September 2018 - Pastoral Letter - The Honest Doubter
The honest doubter

I recently heard someone describe himself proudly as ‘an honest doubter.’ When it came to matters to do with the Christian faith, he preferred to think of himself as a reasonable and rational individual, who approached the claims of Christianity with a degree of probing scepticism. He was not a believer; he was a doubter. He saw being a doubter as an alternative to being a Christian.

    He is confused.

On the face of it, his doubt would seem to be a healthy thing. One should never accept truth claims without some investigation and probing. We should be rigorous in thinking through what we believe. In fact, it was precisely by applying a strict discipline of assessing the evidence that the late Nabeel Qureshi came to realise that the central claims of the Christian faith, particularly the deity of Jesus and the reality of His death and resurrection, were indeed true. His journey is recounted in two of his books, ‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus’ and ‘No God but one’. It was a troubled journey, because it involved him leaving behind the Islam in which he had been reared, to embrace the Christ he had set out to deny. Along the way, he undertook a forensic examination of the claims of Christ found in the New Testament. His was a healthy use of doubt, deployed to clarify and assess the truth claims at the centre of the Christian faith. His account of that journey from Islam to Christian faith is fascinating and enormously helpful. I recommend his books to you.

Returning to my ‘honest doubter’: unlike Qureshi, he was not as honest as he thought himself to be. For one thing he misunderstood, or even misrepresented, the role of doubt. Properly understood, doubt is the way we, like Nabeel Qureshi, think things through (i.e. rational enquiry). It is a way of helping us to understand things better and to help us reach reasonable conclusions.  It may help if I give an illustration, which I suspect is owed to C.S Lewis:

Imagine a carpenter. Let’s make our skilled craftsman a cabinet-maker, capable of turning pieces of wood into superbly crafted items of furniture. He could lift his various tools - jigsaw, router, sander, scraper plane and the like - and deploy them in the production of objects that are both functional and beautiful. Suppose you turn up at our artisan’s workshop and enquire as to the kind of things he could make for you, perhaps hoping to view examples of his work. Instead, our cabinet maker explains that he spends his days admiring his tools, polishing and sharpening his blades, systematically checking and cleaning each implement. You find yourself surprised and shocked to discover that amidst all this admiring and cleaning of tools, he hasn’t actually made anything. You would think him a poor kind of craftsman who didn’t actually use either his tools or his skills to produce anything. You might reasonably question the point of having such tools and skills, without deploying them in the purpose for which they were first made.

This is precisely the foolishness of the so called ‘doubter’ who never moves beyond doubt, but regards it as some kind of commendable intellectual refuge, about which they feel they can boast: ‘I’m a free thinking doubter.’ This is nonsense.

Certainly, when we use doubt and scepticism as forensic tools to get at the truth, then we are using them for what they are for. But doubt and scepticism are not truths in their own right. They are merely tools to help us attain greater understanding. They are the mental equivalents of hammers and jigsaws and scraper planes; or even microscopes and telescopes, for that matter. They are not ends in themselves, but merely devices to equip us for the task in hand. Doubt is a tool, not a terminus.

In the true sense of the word doubters, honest doubters, are those who seek until they find. But for many, ‘I am an honest doubter’ is simply a use of words to avoid the challenge of Christ rather than honestly consider that challenge.

The next time you hear someone say they are ‘a doubter’, try asking how they are using their doubt to find the truth.

Your minister

Martin Thomson

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