which he celebrates Pope Francis for bringing uncertainty about God to Catholicism:

In fact, Pope Francis has explicitly endorsed doubt in the life of faith. In a 2013 interview published in America Magazine, the pontiff said that the space where one finds and meets God must include an area of uncertainty. For him, to say that you have met God with total certainty or that you have the answers to all questions is a sign that God is not with you. Be uncertain, he counsels. Let go of exaggerated doctrinal “security.” A devout faith must be an uncertain faith:

The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: “God is here.” We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever.

The pope has taken a risk with all this, but not without reason. If God really is infinite and indescribable, as Catholicism and other religious traditions imagine, then an uncertain faith makes sense. At the end of the day, those who talk about God really do not know what they’re talking about. People refer to God with symbols and metaphors, stories and analogies, believing that these limited expressions disclose a limitless reality, but even if these expressions are true, they nonetheless differ infinitely from any infinite being. Undoubtedly, a lot gets lost in translation.

Go here to read the rest.  There is something in this.  Our ignorance of God is vast.  I sometimes think that the truest uninspired words penned by a man about God were these written by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

However, note my use of the term “uninspired”.  Catholicism is a religion of revelation.  What we say about God is not dreamed up by Man.  It is based on revelations by God to Man, most spectacularly when God became Man, and walked among us.  A pope introducing uncertainty in a Church seeking to adhere as close as possible to these revelations is a disaster, and points out the differences between the musings of a Jesuit in Argentina, and the statements of the head of the Universal Church.  A pope’s task is not to point out what we do not know about God, but to teach and defend what we do know about God based upon what God has told us.

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  1. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Abraham Lincoln.
    Jesus said to test everything, putting all things into the hands of God. Atheism says that to put all things into the hands of God is offensive. Man’s imperfection must not be acknowledged. Man’s dependence upon God for Truth and Justice must not be confirmed. God’s Divine Providence must not be invoked. Our Declaration of Independence specifically instructs American citizens to invoke Divine Providence: ” We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
    The atheist must be tolerated. Atheism is unconstitutional according to the First Amendment: “or prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

  2. Thomas Aquinas said that man cannot comprehend an infinite God with a finite mind. Acknowledging a finite mind in man only results in a recognition of man’s dependence upon a Supreme Sovereign Being. (There can be only one Supreme Sovereign Being as two would preempt one another.)
    Any person who prohibits man’s response to the gift of Faith from God is forfeiting his own civil rights by reason of prohibiting another’s pursuit of Happiness.

  3. Open wide the doors of indifferent-(ism)

    Your argument Mr. McClarey is sound.
    The risks that Pope Francis is taking by eluding to the doubts of knowing with any certainty what God desires from his creation opens a can of worms that can only muddy the clear waters of sanctifying grace. If people read indifference in the Popes words, he is only hindering their progress to Truth.

  4. Some words are metaphors and don’t fully exhaust what the meaning of the thing is but call our mind to something else. So there is always some doubt as to whether we have completely (or even adequately) captured what the essence of a thing is. When we say that Jesus is the rock of salvation, we don’t me he is made of minerals. Rather, he is our foundation.

    But some words actually do convey a meaning – they are not mere conventions to express some uncertain concept. When we say the word God, then we can actually form ideas about his nature as uncreated being, infinite, omnipotent, etc. Ideas that express real truths that we can hold.

  5. good thinking Donald McClarey.
    To me, not-knowing-completely is not the same as Doubt. We can admit freely that we don’t know everything about God, without saying that we doubt God.

    At some point we make a decision to believe. Sometimes the thoughts of our hearts are advance parties for the thoughts of our heads.

  6. Seems that the obvious error this approach (no one can know God) risks is equating lack of full knowledge of God with the inability to know anything about God with certainty. Sure, it is obvious that a finite mind cannot know everything about an infinite subject with certainty. But a finite mind can know some things, with certainty, about an infinite subject. I’d take partial certainty over infinite doubt any day of the week.

  7. To wrestle with and acknowledge doubt strikes me as sensible. But it loses me when it offers doubt as a positive good, or an essential component of a healthy, living faith.

  8. Doubt is good when it causes us to study and seek out more of the truth. And more truth can lead to more doubt which starts the seeking for the answer and the gaining of more truth, etc…doubt does not have to result in lessening our faith.

  9. I would suggest that the word “doubt” is ill-chosen, but it points to a real experience, as B John Henry Newman points out: “Notions are but aspects of things; the free deductions from one of these necessarily contradicts the free deductions from another. After proceeding in our investigations a certain way, suddenly a blank or a maze presents itself before the mental vision, as when the eye is confused by the varying slides of a telescope. Thus, we believe in the infinitude of the Divine Attributes, but we can have no experience of infinitude as a fact; the word stands for a definition or a notion. Hence, when we try how to reconcile in the moral world the fulness of mercy with exactitude in sanctity and justice, or to explain that the physical tokens of creative skill need not suggest any want of creative power, we feel we are not masters of our subject.”

    That is not to doubt the Object, but our grasp of it and the adequacy of our language.

  10. I can think of a place where I can say, “God is here”: the Eucharist.

    I’m not a fan of Lincoln, but for what it’s worth, there was more truth in the uninspired Lincoln quote than in the uninspired Francis quote.

  11. I understand that Joseph Ratzinger began his “Introduction to Christianity” with an entire chapter on “Doubt.”

  12. I think it was John Henry Newman, certainly a reasonable man, a champion of human reasoning, and one who faced the difficulties as he inched his way toward the Catholic Church. And it was he who made it a point to argue that, however many the difficulties in understanding the faith professed by Catholics, difficulties are not doubts. There’s a great difference between struggling to grasp how there can be One God who is the Trinity of Persons. One has but to study the earliest Councils of the Church, from Nicaea to Chalcedon, the period during which the this question was argued. How can one teach in a language which human reason can grasp, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are One God, without division and without confusion. The truth of the Gospel is not against nor is it a denial of human reason; if what we call “Revelation” is to have meaning, the Lord who speaks must speak a language acceptable by reasonable people, whose assent is an act of reason assenting what is certain. A thousand difficulties do not make a single doubt.

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