From ancient times, theologians have had a motto, “Faith seeking understanding.” As followers of Jesus we don’t start from doubt or from skepticism. We don’t even start from a position of knowing nothing, from a blank slate. We start from faith. Our faith may be at its beginning stages, it may be mature, it may be hard-won, it may be bursting at the seams. But we start from faith. Starting form that position, we then seek to understand that which we believe. Sometimes the understanding comes easily and quickly. Sometimes it takes a long time to gain some understanding, and we’re left with more that we don’t understand. We take more on faith than we can explain. When we see things way, questioning is an expression of faith (as it seeks understanding), not a challenge to it.
In saying this about questioning, I don’t think I’m saying the same thing as some who speak up for doubt as a Christian virtue. Doubts, like questions, are not best dealt with through a strategy of repression. Doubts can lead to questions. Sometimes, however, doubts are merely allowed to lie there. Faith is our starting point. Understanding is our ending point. Seeking is the work of exploration and questioning that leads from the one to the other.
There are some aspects of our faith that we do simply take “on faith.” A doubt or set of doubts might arise, calling attention to one of these aspects we had never closely considered before. (Doubt is by no means the only instrument that calls attention to our assumptions. Other instigators of questioning can be love, joy, and simple curiosity.) In this role doubt is not a fusillade of questions to bring down the edifice of faith, though if doubt is unaccompanied by a desire to understand and an underlying trust in God, it might do just that. Rather, doubt says, “Consider this. It doesn’t seem to fit. We need to look more closely.”
The overcoming of doubts would be the arrival at a state where one could say, “I have considered this issue and explored it to a degree that I have reached satisfactory understanding.” What counts as a “satisfactory understanding” is relative to where we stand in our faith and where the particular issue sits in relation to our faith. If it is a marginal issue, a satisfactory understanding can be still attended by many doubts and continuing questions. The solidity of our faith lies elsewhere. If, however, the issue is of greater weight or more central to our faith, the substantial that satisfactory understanding will need to be.
Some questions we ask are our own, some come from outside us. Some of those that come from outside us do not originate in faith – or at least in anything we recognize as faith. They come to us, to where we stand, as challenges, as provocations to doubt. Sometimes we are in a place where we can help people with these questions. Sometimes we aren’t. When we aren’t it is still of value to be able to direct people toward sources where they might explore their questions (or to put it in a more philosophical way, to question their questions).
I hear too many stories of young people today – or people who were young recently, who tried to ask questions – questions generated by their faith and its interaction with the world and life – who felt discouragement from the church. They (for the most part) find themselves unable to bury or forget their questions. So they choose the alternative – burying or forgetting their faith. I major part of my calling in life is to help people deal with questions. Since I had had so many throughout my life, I am relatively comfortable with other people asking questions. It breaks my heart to see the church losing younger generations – for this or any reason. Part of my calling is to turn this around. For that very reason I encourage people to ask questions and invite them to join me on my own journey of exploration.