Can Doubters Know God?

by James E. Taylor ’78

According to Cat Stevens (and more recently Sheryl Crow), “The First Cut is the Deepest.” When your first romantic love abandons you, it hurts more than subsequent break-ups do. In “Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters” (Eerdmans, 2009), Robert N. Wennberg makes a similar observation about a Christian’s first experience of serious doubt. When radical uncertainty shatters the initial confidence and joy of a believer, the result can be profoundly disorienting and unsettling. Like Wennberg, I suffered from such a challenge to my faith in my early 20s. I wish I’d had a copy of his wise and encouraging book to help me better understand and benefit from my struggle. What I needed at that time was what Wennberg offers: a theology of doubt that explains its potential role in the growth of faith.

In his introduction, Wennberg says the book is not about apologetics. It’s ironic, then, that Christianity Today selected it for an Award of Merit in the Apologetics/Evangelism category. It seems better suited for the Christian Living or Spirituality areas. Although it is about Christian belief, it focuses on helping insiders understand the role and value of doubt for belief rather than on providing outsiders with reasons for thinking that Christian doctrines are true. Wennberg draws on the wisdom of C. S. Lewis and Saint John of the Cross — and appeals to the experience of Mother Teresa — for the former purpose. In doing so, he locates a possible cause of the “dark night” of doubt in God’s occasional gracious “withdrawal” to facilitate spiritual growth. At the same time, Wennberg acknowledges the evidential ambiguity facing all humans in their thinking about God. He follows Pascal in seeing this mix of light and darkness as providing an opportunity for both belief and unbelief.

In retrospect, I have come to think that a combination of two things brought about my own doubts about God’s existence. The first was my subconscious assumption that belief in God can be reasonable only if it’s based on adequate objective evidence. The second was my fully conscious, youthful conviction that whatever reasons I had to think there is a God were inadequate. And since I was not aware of my “evidentialist” assumption, it never occurred to me to question it. Instead, I desperately sought a philosophical argument for God’s existence that would provide the adequate evidence I assumed I needed.

Ironically, it was not a philosophical argument that restored my confidence in the reality of God but the experience of participating in a Potter’s Clay mission trip to Mexico in my senior year at Westmont. In Wennberg’s words, although I’d been looking for a “logical” demonstration of God’s existence, what I really needed was a “living” demonstration of God in the lives of those who love and serve God and others. I’d regained my faith, but I didn’t yet understand how my faith could be reasonable on the basis of experience alone apart from adequate philosophical support. My evidentialist assumption was still unconscious and so unexamined.

Then in graduate school I encountered the case Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and other Reformed epistemologists constructed against evidentialism. Plantinga argued both that evidentialism is self-defeating (what adequate evidence makes it reasonable to believe that evidentialism is true?) and that reasonable beliefs about God can be grounded in experiences of various sorts. Following John Calvin, Plantinga theorized that God created humans with a sensus divinitatis, a faculty that produces beliefs about God when triggered by certain experiences, such as taking in the beauty of the night sky, feeling guilty about hurting someone, or joining others in Christian service. John Ortberg draws on Plantinga when he writes about these sorts of experiences in his witty and insightful book “Faith and Doubt” (Zondervan, 2008), (another volume I wish I could have read during my period of disturbing uncertainty). Like Wennberg, Ortberg agrees that faith is often generated and justified by experience alone and that although doubt is natural and even unavoidable, it can strengthen our faith if we respond to it appropriately.

Ortberg discusses the causes of doubt as well as its potentially good and bad consequences. He agrees doubts can be a product of philosophical arguments and concerns about evidence (as in my case). But he thinks doubts about God arise more frequently from such non-rational sources as mood swings due to changing circumstances and/or temptations to behave in ways we know would displease God. Ortberg thinks that however they come about, doubts can be helpful or harmful, depending on the doubter’s attitude. He points out that how our doubts affect us is often a result of what we want to believe. For those who hope there is a God, doubt can stimulate a search for better reasons to believe, and for those who would rather there not be a God, doubt can provide a justification for unbelief. It seems clear that Ortberg, like Wennberg, would concur with Pascal’s observation that there is enough light for those who want to see and enough darkness for those who don’t.

Ortberg also writes about the certitude Pascal felt about God during his “night of fire” and the passion Kierkegaard ascribed to the “leap of faith.” Both of these philosophers were skeptical of philosophical arguments for God’s existence but also agreed that subjective considerations made such objective evidence unnecessary. Indeed, according to Kierkegaard, faith is passionate, inward commitment in the face of radical, objective uncertainty. In his view, faith requires objective uncertainty. If we add to this claim the natural assumption that knowledge requires objective certainty, it follows that faith and knowledge are mutually exclusive.

Ortberg affirms this dichotomy between faith and knowledge. He says that if we have faith that God exists, we won’t know that God exists. He says that knowledge destroys faith. But in “Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge” (Harper Collins, 2009), Dallas Willard insists that faith in God is sustained and strengthened when it’s based on knowledge that God exists. Which of them is right? Does faith that God exists exclude knowledge of God or benefit from it? Moreover, in “Letter to a Christian Nation” (Vintage, 2008), the new atheist Sam Harris says it’s obvious there’s no God. Willard argues on the contrary that we can know there is a God. Can what seems obviously true to one person be known by another to be false?

Willard is definitely swimming against the tide. He contends that our current cultural assumption that we can’t have knowledge of theological and moral propositions is unfounded, false, unbiblical, and dangerous. And he thinks Christians have needlessly and unreasonably allowed their confidence about God’s existence and will to be eroded on the basis of this assumption. Willard believes Christian acquiescence on this point has pernicious consequences; we can obey the Great Commission only if we teach people to obey what Christ commanded, and effective teaching of this sort requires knowing that Jesus really does have the authority he claims for himself because he really is God and therefore what he commands is really God’s will. Willard says that people have the authority to teach something only if they know it to be true; so if Christians can’t know that Christianity is true, then they don’t have the authority to teach it.

Willard’s case for the claim that it is possible to know that God exists and that the central claims of the Christian faith are true is based on an appeal to philosophical arguments for God’s existence, historical evidences for the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, and personal experiences of the risen Christ today. He also discusses the role of spiritual disciplines in facilitating this experienced-based knowledge of God in Christ. In addition, he takes into account and responds to objections of the sort raised both by recent atheistic critics, who claim to know God doesn’t exist, and by advocates of religious pluralism, who deny the possibility of knowing that a particular religion is true.

Willard’s book seems just as wise and profound to me as do Wennberg’s and Ortberg’s. Indeed, I have learned much about faith and discipleship from each of them. Given my personal experience, I find myself resonating with what the latter two say about doubt: that it is natural, normal, potentially very helpful, and even inevitable. But I also find myself attracted to Willard’s thesis that knowledge of God and of the truth of Christianity is possible and even necessary for effective Christian discipleship and witness. Can I have it both ways? I think I can. The key is to think carefully about what is required for knowledge.

Philosophers who work in the area of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) are divided about whether knowledge requires certainty.Those who believe that certainty is needed for knowing follow Descartes (as he is normally understood) in holding that doubt and knowledge are incompatible. But philosophers who deny that knowledge requires certainty think that even if you know something to be true, there can be room for doubt about it; one can know something that is not guaranteed to be true. I take it that Ortberg and Kierkegaard are operating with the “certainty” conception of knowledge. Willard (in agreement with Plantinga’s recent view in “Warranted Christian Belief,” Oxford, 2000) appears to be assuming the alternative conception according to which you can know something you aren’t certain about. Indeed, Willard explicitly denies that knowledge requires a confidence in one’s inability to be wrong. If I am right, Ortberg and Willard may disagree about which of the two conceptions of knowledge captures our ordinary concept of knowledge. However, they don’t necessarily disagree that it’s possible and desirable for Christians to “know” that the truth claims of Christianity are true in the
sense of this word that doesn’t require certainty.

A good philosophical case can be made for the view that our ordinary concept of knowledge conforms to this latter conception rather than to the “certainty” one. After all, we believe there are many things we know, but we would also have to admit there are few things we can be absolutely certain about. That’s because few of our beliefs are guaranteed to be true in such a way as to exclude all possible doubt.

Given this more relaxed conception of knowledge, we can follow Willard in affirming that it’s possible to know that God exists and Christianity is true. And we can follow Wennberg and Ortberg in acknowledging that, since we can’t be absolutely sure about these things, we’ll have to live with a degree of uncertainty and (at least sometimes) even doubt about them.

James E. Taylor ’78, professor of philosophy at Westmont, earned a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Arizona.

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