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Doubt And Certainty

Ben Smith points us to the reaction of Michael Sean Winters, who was decidedly underwhelmed by Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, which Winters had hoped would be a “home run.” Winters found the praise of doubt that Obama offered to be mistaken and tone-deaf:

If that was the President’s best impersonation of Augustine, he gets an F. For starters, there is nothing ironic about faith. Secondly, a Catholic university is an odd place to give an essentially Protestant interpretation of what can, and cannot, be “known” by faith. Finally, it is not doubt that invites humility. It is faith itself – faith in a God who has not finished with His creation, faith in a God who counseled us to humility in His scriptures and who gave an example of humility if His own life when He walked the earth – that leads us to humility. And, I would have thought even a rudimentary knowledge of human psychology would suggest that self-righteousness is a temptation as well known to the doubters as to those possessed of true faith.

This seems quite right. Everyone is stricken with doubt at times, but it has to be understood that doubt, like an illness, is something from which one may suffer but which is something that needs to be remedied rather than perpetuated or celebrated. Physical illness can have a humbling effect, but a proper understanding of theological anthropology tells us that illness, like death, is part of our fallen state. Doubt is a function of a mind clouded by the passions–it is the result of confusion. It does not teach us anything, but rather prevents us from learning. It is important to see the difference between doubt and apophatic theology: one is the function of human confusion, the other is the necessary recognition of the unknowability of God in His essence. Obama misleadingly lumps the two together. As Obama would have it, because we cannot know God in Himself and cannot always understand what He wills for us we must therefore abandon all claims of certainty, even when these are founded in what God has told and revealed to us about Himself. Obama said, “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us,” but only for the first part of this is true. What God asks of us is well-known. In the Psalms, for example, He tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” He has not said, “Be ironically detached and suppose that I might very well be God, depending on how the mood strikes you.” We hide behind doubt and any number of other convenient shields to protect our little selfish empires from the demands that we know God makes of us. He has said, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul and all thy mind and all thy strength.” What He asks of us is quite clear. Indeed, if there is anything we can say that we know with certainty, it is this.

Smith says that it was “less predictable” that Andrew found the speech admirable, but it was actually perfectly predictable. Andrew regularly promotes his idea of a “conservatism of doubt,” classes all expressions of religious certainty as fundamentalist and believes that the universal experience of doubt should somehow make doubt essential to a living faith. While I doubt I will ever manage to persuade Andrew on this point, this is rather like saying that the general experience of sin should make sin a crucial part of one’s faith, which is more obviously absurd but otherwise basically the same kind of argument.

Thomas Sunday is an interesting day. Following the first week after Pascha, we hear the Gospel reading that tells us of the Apostle Thomas’ doubt that the Lord has indeed risen. The One Whom we have been proclaiming to be truly risen ever since the week before has to appear to Thomas so that he may believe in the most fundamental truth of the faith, without which, the Apostle Paul has told us, our faith is in vain. In other words, St. Thomas’ doubt at that moment was a failure to believe in things not seen, and in that failure he was failing to believe the one thing that all disciples of Christ had to believe if their faith was to mean anything. If we look at it this way, we understand that doubt is not necessary, nor is it profitable, nor it is good, but it is rather a betrayal of the power and truth of faith. Doubt is a kind of denial of the Master. While we might understand how St. Peter, on the night the Lord gave Himself up for us, might have been so terrified as to deny that he knew the Lord, what excuse do we have to offer up such denials, much less wrap them up in faux-serious introspection and self-serving poses of humility?

Scott Richert has more on the speech, noting the “fair-minded words” anecdote that Obama keeps recycling every time he is called on to address matters of faith and ethics, especially in connection with abortion. This is an anecdote he has been using and reinventing for years as the occasion requires it. This “fair-minded words” dodge is one of the oldest tricks in Obama’s book, which is how he can continue to portray himself as some sort of reasonable interlocutor, especially on those basic issues of human dignity and justice concerning the unborn on which he is among the least reasonable and most reflexive and ideological. Perhaps if Obama were more prone to doubt the ideological certainties that prompt him to oppose any and all restrictions on abortion, he might then seem like less of a caricature on this issue and more like the reasonable person he wants us to think he is.

P.S. What part of “Do not be unbelieving, but believing” do people not understand?

Update: There is a relevant passage from the introductory article in Orthodox Readings of Augustine discussing the theology of Christos Yannaras:

Following Lossky, apophaticism for Yannaras is not simply defining God in terms of what God is not, but the affirmation that true knowledge of God occurs in mystical union with God. Although apophaticism does assert the incomprehensibility of God’s essence, it does not deny that God is known. Apophaticism points to a limit in the adequacy of human conceptualization of God not to silence theology, but to indicate that true knowledge of God is an ekstatic going beyond human reason in the experience of mystical union. The logic of divine-human communion, theosis, thus demands an apophatic method in theology, in the sense that it asserts the incomprehensibility of the divine essence; but this incomprehensibility implies that knowledge of God lies beyond reason in an ekstatic movement of participation in the divine energies.

Doubt does not facilitate this participation, but thwarts it by calling into question whether it is even possible.

Second Update: It is, of course, futile to continue debating this, but I do have another quote that will at least clarify why it is futile. Fr. John Behr, writing on the Nicene-Arian debates of the fourth century, said in “The question of Nicene orthodoxy”:

This is an important point: at stake are different paradigms, within which doctrinal formulations take flesh. The similarity of terms and expressions, yet difference of paradigm or imaginative framework, explains why most of the figures in the fourth century seem to be talking past each other, endlessly repeating the same point yet perennially perplexed as to why their opponents simply don’t get it.

Those who do not understand that doubt is contrary to and antithetical to faith keep using the words doubt and faith as if these usages were the same as those employed by the critics of Obama’s remarks. Once again, we are running up against the problem of Obama’s manifest heterodoxy (in which he is obviously far from alone), which makes every dispute over his statements on faith into an interminable grudge-match. Orthodox critics will apply standards and definitions to his words that he does not apply, and so he says what seems to him and those of like mind to be utterly unobjectionable, almost boilerplate, statements, but which are obviously nonsense to anyone with meaningful grounding in orthodox definitions. The endless argument over what Obama was saying, much less whether he was right in what he said, is unlikely to be resolved when the disputing parties are not even working within the same framework. This doesn’t mean that all frameworks are right, but merely that they are infuriatingly opaque to one another, so much so that there seems to be no possibility of agreement on the basic definitions of terms. Nothing could have better illustrated why dialogue and “fair-minded words” are utterly inadequate to any debate that involves such fundamental disagreements than the debates that Obama’s speech has provoked.

Third Update: H.C. Johns, guest blogging for John at Upturned Earth, has an excellent post that explains with much more patience what I was trying to say with my quote from Fr. Behr, and which does an admirable job of responding to Damon Linker’s comments on the debate. One of things that Johns says that is crucial for understanding the vastness of the chasm between the two sides here was this:

This difference is glaringly apparent in Linker’s response. His attitude towards doubt is thoroughly post-Cartesian: doubt for him directs us to the seen, to the experiences which ground proper understanding [bold mine-DL]. Because we are blind to the things named by revelatory tradition and lack a direct experiential confirmation, doubt demands we should withhold judgement. This mode of thinking has deep roots stretching back to the beginning of modernity, underlies our science and political process, and is deeply appealing at many levels, but note how different this is from Larison’s doubting: doubt here does not lead us away from truth. To the contrary, it is the only way to truth, and a truth which is obscured from the very beginning of inquiry.

I think Johns has described this correctly, and it is this emphasis on the visible that is the most troubling. Were we to have “direct confirmation,” our freedom would be curtailed. At the same time, to say that remaining in uncertainty is the “destiny of all thoughtful human beings” is to say that it is the destiny of all thoughtful human beings to remain out of communion with God for at least their entire earthly lives. This is a denial of the possibility of real incarnate faith, but just as important it is a denial of the Christian’s hope of entering into communion with God.

My view on this has been influenced to some degree by Dostoevsky’s understanding of the relationship between free will and faith, which places great emphasis not only on belief in things not seen, but a strong suspicion of believing things about God simply on the basis of visible signs. After all, the Lord said, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” (Mt. 16:4) For Dostoevsky, the miraculous was real, but it was something that he also believed could infringe on free will and a freely-received faith.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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