Doubting your doubts

When did you last doubt the truth of Christianity?

Notice that I asked when, not if, because I’m assuming that this is one of the temptations that is common to man—the temptation to turn away from God, to doubt his goodness, his faithfulness, even his reality.

Doubt is a common virus, but it has many different mutations and symptoms. For some, doubt comes as a consequence of sinful choices. We begin to dally with a particular sin, and all of a sudden we coincidentally start to wonder whether this God-and-Jesus thing is so compelling after all—like a little boy who does something wrong, hears his mother calling, and then puts his fingers in his ears.

At other times, doubts assail us because of particular intellectual questions. Some aspect of the Bible or Christian doctrine strikes us as odd or implausible, and we start to wonder whether the whole thing might not be a house of cards — even though the particular thing we’re wrestling with might not itself be very central or foundational.

However, I suspect that the chief source of doubt for many Christians in the West is simply that we are so marginalized and outnumbered. It is no longer an act of daring intellectual independence to rubbish Christianity as an outmoded fantasy. It is now a commonplace of our cultural conversation and life; a basic assumption of nearly all the gatekeepers and leaders of our culture. Our whole society proceeds on its way as if Christianity is an historical relic—perhaps even a valuable one in some people’s eyes—but one with no basis in modern scientific reality. This relentless tide of casual, assumed atheism is wearying.

Most of us are capable of taking the occasional stand against this tide, and can even cope with being thought to be different and weird—at least every now and then. But it is hard to sustain every hour, every day, every year. The pressure of it is constant, and for many Christians it leads to deep and often unspoken doubts. All these people all around me—friends, colleagues, family, everyone in the media, everyone in the movies I watch—is it really possible or likely that they are all wrong, and that I and the few slightly strange people I know at church are right? Surely if Christianity was so good and true then more people would accept it? My friends seem (on the whole) to be reasonable and intelligent people. And yet they look at Christianity and say, “You’re not seriously going to expect me to believe that?”

The answer to this deeply unsettling kind of doubt is not to provide specific proofs or evidence for the claims of Christ. It’s to understand more clearly why some people believe and some people don’t.

And this is where Martin Ayers’s new book Keep the Faith is so useful. It’s not your normal book about faith and doubt. It does not explain any doctrines or issues that might baffle us or cause us to doubt; it provides no compelling evidence for the key claims of Christianity (for that, you might turn to Martin’s excellent first book, Naked God); and it does not even deal with some of the indirect causes of doubt (such as starting to dabble with immorality, or experiencing deep suffering)

Instead, Martin aims to achieve something more profound, and ultimately more helpful. His purpose is to shift the whole way we think about faith and doubt, particularly in light of the oppressive weight of our society’s scepticism about the gospel. He zeroes in on the fallacy that there is some sort of neutral place to stand from which to calmly assess the truth or otherwise of Christianity. We can easily think this—that our friends have objectively weighed up the pros and cons of Christian belief, and made a decision not to go with it. And we are, for some reason, among a very small minority that has made the opposite decision—perhaps (we can’t help thinking) because there is something wrong with us, or because we have a particular need to believe.

“Forewarned is forearmed.”

In an obvious but too-rarely practised move, Martin goes back to the Bible to see what it says about why some people accept Christ and so many don’t. He shows that what we trust in as true (that is, have ‘faith’ in) is deeply intertwined with our existing moral and spiritual commitments. What we believe to be true cannot be separated from what we want to be true.

It’s a cracking book, full of clear, fresh thinking, and warm practical advice. I think every Christian living in a modern Western context should read it. Forewarned is forearmed.


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