Existential Doubt and Suffering

This post is about the experience of doubt – what it can be like to question deeply held beliefs about what the world is really like, what makes life living, what the universe is ultimately about. What we might call existential doubt, when you find your whole faith-commitment challenged.

A lot of different things can trigger this existential doubt, but broadly I think that it is caused by the cognitive dissonance between how we think the world ought to be, and how it seems to actually be. So, to take a common example, if you have been taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that if you lead a good, Christian life, you will prosper, and then you do not in fact prosper – if your life seems to be defined more by suffering than by happiness, then you will often find yourself doubting what you were taught.

It’s the all-embracing nature of religious faith that makes doubt so painful: we invest a lot of time, money and effort – a lot of ourselves – into faith. We get our sense of meaning and identity from it. So when we begin to doubt, it calls into question a lot of our life. You have been a church three or four nights a week for years, all your friends are in the church, you have tended to define yourself over against people on the outside (saved vs. unsaved, sheep vs. goats, real Christians vs. Godless liberals.)

But even more than that, without faith, you don’t know who you are any more. It’s difficult to put into words what it feels like – darkness, earthquake, eclipse of the sun. The Earth moves under your feet, and the structures you had put your trust in are tumbling to the ground left, right, and centre. You feel like Samson, pulling the temple down on his own head, and like Job sitting on the ground bewailing his fate, and Jonah in the whale all at the same time.

There can also be some shame in it – maybe you did embarrassing things with your zeal (e.g. handing out tracts at concerts, street evangelism) or even things that, now you look back on it in the cold light of morning, seem a little self righteous (e.g. accusing people who didn’t live up to our standards of orthodoxy of being heretics.)

Then you make another depressing discovery: how very badly doubt can be handled by churches. If you’re lucky, your pastor or small group leader can be a sympathetic listener, if you’re unlucky you can get into a lot of trouble for just asking questions (I know this sounds a bit unlikely, but it’s a story I hear far too often.) And even sympathetic listeners often turn out to have a bit of a timeline in mind. Maybe a couple of weeks, maybe a bit more. Go away and read this book – it really relieved my mind when I had doubts like yours a couple of years ago –doubts that have now been smoothed over and no longer ruffle my well ordered life.

So you go away and read the book, but perhaps it doesn’t really speak to you – nothing new, just the answers you had already heard before and don’t work anymore. So you go back to your sympathetic listener, and they aren’t quite so sympathetic as before. Maybe you get referred on, and the process begins again. At any rate, pretty soon you start feeling like a bit of a problem. And it hurts, because you used to be one of the insiders, one of the ones who knew, and now you don’t know, and you don’t know who you are any more, and people keep offering to pray with you, with their concerned looks and crinkly Christian smiles and you know they just want you to be fixed. The smiles get a bit more fixed, and you know you are becoming a Pastoral Issue, a Doubter, perhaps even a Backslider, who needs to Get With The Programme.

And the worst thing is the rejection – people treating you like you don’t care, whereas in truth, it’s only because you care so much that it is so torturing for you. If you were a bit less authentic, a bit more ready to go along to get along, you might be able to shrug it off or clamp it down. But there is something deep inside you that propels you. This is where questioning becomes as existential doubt. Your questions are becoming ever more personal. Not just “does God really send gay people to hell?” but “does God answer prayers?” “Does God care?” and even “Does God even exist?”

People’s reaction is at least partially caused by our culture’s discomfort with suffering. When Anne and I were doing the hard yards of our infertility journey, one of the things that really struck me was how hard it is for people to sit with suffering without trying to fix it. Our pain made them feel bad, and they wanted that pain to stop, right now. This is at least partially what’s going on I think: Our doubt causes our listener’s pain – both because they empathetically feel our pain.

However, there’s usually more going on. Someone else doubting what you hold so dear is painful, and also can stir up your own repressed doubts. It’s not purely that people aren’t good at sitting with suffering – they are, in fact, afraid. The more stringently doubt is clamped down on, the more that unquestioning belief (where faith is seen purely as signing up to specified truth claims) is seen as the sine qua non of faith, the more fear is going on under the surface.

If you live in a modern, pluralist society, doubt is always available, even pressing (as discussed in my previous about Philosophical Doubt.) And the more you are invested in your faith, the more troubling having its foundations under attach will be. I wonder if how well we deal with doubt at least partially defines how authentic we are capable of becoming.

It’s a pressing question – how do we live authentic lives of faith in a culture that does not agree with us about something so central? Sectarian groups have traditionally dealt with it by withdrawing from the world – Hasidic Jews, for instance, or the Amish, but also various conservative Christian groups, to a greater or lesser extent. “Come ye out and be ye separate” they say, and I guess I can sort of see the appeal. But it somehow doesn’t remind me much of Jesus, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, and seemed more warmly welcomed by the ordinary than religious people. Actually, that’s a way into my proposed research project, so expect to read more about it.

Having said all that, let me reassure you: the good news is that this fire of doubt is not necessarily the end of the story. There is a future. Like all experiences of suffering, it is what you make of it. You can have an authentic, real, life & purpose affirming faith. You can make doubt your ally. But it is going to take work, and it’s going to take thought. To paraphrase M Scott Peck: Life is difficult, life is complex, and there are no easy answers (The Road Less Travelled and Beyond M Scott Peck) You can make doubt your ally, but, once you have experienced real, existential doubt, there is no way back: the road to the Garden of Unthinking Faith is guarded by an Angel with a sword.

Afterward: I recently spent some time thinking about the story of Jonah and the Whale and how it relates to the experience of suffering. You may find it interesting. Read it here

And feel free to drop me a line to tell me what you think.

 

 

3 comments

  1. rod baker · · Reply

    Thanks great thoughts

  2. steve venour · · Reply

    Alister this is really excellent. You have a great way of clarifying a whole bunch of vague thoughts and feelings and framing it into a logical and sympathetic description of a reality. Course I didnt need any help myself but I’m sure for others – well it should help them get fixed so they can be proper Christians again… More seriously I really enjoyed reading it and the thought that went into it and it will join your other writings I keep for reference! Steve

    1. Thanks Steve. You are everything that is encouraging 🙂

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