Faith, Doubt, and Rhetoric

One of the joys of reading scholarly works is that you frequently find treasures hidden in the footnotes. While researching one of my term papers last fall, I stumbled across Andrew Wright’s Christianity and Critical Realism: Ambiguity, Truth and Theological Literacy (New York: Routledge, 2012). Although I ran out of time and space to fit the work into my essay, I’ve since reopened the book and begun working through it for my own benefit. It’s dense, it’s academic, but it’s going to be formative for me.

One of the figures that Wright cites as formative for his own theological epistemology is Douglas Porpora—one of only a few academics who have really taken the thesis of a critical realist epistemology and applied it to Christianity specifically. Neither a philosopher nor a theologian, Porpora teaches sociology at Drexel University. He published Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) as both a descriptive account of the state of religio-ethical understanding in the United States and as a lament for the loss of “moral vision,” that is, that towards which one directs one’s life as a moral good.[1]

As Porpora addresses the questions of certainty and doubt in the context of faith, he offers the following anecdote, which I’ll quote at length:

Whether Protestant or Catholic, however, most Christians are neither exegetes nor theologians. Outside the narrow circle of liberal theology, most Christians would share my assumption that it is vitally important to Christianity that something qualifying as a resurrection did occur [at Easter].

If most Christians would agree with me on the importance of this point, they evidently would not share my doubts. I asked my wife, a non-Christian, how she thought I would have answered the Gallup poll question. How certain did my wife think I was about the resurrection? Knowing its importance to me, my wife supposed that on a scale of one to ten, I would probably place myself at eight. I told her I was not even that certain. Instead, I would probably place myself at a certainty level of six. I am more inclined than not to think something remarkable happened—although not necessarily the reanimation of a corpse. Even so, I have substantial doubts.

Judging from the results of the Gallup poll, I am part of a distinct minority within American Christendom. With regard to certainty about Jesus’s resurrection, 64 percent of respondents to the Gallup poll placed themselves at level ten. They indicated with absolute certainty that Jesus was raised from the dead. They have no doubts whatsoever.

… Perhaps the absence of doubt is not so surprising. Christians after all are admonished to have faith. Perhaps it is Christian faith the Gallup findings reflect. I do not deny a proper role for faith. However, faith becomes problematic when it so privileges a belief that the belief becomes immune to question or argument, when faith leaves no room for doubt. At that point, faith threatens to stifle critical reflection and intellectual growth.

Consider that it is not only in Jesus’s resurrection that we are admonished to have faith. Various communities call us to faith in the literal truth of the Bible, the infallibility of the pope, or in Muhammed as the greatest of the prophets. While we all will want to argue against some of these objects of faith, we cannot do so consistently while preserving from debate our own objects of faith.

The problem gets worse. Consider racists, sexists, or those who are homophobic. We really cannot fault people for having been raised to hold intolerant views. If we fault them, it is for retaining their intolerant beliefs, for not subjecting them to critical scrutiny. Yet how can we fault others for not questioning their beliefs when we exempt our own cherished notions from critical scrutiny? On this point, consistency demands that we speak as one with the postmodernist: No belief is privileged; all must be equally open to question.

Although our religions may be among our most cherished beliefs, it is precisely our most cherished beliefs that we should be prepared to question. When we do question, we open ourselves to critical space, the space of argument and counterargument. In that opening, there is the danger we may lose our faith, but there is also the prospect that the faith we attain will be sounder and more sophisticated. In neither case do we lose. If our faith is sound to begin with, it will withstand argument. If it is unsound, we are better off moving onto firmer ground.[2]

There are two concepts related to faith that I want to draw out of this section: (1) doubt and (2) rhetoric.

Faith and Doubt

Faith ultimately concerns one’s existential commitment. The propositional content of one’s faith[3] is important, because it determines the contours of that to which one commits oneself, but it isn’t the most important thing. At its most fundamental level, faith, insofar as Christians speak of it, derives its validity from the personal commitment of the faithful.[4]

One may wonder why I’ve chosen not to place the foundation for proper faith on knowledge of the faith-object. I fear grounding the essence of faith in its content, because theology helps determine and outline that which is believed and because, I would contend, theology is a dynamic and fluid engagement of humanity with the divine—in Christianity, through the study of Scripture, the confession of the church, etc.[5] Because theology is not static and because theology partially determines the content of one’s faith—[6] if the validity of one’s faith depends, in essence or primarily, on its content, then one must argue that one’s faith is more or less valid as one progresses through life and as one’s theology changes. More to the point, one must argue that the church is more or less validly “the church” because her confession has changed over time—a not uncommon line of reasoning among certain groups.

However, if faith depends, in essence or primarily, on the existential commitment of one’s person to an object—broadly conceived and irrespective of mistaken beliefs concerning this object, then faith could remain a more static phenomenon. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case. Individuals undergo transitions in which they find salvation (howsoever understood) in one or another object. But, this existential shift occurs with much more effort and much more rarely than a change in one’s theology. I, for one, frequently entertain new ideas, emphases, and constructions in my own theology. My commitment to Jesus, on the other hand, while often weak and tepid, has never shifted to some other object. Disentangling the propositional and existential components of faith is difficult, clearly, because the existential commitment is always to some definable object, described propositionally. The closest I can come to justifying this ordering, which seems intuitive to me, is that the existential commitment strikes closer to the heart of a faith-that-saves, because that commitment involves more than the intellect of the one who believes. One commits to a catena of propositions, which can change in detail and in broad outline, but the commitment is what is materially important.

All of this services the broader point that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Doubt, generally speaking, refers primarily to a mistrust of one’s ideas. More specifically, one doubts the propositions of one’s theology—the notitia. However, doubt does not directly concern the fiducia of faith—the trusting, believing.[7] By way of example, imagine that you see an old wooden chair in an antique store. You think to yourself, “I don’t know if this chair will hold me.” That is a doubt concerning the ability of that chair to keep you off the floor when you sit down in it. That is notitia. However, if, despite those doubts, you sit down in the chair, and allow your weight to fall back into the seat, you have displayed fiducia despite your doubts. However, even if you continue to doubt whether the chair can hold you, as long as you do not get up, you continue to exhibit fiducia in the chair. You are committing, in a very trivial way, your well-being to that chair.

Of course, the content of your beliefs concerning that chair are important. If you believe that it is a table, for example, the way in which you express fiducia will be more or less appropriate to the object. In this case, your commitment to the chair is essentially wrongheaded, because you trust the chair for something, for which it is not intended. But, if you believe that the chair is a lounge chair rather than a rocking chair, your belief is essentially correct, although wrong in some details, and your trust in the chair, while perhaps misguided at some points, is firm. This illuminates an understanding that faith does not essentially depend on the exactitude with which one can express, or even imagine, their beliefs concerning Jesus—nor on the firmness with which one holds to those beliefs, because even “you of little faith” retain faith.

Doubt and Rhetoric

In a related thread, the relationship between the personal faith of, say, a pastor and the exhortations he gives on a Sunday morning have interested me for some time. What ought a pastor, who struggles with doubts, do when he preaches? How does personal doubt manifest in rhetoric? Must there be a correlation between the personal faith of the rhetor and the content of the rhetoric? That is to say, if the pastor doubts, should that be evident in the sermon?

As a point of first departure, it must be said that sophistry has no place in the church. Pastors that outright reject what they preach ought not preach. Individuals that believe contrary to what they say should not speak. To do so is essentially to make a living off flowery language that one does not personally believe.

That said, however, disqualifying a pastor on the basis of his doubts does not seem quite as clear a mandate. I believe that anybody who takes seriously the content of their own beliefs must, at times, struggle with doubts. As Porpora says above, “Faith becomes problematic when it so privileges a belief that the belief becomes immune to question or argument, when faith leaves no room for doubt. At that point, faith threatens to stifle critical reflection and intellectual growth.”[8] People who do not question, examine, and reappraise the content of their beliefs are foolish.

If we accept that seasons of doubting are appropriate and to be expected of Christians in general and pastors specifically, and if we accept that doubting as such does not disqualify a pastor from discharging the regular duties of the pastorate, then how should we understand the interrelationship of doubt and the regular preaching of Scripture? That is, what effect does a pastor’s doubt have on what he says to the congregation?

There are a couple of statements that need to be made at this point. First, a pastor shepherds a congregation towards the truth, and he does so as a servant of Jesus Christ. This means that whatever a pastor as a pastor does must be for the good of his congregation. He must serve them—not undermine them—and lead them towards God. Related to this, the sermon is not where the pastor ought to air out his grievances or “think through” his beliefs; it would be irresponsible to pontificate from the pulpit. Second, and although I do not wish to use “trendy” or otherwise speech, the pastor must be authentic and sincere with his congregation. That is to say, he mustn’t put up a façade or false bravado. Where these two points intermingle is where one begins to articulate an idea of what the “doubting pastor” must do. A proper idea of pastoral service and authenticity begins to concretize the proper practice of preaching for one who doubts.

Where does this lead us? I must admit that I’m not quite sure. The pastor has a fundamental responsibility to “shepherd” the congregation. I would contend that this responsibility outweighs, but is certainly tempered by, his other responsibilities. It isn’t out-and-out necessary for a pastor to detail his doubts to his congregation. He may give them some idea, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the congregation is served by extensive knowledge of their pastor’s doubts—unless that knowledge comes by way of a sermon on doubting. Even in that instance, the pastor has reflected on his doubts and presents the congregation with this reflection; this is not an unadulterated account of his travail.

One must also consider the function of preaching. Simultaneously a tool for teaching and exhortation, a sermon filled with “I don’t know if I believe this” will inevitably fall flat. The rhetorical force of the sermon, in this instance, will be diminished; although the congregation may empathize with the pastor, it’s difficult to believe that they’ll follow the imperatives in the sermon. Of course, it isn’t necessarily inauthentic to preach a full-throated explication of the gospel and its imperatives to a congregation despite one’s doubts, because, so long as the pastor remains existentially committed to this hope, he exhorts them to trust in and act according to that which he trusts in and acts according to—despite his doubts.


[1]He uses this construction over against the view that virtue concerns only the means by which one pursues any end. Porpora calls this an instrumentalist view of virtue, in which the ends pursued are essentially amoral. Rather, Porpora contends that the end, or purpose, towards which one directs one’s life can be either virtuous or evil, and the inability to articulate our ends engenders the loss of “moral vision.”

[2]Porpora, Douglas V. Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 85 – 87.

[3]That is, the X in “I believe/trust X.”

[4]One will often see the trifold construction of faith as notitia (content), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). As far as I can tell, assensus is implied by fiducia and an unnecessary addition to the construction. One does not place their confidence in that which they do not believe to be true.

[5]One need only examine the history of theology among Protestants—not to mention the entire church—to see that this is the case. This doesn’t necessarily entail that there is no “properly true” theology—only that it is inarguably the case that theology does in fact change over time.

[6]Partially, because there are other determinants—philosophy, history, upraising, etc.

[7]Now, one can doubt the quality or existence of their own fiducia, but that is a different point. I mean, quite simply, that doubt immediately affects the notitia of faith.

[8]Porpora, 86.

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One comment

  1. […] Certainty and the Risk of Faith.” With sentiments similar to those I’ve echoed elsewhere, Tillich argues against a purely propositional form of faith, in which the content of one’s […]

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