Michael Spencer has had some helpful things to say in the past couple of days on the subject of doubt, certainty and belief. He talks of those who equate faith and certainty, and who imply that “you can’t consider yourself a true believer until you really really really believe with absolute undoubted undaunted infallible certainty”:
The “I believe more and better than you do” contest is the equivalent of pulling off shirts and comparing muscles. Who’s really really really been in the gym.
Sola fide? Simple faith? The faith of a child? The faith of a sinner? The gift of faith to imperfect human beings? Existential faith that meets doubts? Not allowed. Absolute, unwavering certainty or here’s your sign, you pomo sissy.
But as Michael points out, the creed does not require us to confess:
I believe, with absolute certainty, in God the Father…
This is a liberating insight. It’s so easy to get bullied into accepting the proposition that “faith == certainty”, and that any admission of uncertainty is tantamount to unbelief.
Now, I tend not to think of myself as someone who (like Mr Prendergast in Decline and Fall) has Doubts. And on an intellectual level, I generally don’t. Give me a copy of the Nicene Creed or the Small Catechism and I can happily subscribe to every word. But on another level, there are times when I find myself haunted by the words of the doubting bishop in Father Ted: “Ah, Ted, it’s all bollocks, y’know”.
That may sound like I’m trivialising things, but that phrase captures the general, unfocused fear that there might, after all, be nothing and no-one there. That death is simply extinction (and my fear of death is a large driver for this), that Christianity is simply all one ghastly mistake, and that the picture of an impassive universe stretching on into future billions of years for no purpose will prove to be correct.
What is it that brings me back from this? Well, it’s certainly not being told that “faith == certainty” and that I should jolly well buck my ideas up and start being more “certain”. Instead, it’s the process described in Article V of the Augsburg Confession, which follows immediately on from Article IV’s confession of justification by faith:
So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel…
In other words, faith isn’t something we are to try to work up in ourselves. It isn’t some inner state of certainty to which we somehow attain. God, in his mercy towards us, does not require us to hold within our heads at one moment the whole truth of Christianity, and to assent to it. Rather, he comes to us with concrete, audible promises: “Your sins are forgiven”; “Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”; “This is my body, given for you… this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. Faith is believing the promise we are hearing right now.
This is why it is so important that the church is clear in proclaiming this promise. For those who (as Boris Johnson once put it) find that their faith “is like Magic FM in the Chilterns: it comes and goes”, how crucial it is that, when they do find themselves in church, they hear a clear promise to which their wavering faith can attach itself.
Alert readers may have spotted that the title to this post alludes to the title of Richard Holloway’s book, Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity?. Well, doubts and loves are fine, but we need faith as well. The tragedy of someone like Bp Holloway, with his rejection of almost every Christian doctrine, is that he silences the promises on which faith depends. Doubt (as in a lack of 100%, cast-iron certainty) is not the enemy: false teaching, a pulpit that denies the gospel rather than proclaiming it, is.