Options and Doubt (repost)

By JASON BOYETT: author of the Pocket Guides Books
April 27, 2010

Why do we doubt? In my new book, I discuss several of the causes of spiritual doubt, including sin, guilt, depression, circumstances, familiarity/boredom, and intellectual challenges.

But there’s one doubt-generator I’ve been thinking of lately that’s not in the book: options. I had the privilege of hearing Daniel Taylor mention this idea briefly a couple weeks ago at the Festival of Faith & Writing.

Let’s say you’re out shopping for a car. And let’s say it’s 1908. And let’s also say you’re a middle-class American. So if it’s 1908 and you’re looking to buy an affordable car in the United States, you pretty much have one option: the Ford Model-T. If you know anyone else who owns a car, they also drive a Model-T. Except for a few really rich guys with novelty German vehicles, all the cars on the road came off Henry Ford’s assembly line. And all of the Model-Ts are black.

If you wanted a car, you’d buy it and no one would think anything of it. Your only choice is whether or not to buy a car. That’s it.

Compare that to today. In 2010, there are countless makes and models of cars on the road. Any color you want. New cars. Used cars. Hybrids. Trucks. SUVs. Hatchbacks. Sedans. We have options. So any time we make a decision to buy a certain car, we’re bound to experience a twinge of doubt as soon as we make the decision. We call it “buyer’s remorse.”

Did I make the right choice? Should I have gone with better fuel economy? Is this one as reliable as that other one? Is the red paint job too flashy? Will we be OK with 10 cupholders or should we get the one with 14?

We have too many car-buying options, and options lead to doubt.

Now let’s step away from the Model-T metaphor, because this is not a blog post about cars. Consider the world we’re living in now. When it comes to spirituality and religion, we have options. Thousands of options. The planet is more connected than ever, and this global inter-connectedness has made the world smaller. We’re exposed to far more cultures, spiritual traditions, and religious viewpoints than ever before. Anti-religious or non-religious viewpoints are gaining traction, too.

Even more, we have all these groundbreaking advances in medicine, genetics, and science to deal with. And we have to deal with them, because they are starting to explain things that, until now, we just didn’t understand. Stuff we used to label Religious, or Mystery, or Divine. (Example: Persinger’s “God helmet”)

And even more, we’re seeing a bunch of global religious upheaval because of the Church’s failures — abuse scandals and sex scandals and political scandals and big human screw-ups.

Today’s religious climate is filled with options and the result is doubt. We might all be suffering from a little buyer’s remorse — with all these options, have I made the right choice? — and this leads to uncertainty.

So we’re living in a time when, if you’re human and you’re paying attention, you’re going to run into some questions. Big questions. Scary questions. The problem is that some of us are encountering these questions in an environment that gets really suspicious when you ask hard questions. Those suspicions can turn doubters really lonely people, because it’s easier just to be quiet. It’s easier to not make waves. It’s easier to just shove the questions down inside and pretend they don’t exist. It’s easier to act like you have it all together.

It’s easier to lie.

But it’s not healthy. We’ve got to find a way to talk about these questions without fear and without having to hide. Doubters need encouragement to work through their questions without judgment. We need the freedom to think critically and use the rational minds we’ve been given. We need to know it’s possible to remain a practicing Christian without being paralyzed by doubt.

We have to remember that doubt can deepen faith. It doesn’t have to derail it, just like it doesn’t have to devolve into bitter cynicism. Faith and doubt can co-exist. They work side-by-side. Because faith only exists when doubt is present. Otherwise it’s not “faith.” It’s certainty.

In a world full of religious options, we have to make the church a safe place for doubters. If we don’t, eventually, our churches will be full of pretenders.

Or they’ll be empty.