John Chapman on “despising” our doubts

I mentioned John Chapman’s Spiritual Letters in a previous post, since when I’ve taken delivery of my copy of the book. Some good stuff in there, though equally I haven’t fully got my head round Abbot Chapman’s concept of contemplative prayer.

One particularly helpful strand relates to Abbot Chapman’s advice to those doubting the Faith. Not in the sense of having intellectual doubts about particular doctrines, so much as the more general sense that – as I’ve written about before“It’s all nonsense, Ted.”

Chapman’s response to this is robust:

I should advise you simply to despise temptations against the Faith, and not take them seriously. Those “flashes” mean nothing at all, as you have rightly perceived. (pp.40f.)

He expands on this in a later letter (no doubt the letter to which Rowan Williams was alluding in his lecture), where he writes:

In the 17th-18th centuries most pious souls seem to have gone through a period in which they felt sure that God had reprobated them. … This doesn’t seem to happen nowadays.

But the corresponding trial of our contemporaries seems to be the feeling of not having any faith; not temptations against any particular article (usually), but a mere feeling that religion is not true. It is an admirable purgative, just as the 18th cent. one was; it takes all pleasure out of spiritual exercises, and strips the soul naked. It is very unpleasant. …

The only remedy is to despise the whole thing, and pay no attention to it – except (of course) to assure our Lord that one is ready to suffer from it as long as He wishes, which seems an absurd paradox to say to a Person one doesn’t believe in! But then, that is the trial. Faith is really particularly strong all the time. (p.47)

(Note: the emphasis on “despise” is in the original, in both the above quotations.)

Now, clearly, that advice is not for everyone. Where someone has genuine questions about a particular teaching, that needs to be addressed seriously. But where it is just that general sense that “It’s all nonsense, Ted!”, then Chapman’s advice simply “to despise the whole thing and pay no attention to it” seems sound.

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3 Responses to John Chapman on “despising” our doubts

  1. Jeremy says:

    To which the “it’s all nonsense, Ted” voice replies: You’re just shutting off your mind. Deluding yourself so that you can hold onto your beliefs.

    Which is a reasonable reply. I’m not trying to be provocative. I’m just sayin’ …

  2. John H says:

    Jeremy: Oh, quite. But there comes a point where you have to just tell yourself to snap out of it, put down the book (or turn off the PC), go out into the garden and drink a beer. 🙂

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    C.S. Lewis wrote a great piece called “An Obstinacy of Belief” where he dealt with some of these questions. To some degree, he thought human nature had to be fought by anyone, Christian, atheist, or otherwise, in order not to just end up as a flake. (Okay, he did not use the word “flake.” But it expresses a few paragraphs of what he wrote quickly.) For him the line lay between losing commitment over momentary doubts and losing it over the entire case appearing lost over an extended period of time. In the latter case, a person should switch allegiances. But this was a rare occurrence. In the meantime, we should be obstinate.

    I found this one year when I was reading a lot of atheist literature for apologetic reasons. I found satisfactory answers to my questions as I worked them through. But after a lot of reading, I noticed a skeptical tinge had taken over my thinking. Something very different from dealing with one of the robust arguments from one of the books. As has been said before, “How do you refute a sneer?”

    You don’t. You ignore it. You move on. If you are a committed believer, then pray like one. Surely we’ve read stiffer arguments than, “It’s all nonsense, Ted,” and found answers. But answers take time. And right now we can’t be bothered.

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