It makes headlines when faith leaders acknowledge the possibility of doubt. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged in an interview that he has doubts about the existence of God. But he is not the first. Although details were only revealed after her death, the letters of Mother Theresa show that she also struggled with times of intense spiritual darkness and doubt.
They are in good company. Jesus, according to Matthew and Mark, died with the agonizing cry ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ as his last coherent words. If Jesus can experience doubt, why should we be surprised if those who follow him also wrestle with questions about the seeming absence of God?
I can understand that there are times when certainty is attractive; when everything is changing it is good to have something fixed to hold on to. Moving away from home for the first time to study or to work is a time of immense change and it is easy to understand why people look for some continuity in one area of their lives as a way of helping them through. But at some point we need to loosen our grip on the things that we hold on to, in order to grow and move forward.
Questions have always been important to me. When I was a child, the word ‘Why?’ was never far from my lips. But as a young Christian I didn’t have the confidence to ask the questions that bothered me. Not all churches or Christian leaders are comfortable with questions either; it can be seen as rocking the boat and upsetting the comfortable.
For me, the realisation that doubts and questions were not obstacles to faith, but an opportunity to struggle towards growth, came as a liberation. Looking in the Bible, I find an honesty and a willingness to question God that is both comforting and challenging. Beginning with Abraham challenging God over his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah through to Jeremiah’s anguish at being overpowered by God, there is directness in the way people speak to God that I sometimes think we as Christians are nervous of. Of course, as Job found out, asking questions does not always lead to the answers we want, but if we are honest it does lead to answers that challenge our perspectives and open us up to new ways of seeing the world.
I do take comfort from the fact that Jesus seems to like questions. It was Richard Rohr who observed that of 183 questions asked of Jesus in the gospels, he only answers three directly. More often than not, Jesus will respond to a question with another question. And in his teaching, what are the parables, if they are not invitations to think, to tease out answers, to be stretched and challenged?
When I do have doubts, I find that, like the characters whose stories come alive for us in the Bible, I address them to God. As I do this, I am aware this is somewhat ironic; telling the God I am not sure I believe in that I am not sure I believe in him. But like all relationships, keeping the channels of communication open when things are hard must be a good thing. And when I have most struggled with my faith and shouted the odds at God, I have usually found that an answer has come; not always straight away, not always an easy or a comforting answer, but an answer nonetheless.
For me, in the end, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an often painful but necessary pathway to a deeper and more honest faith.
Revd Dr Fiona Haworth is the chaplain at the University of Worcester.