Life and FaithTheology & Spirituality

Is Doubt A Good Thing?

Considered generally, doubt is beneficial to human beings.

While we all begin life in a state of ignorance—relying upon the care and concern of others to survive—too many of us eventually enter a state of arrogance. Neither position is desirable, but these are the two ends of the spectrum of knowledge spectrum toward which we gravitate.

Christians who see pride as the root of all sin are inclined to value doubt when it counteracts pride. The Beatitudes of Christ say nothing of knowledge, which “will come to an end” according to Saint Paul (1 Cor 13:8). Because the presumption of certitude easily leads to vanity, it is better to be a loving and ignorant person than to be intelligent but prideful.

Saint Bonaventure warns against the pursuit of “devilish wisdom,” which “leads a person to be concerned with the pleasure of being superior to others, and with taking delight in worldly displays. For pride is the root of all evil” (1). Pride can thus be defined as a parody of wisdom—a misunderstanding of one’s place in created order that reverses Augustine’s uti / frui distinction (2).

Too often, human beings become wrapped up in the accomplishments of their own era. Pride in the human project is, unfortunately, a hallmark of modernity. If we take an honest look at ourselves and our world—with its chaos, injustice, wealth disparity, violence, slavery, genocide, war, and profits-first mentality—we find that we have much to learn. The only way to learn is to question “the way things are” through doubt. Let us approach the mystery of this universe with awe, preserving a proper sense of our own finitude and resisting the temptation to find satisfaction in things that are passing away (1 Jn 2:17).

From a specifically religious standpoint, doubt is also inevitable. No human holds the key to knowledge of this universe, let alone the secret of an afterlife. While doubt can lead to crises of faith, the darkness of God’s absence is a state of being that Christ experienced on the cross. Doubt does not automatically imply a failure of faith or of morality. As Herbert McCabe puts it:

We have to test and criticize our doctrines to question both what we are making of them and what use the church itself is making of them. Are they degenerating simply into an expression of loyalty? Are they really still about God’s love? This is a kind of doubting because it is a kind of questioning, and it is an integral part of faith itself.

The object of Theology is not to know, but rather to love.

Active seeking and questioning is hard-coded into the constitution of a human person. Doubt is an integral part of this process, particularly if paired with the virtue of humility. When it causes us to look beyond our own fate, to take a step back from an ego-driven life, doubt is beneficial to human beings. This sort of humility is what the world desperately needs.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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