Without a Doubt
A friend sent me an interesting article that I want to share some parts of it with you and a little commentary on it. The article carried the intriguing title, “God is a Question, Not an Answer.” The author, William Irwin, is a philosophy professor at a college at King’s College. What I did not know was the phrase apparently comes from a fairly recent novel. The novel is not important; what is important is the phrase that God is a question, not the answer.
Irwin offers his perspective within the first paragraph. Irwin says that phrase resonates with him. He comments, “The question is permanent; answers are temporary. I live in the question.” Some of us may laugh off this perspective by saying what else would you expect from a college philosophy teacher! But that is too easy. I don’t go as far as Irwin, but I do hold high regard for questions. And no one who is an adult should say all answers are sacred and never change. Most of us know we have changed our minds on some of our earlier “answers” in life. So let’s persevere a little further.
I was not surprised to see Irwin take the article into a discussion about atheists and believers. However, I know it is too superficial simply to assume all atheists only have questions and all believers think they have answers. In fact, it is often just the contrary. Too often, atheists feel like they have all the answers---with respect to God at least. And many believers---myself included---do have questions.
Irwin is correct when he says, “Any honest atheist must admit that he has doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all…” I think this is absolutely true. Not surprisingly, Irwin moves to the other side. Basically, I agree with him. If believers are honest, they also will likely harbor some doubts at times. I know I certainly do. Then Irwin moves to what might be the most important point.
Irwin says, “People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others.” This seems quite fair to me and does resonate with my experience. Like Irwin, I am a bit uneasy with atheists who are too certain they know and believers who also are too certain they know for sure.
And then Irwin adds a sentence that does make sense to me, but in saying so, I realize that opens me to some suspicions. He claims, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” Allow me to unpack that, as I understand it. I agree with Irwin because I believe he is saying it is impossible to know with a certainty that is beyond doubt that there is a God. I know I cannot. I do have faith in God---in fact, I would say it is a mature, strong faith.
But that strong, mature faith still does not amount to an absolute certainty, which excludes any doubts whatsoever. And even if I were certain about God, I could not prove it to an atheist. Even if I were certain, my certainty cannot become the certainty of someone else. I have faith in God precisely because I cannot be certain. And I am ok with that. God is a unique Being in our world. We know God by hints, by analogy, by images we create out of experiences that may feel unquestionable, but still cannot be called certain beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I like the quip from that earlier twentieth century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who also was an atheist. When asked what he would say, if he died and discovered there actually was a God whom he met at judgment, Russell quipped, “You gave us insufficient evidence” that God existed! I suppose if I were to die and realize there is no God, I might say something like, “Wow, I misread the evidence.” That is the arena where faith is operative. There can be doubts. I am not certain.
I admit I probably liked the article because near the end, Irwin quoted my favorite monk, Thomas Merton. When Merton comments on faith, he says faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven---it is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been make by somebody else.” That description resonates deeply with how I understand faith.
As much as I might hope that it would be possible to have faith that had no doubt, I realize this is not possible. If it were, that would not be called faith; that would be certainty. So when it comes to God, there cannot be life without a doubt. But the good news is I don’t linger with the doubt. I don’t let my doubts drag me into the pit of depression and despair.
Whatever doubts I have lead me to look more carefully for how and where God is present with me. My doubts leave me humble and honest with myself and others. And my doubts save me from the arrogance of the believer and the arrogance of the atheist.