Why Doubt Is an Important Part of Faith

Part six of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

Despite common assumptions to the contrary, doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is a part of faith. In fact, the faith journeys of virtually all great spiritual teachers included moments of genuine doubt.

From Abraham and Moses to Jesus and so many more, wrestling with doubt is one of the ways in which good people become great spiritual masters. And far from having an obligation to “protect” congregants from doubts and questions of faith, clergy are obliged to share those issues with those they lead.

Doubts and questions are vehicles for clarifying one’s faith and for maintaining personal integrity. If one’s faith is nothing more than a source of static answers, it quickly becomes a mindless rhetoric with God as its footnote. That is hardly what most of us who subscribe to any faith believe in.

The challenge for clergy, not to mention any person of faith, lies in admitting the doubts and questions without turning them into new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs. When that happens, the clergy should relinquish their pulpit.

Religious leaders should not use the pulpit to simply hammer away at the very ideas which people come to have affirmed, but neither should they shy away from leading people in the evolution of their own faith. That, too, is a failure of leadership which should lead to their relinquishing the pulpit.

Responsible religious leaders must find a balance between helping their congregants to wrestle with tough questions and offering them secure answers. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, “the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Applied here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.

Image courtesy of Joshua Earle.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • nikosd99

    Rabbi Hirschfield stated, “From Abraham and Moses to Jesus and so many more, wrestling with doubt……..”It needs to be made clear that Jesus never had, nor expressed, doubt. Many people cite Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 when He uttered, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as proving that Jesus doubted. That is not the case. For the first time ever, Jesus’ relationship with the Father was broken when He took the sins of all mankind upon Himself. God is Holy and He cannot have fellowship with sin. When Jesus became “sin” for us, He experienced that separation from the Father. So, it was not doubt on Jesus’ part, but an actual experience of what had happened.Fortunately, that relationship was immediately restored and now, all believers are able to have relationship with, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This Easter, let us shout, “Hallelujah! He is risen.”

  • NorwegianShooter

    Frigate32, excellent point. “personal doubts” should have been left off the question entirely. It only allows avoiding the question, as the Rabbi has mostly done here.Of course his answer is correct, the preacher should leave the pulpit, but that is the start of this discussion, not the end. The nonbeliever preachers featured in the study show how difficult that can be.PS Can you even imagine standard preaching without the “X to the Y and Y to the X”? What is this called anyway? Transposing something?

  • frigate32

    With respect, your examples of doubt don’t stand up, and are irrelevant to the The fact is that Abraham never expresses any doubt in God Doubt is based on a feeling, but skepticism is based on hard facts. For example, we may doubt God’s This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.The great silence from the religious community about these facts tells me that most faithful, especially their leaders, are not really serious about their faith. Ironically, it is the clergy that admit they have lost their faith by grappling with the tough questions who are the ones that are serious about faith.