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Humanism Doubt: A Scientific And Religious Perspective


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Victor Udoewa
Adjunct Professor of Education, George Washington University College of Professional Studies

Science is naturally skeptical, initially couched in doubt. The goal in science, however, is to leave a state of doubt or ignorance and, through testing and proof, come to know truth.

Science is uncomfortable with doubt.

In law, given limited time, evidence, arguments, testimonies and the right to speedy trials, judges and juries can live with doubt. They draw the line at reasonable doubt.

Law is comfortable with shadows of doubt, but uncomfortable with reasonable doubt.

Dealing with more doubt takes faith.

Cheryl has an irrational fear of opening the refrigerator. She sees a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Her housemate, Angel, has no fear of opening the refrigerator; opening it at will. Which person requires courage to open the refrigerator? Cheryl needs a lot of courage to open the refrigerator. Who fears opening it? Cheryl. Instead of courage being the absence of fear, one redefinition could be that courage is the triumph over fear. Doubt and faith may intermingle similarly.

Doubt might be a stumbling block for science, but it is a stepping stone for faith.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, doubt persists at points of elusive revelation. In the Book of Job, Job loses his family, livestock and health. He struggles with God, crying out for an advocate before God. After 37 chapters, God shows up to give an answer for the misery. What do we find in God's revelation? God simply asks Job questions Job cannot answer: Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Who marked off its dimensions? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food? So we find in revelation God remains concealed.

In Exodus, Moses asks a voice, self-identified as the God of his ancestors, "What is your name?" The answer given is normally translated "I AM THAT I AM." But it's better translated "I WILL BE HOWSOEVER I WILL BE." One understanding is that even in the revelation of God's name, God is still hidden. In other words, God is refusing to be labeled or to be placed in a defining box. God is beyond definition and conception.

Jacob's experience is the same. After camping alone for the night, he meets a stranger with whom he wrestles. The stranger asks Jacob's name and then renames him Israel, meaning "Wrestles with God." Then Jacob asks the stranger the stranger's name. The stranger doesn't answer but instead blesses Jacob. One reading of the story is that the stranger, whom Jacob recognizes as God, answers the question by showing that God is blessing. It matches "I AM WHO I AM." That name and that act of blessing Jacob remind me that God is not best rendered a noun -- a defined person, place or thing. Rather, God is a verb, an action, a blessing. We do not stand and label or name God; rather, we are named by God, just as God named Jacob.

And isn't it strange that of all the names God could have given Jacob, the name that would forever define and label the people of God would be Israel, meaning "wrestles with God"? I find that strange. I would have chosen "holiness" or "love." But the name chosen for God's people is one that tells a story of a God that desires a people who will simply wrestle and engage with him, not fully understand him. The primary problem God had with Job's friends who consoled him with "right theology" is just that: they offered theology. Job, in the middle of the mystery of God, experiencing the presence of God's absence, wrestled with God in doubt. God loves that.

From one perspective, the primary reason that God found David as a man after His own heart was that David always stayed connected to God, not that everything David said was accurate (contrast "Why has thou forsaken me?" with "I've never seen the righteous forsaken or His seed begging bread"). No, David stayed constantly connected with God in this. Even when David felt disconnected from God, he expressed his discontent directly to God and, in that expression of disconnectedness, remained connected. David connected with God even in struggling doubt.
Even in revelation, God remains concealed. We learn that to be fully human means to be comfortable with the discomfort of never fully knowing, the discomfort of doubt.

Such doubt leads us to have varying, sometimes contradictory beliefs even within the same faith. With "competing" theologies of different sects/denominations, I'm always reminded of Donald Miller's words in "Blue Like Jazz": "I doubt that any of us have all our theology correct." The amazing realization is that with faith, it's not necessary. This is because the truth or knowledge in our religion is different than the kind science seeks. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are not dealing with truth as a set of propositions that describe reality; truth is not "known," but experienced primarily in liberation (Exodus) and transformation (new Genesis). This might help clarify why such doubt functions well in the Judeo-Christian tradition unlike science. You can have doubt about something describing reality while you experience a transformative life.

I used to think that the question "Does God exist?" is both a scientific question and a religious question; both science and religion were after the same truth and hopefully one would prove it. Perhaps there is another way of viewing such a question. Peter Rollins tells a story of a woman who asked a preacher, "Was there really a talking snake in the Garden of Eden?" The preacher responds, "It doesn't matter. What's important is what the snake said." Likewise, maybe "Does God exist?" is a scientific question while "What has God said?" is the religious question. Why? This is because you can experience God, and, in the aftermath of the event of God, still have doubts as to the source of that event, while being transformed by the event. It reminds me of the story of a blind man who was healed by Jesus and whose parents were questioned by the chief priests and elders. Then the elders questioned him asking him to call his healer, Jesus, a sinner. The man said, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see" (John 9:25). Faith is like that.

This essay recognizes its debt and gratitude to the philosopher Peter Rollins whose books 'How (Not) To Speak Of God' and 'The Fidelity of Betrayal' contributed to the writing of this piece.

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