Christians Who Struggle With Serious Doubts.

While we at DC have moved completely away from Christianity, there are many believers who struggle daily with serious doubts. Many Christians go through periods where they seriously question their faith. Some of them, like us, abandon that faith. Let me briefly mention three Christian scholars who have had serious doubts about Christianity: Ruth A. Tucker, James F. Sennett, and Terence Penelhum

Ruth A. Tucker takes a serious look at those who walk away from their Christian faith in her book, Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief (Downers Grove: IVP), 2002. She shares her own doubt and how she overcomes it, hoping to challenge unbelievers to reconsider what they are missing. But in one place in her book, as she was contemplating her own doubt, she candidly confesses what sometimes crosses her mind. As a seminary professor she wrote, “There are moments when I doubt all. It is then that I sometimes ask myself as I’m looking out my office window, What on earth am I doing here? They’d fire me if they only knew.”(p. 133) Her specific challenge to the Christian believer “is that you seek a better understanding of those who do not believe—particularly those who have walked away from the faith—and that you listen carefully to their stories and respond with honesty and sensitivity.” (p. 12) According to Tucker, for those who walk away from their faith “the process is full of sorrow and a sense of loss.” (p. 13).

Christian philosopher James F. Sennett, is another one who has seriously struggled with his faith, as seen in his unpublished book, This Much I Know: A Postmodern Apologetic. He also confesses to have had a faith crisis and wrote his book as a “first person apologetic” to answer it. In chapter one, called “The Reluctant Disciple: Anatomy of a Faith Crisis,” he wrote, “I am the one who struggles with God. I am the Reluctant Disciple.” “Once I had no doubt that God was there, but I resented him for it; now I desperately want him to be there, and am terrified that he might not be.” His faith wavered as the result of contemplating the mind-brain problem. During this crisis he said, “Sometimes I believed. Sometimes I didn’t. And it seemed to me that the latter condition was definitely on the ascendancy.”

Christian philosopher Terence Penelhum has also expressed his doubts in “A Belated Return,” in Philosophers Who Believe, ed. Kelly James Clark (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993). He says there are “serious inner clashes between the philosophical and religious strands in my psyche. They derive from the fact that I find myself an unrepentantly philosophical being, which puts me at a mental distance from most of my fellow Christians.” “I have become aware of the multiplicity of religious and secular worldviews, each supported by reasons, each felt and experienced, many institutionally developed and expressed, and each having resources for fending off and explaining away the claims of the other. I have found it easy, professionally, to assume the stance of each and all of them for pedagogical purposes. And I think it a mark of human enlightenment to be able to enter imaginatively into these alternative visions, since each of them is a vision that is lived by rational beings.”

Penelhum continues, “As a philosopher, I find that my intense awareness of the multiplicity of rational alternatives makes me feel deep alienation from fellow Christians who appear to be blessed with certainty, and with a correlative perception of the obvious falsity of such alternatives. To be frank, I do not feel their certainty to be a blessing: better, surely, I cannot help telling myself, to be a Socrates tentative than a pig without questions.” (p. 234).

Penelhum has serious problems with “some theological options,” which “seem to me totally closed, and the consideration of them to invite justified ridicule from the most sympathetic enquirers.” Here he mentions the historical Fall of Adam and Eve, and a physical ascension into heaven. He says, “we know too much to continue to encase our Christian teachings in antiquated cosmologies in the way such options require.” (p. 235).

Drs. Tucker, Sennett and Penelhum are not the only Christian believers out there who seriously struggle with their Christian faith. I did myself, just like they do. At some point my faith just came crashing down on me.

25 comments:

HeIsSailing said...

John,
I am one of those Christians who is seriously doubting. I have been a Christian most of my life, so if I leave my faith completely, it will be a process that will take some time. In the meantime, I really appreciate this website. I do not buy everything that is posted here (healthy skepticism), but at least it helps me think and reason things out. I enjoy reading what seems like sincere and honest discussion of serious issues.

I started my own site last month, and I ask for permission to shamlessly plug it here. On my site, I post what I consider to be honest questions that every Christian should have to deal with. I only post about 2 articles per week so there is not much there yet, but I welcome any feedback.
Thanks!
http://www.heissailing.edublogs.org

Hallq said...

Is James Sennett's book going to be published anytime soon? Looks like an interesting read.

Anonymous said...

I think the hardest thing about Doubt is that its like anything else in the Faith. It better be done alone and it better not cause any type of disruption. I have had doubts at times almost mind numbing, two things I have learned though is "Keep your mouth shut", any questions refer to rule one.

I think the most frustrating is that if you ask such questions it proves you dont love the Lord, are a liar, decieved of Satan etc. Truly Frustrating.

John W. Loftus said...

Hallq, Sennett attached the whole book in an email to me. I don't have permission to give it out. But circumstances in his life have changed due to a divorce and remarriage. This means he would have to revise the book significantly, since he mentions so many things in it about his personal life and former wife. He told me that he may not bother.

Every once in a while I ask him about his faith. But he remains a committed Christian.

I alerted him to this Blog entry. Maybe he will comment here. I hope he does.

Maybe I'll ask him if he would mind me doing a review of his book. He espouses a semi-existentialim, but the way he describes it doesn't seem to me to be much different than how I evaluate worldviews.

Agnosis said...

Thank you for posting the honest thoughts of some believing thinkers. I find Penelhum's distress to be symptomatic of many thinking Christians. The multitude of unaswered questions coupled with dogmatic certainty is one of the big reasons I've decided to take a step back. It's not easy and very sad for those who have been emeshed in the Christian culture since childhood. It's hard to express the grief that goes on in my heart as I wrestle with issues. I'm an agnostic currently, but one of a semi-Kierkegaardian stripe. I reject the current popular, Western, version of Christianity. If I do go back to some form of theism it will be extremely different than what I used to think. I'm sure many dogmatists would call me a heretic, but such is life in Christian America.

James Sennett said...

A comment, an acknowledgement, and a response.

First the comment - I tell my philosophy of religion students, "If you believe in God and the Argument from Evil doesn't keep you up at night, then you don't understand it. If you don't believe in God and the Argument from Design doesn't keep you up at night, then you don't understand it." The days are long behind us when the illusion that the issue of theism could be settled by demonstrative argument could be rationally sustained. Neither theism nor atheism can be honestly maintained without severe rational struggle. Yet (as I explain in my unpublished book!), from a practical point of view, there is no such thing as agnosticism. One must live as if it were true or as if it weren't. The choice, therefore, must incorporate reason but go well beyond it. This is the essence of the "semi-existentialism" to which John alludes. (Yes, John, you do represent me quite well - charitably, in fact.)

I myself would be interested in hearing from some atheists who struggle with their "faith."

Now the acknowledgement. I want to publicly thank John for the incredible support and love he has shown me over the past couple of years. He alluded in a comment to my personal difficulties, and there have been few, even within the church, who have shown the compassion, understanding, and (okay, I'll say it!) Christ-likeness that he has shown toward me -- even from a distance of many miles. I've known John since seminary days, but I love him now more than ever. Thank you, my friend.

Now the response. Hallq asks if my book will be published. I hope so, h. Right now my plans are to spend significant time this summer on a complete rewrite, and I hope to be able to bounce it off of publishers by the end of the year. Of course, I'm also trying to write a novel, and I've got a couple of contracted pieces, and they appreciate it if I show up for work every once in a while .... But getting the book redone and out is (at present, anyway ;>) a definite priority for me.

John W. Loftus said...

James, I feel such a close kinship with you, being divorced and remarried myself, and having to face the Church's condemning eyes, that I had to reach out to you. You'll always be my good friend.

I agree with you that our choices are forced ones, pace William James. And I agree with you about the problem for the atheist with regard to the Design argument.

I'll admit that when it comes to atheism, I struggle to hold to it, so yes, I feel somewhat the same as you do, from the other side.

In an interesting piece, Richard Carrier argued that "all unbelievers are both atheists and agnostics, and neither can deny either name."

But the difference is that the Design argument may only lead us to a God who merely had the power to start what Stephen Hawking described as a "quantum wave fluctuation." And that's a far cry away from a full blown Christianity. For me there isn't much difference between a distant God or none at all.

I hope this discussion will encourage you to publish the book. I think it'll make a great contribution to the literature. I'm sure of it.

But take care of yourslf and that lovely bride of yours.

Agnosis said...

Mr. Sennet,

Thank you for your willingness to be available to such a forum as this. Your intellectual honesty is inspiring.

I agree with you in part concerning pure agnosticism as a way of life. It seems to me that agnosticism is a transitory position, which can last for many years in some cases. I'm curious of what you think of a position I call Theistic Agnosticism which doubts most current expressions of theism in the Western tradition but still acknowledges some transcendent reality? Such a position maintains communal activity while actively seeking clarification and expression of the transcendent.

I look forward to publication of your thoughts.

Bruce said...

Neither theism nor atheism can be honestly maintained without severe rational struggle.

I myself would be interested in hearing from some atheists who struggle with their "faith."

Well, count me as an atheist who does NOT struggle with my "faith". I have yet to come across anything that would convince me, or even make me open to the possibility that there is some sort of supernatural being or force active in our world. I will admit that I have never been religious, ever, so I really do not know what it feels like to believe in a god or have a religious experience. But I don't struggle with that. I've never felt that I needed to look for a meaning in life or find answers to questions that we currently cannot explain by looking to any of the world's religions or other supernatural beliefs. I'm perfectly fine with the phrase "I don't know".

So I'm kind of stumped as to why atheism can't be maintained without "severe rational struggle"? The burden of proof is on those positing a supernatural explanation.

Shygetz said...

As an agnostic atheist, I think that the temptation to invoke gods is constant in the face of ignorance. I think that it may stem from a form of arrogance--if I don't know it after thinking about it so long and hard, it must be unknowable, the provence of the gods. I think it is important for a person's own character to resist this temptation. I think learning to live with ignorance and uncertainty is healthy and useful in a practical sense. If you base your certainty on false information, then you can be easily led into bad choices. If, on the other hand, you can freely admit your ignorance, then you are at least willing to prepare for unexpected occurances.

I've always wondered why theists who are not dogmatic, but merely sure that "something must exist" are comforted by that fact. I would expect that the existence of a being with enormous unmatched power and completely unknown motives would make me scared and anxious.

Zac Taylor said...

Wow, this is a great post, and some amazingly insightful comments. Thanks John, James, and others for taking time to post.

This relationship between John and James is one that should be shared by every believer and unbeliever - one of honesty and understanding. One that recognizes serious issues on both sides of the aisle, and that in the end, we all have to make a tough choice to go with our gut to where we feel the evidence points.

I needed to see this today. Thanks! Looking forward to the book.

steven said...

SENNETT
I myself would be interested in hearing from some atheists who struggle with their "faith."

CARR
I don't believe in a god, but I could be wrong.

Why is it a struggle to admit to myself the possibility that I might be mistaken?

Doubt is not a 'struggle' for atheists.

There are a lot of areas in my life where I believe things which may not be true.

I believe that there may well be life on other planets.

I could be wrong.

I believe Goldbach's Conjecture is true.

I could be wrong.

But I don't 'struggle' with these beliefs.

I just accept that they may be mistaken.

Doubt as 'struggle' seems to be a Christian thing, not an atheist thing.

Sacred Slut said...

Neither theism nor atheism can be honestly maintained without severe rational struggle.

Not true at all. I've been an atheist for just over a year. I don't struggle to maintain my "faith" as there is no "faith" involved. There was a search for information and deep and honest analysis of that information. The result was atheism. That was not the result I expected nor particularly wanted when I set out to explore the nature of god. I was disturbed at the radical shift I had to make in my worldview based on the facts, and it continues to be an adjustment.

I am still open to the possibility of a non-material soul (zero evidence known) or some type of "prime mover" (who would bear no resemblance to the Western god as far as I can tell). But I see no reason to put a supernatural interpretation on the data we have.

So I am not "struggling" to maintain my belief system, even though it may have aspects that are not to my liking.

exapologist said...

I guess I would say that my views are closer to John's. On my view, all we've got is a cumulative case based on an odd assortment of clues. Some pull me in one direction, some in the other. And whenever I re-evaluate the data, I end up somewhere around "counterbalanced" or worse. Some times, though, I feel tugged a bit above the line. However, even in those cases, I don't see the evidence as fine-grained enough to point to a particular theistic religion -- or even to any religious form of theism at all (I don't know what it could be about my evidence that would clinch it for theism over, say, deism. What could it be? Religious experience? How active and personal does God have to be to differentiate deism from theism?). Also, unfortunately, the research project that sees Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet has sort of closed the door on Christianity for me.

In any case, thanks so much for your input, James. I very much enjoyed your book, Modality, Probability, and Rationality, as well as your article in Phil. Christi responding to Quentin Smith.

exapologist said...

Oops: "research program", not "research project". :)

Troy Waller said...

I think two things that need to be addressed in any discussion on 'doubts' are fear and indoctrination.

Most of us are so conditioned as Christians that the step away from it can be fraught with uncertainty and debilitating fear. Then when we finally get the courage to make the move, the little voice of doubt, the Christian script, starts to play and in comes the doubt and fear. For some, this goes on for years.

The problem with admitting that though is that the Christians on boards like these tend to say, "Ah ha! You doubt! Your position is not so secure. The Holy Spirit is witnessing to you internally. Therefore Christianity is true!" Of course the logic in that is as silly as saying Christianity is untrue simply because some Christians doubt.

Anyway, this is worth a post in itself, but nevertheless, the emotional issues involved in walking away for the faith, and staying whole as one does this, are definitely something most of us face.

Victor Reppert said...

My most serious crisis of faith happened when I was 19 and started reading the Bible from a Calvinistic perspective. Nothing since, including a Ph.D philosophy education, has been so troublesome.

Daniel said...

Dr. Sennett,

I am one atheist who struggles with the possible existence of a "god of the philosophers"; the problem of evil is all that convinces me that an "omni-3" God doesn't exist. I agree on the Argument from Design being powerful, but I prefer to couch it in the cosmological terms, rather than biological -- the "fine-tuning argument". I think that argument is a rational one.

My only rational defense is to say:
i) The universe has oscillated infinitely many times and each time a different configuration of the physical constants has come about
ii) Our universe may not be the only one
iii) The constants of our universe cannot be "tweaked" one at a time, but different ratios of, say, gravity to the strong nuclear force to EM may indeed still allow for life. That is, you can't change one without drastic results, but can you change the ratios? No one knows.

But it still bothers me, I think it is still a good argument. Of course, the question of how God's own nature exists as it does still remains with respect to design.

So count me as an atheist who sometimes struggles with the possibility of a god. I don't struggle with the possibility of a Christian God, though.

Daniel said...

Dr. Reppert,

I know exactly what you mean; my long slow slide toward atheism started with an involved study of Calvinism and its teachings. Their conceptions of god made me re-evaluate what the "goodness of god" could mean.

John W. Loftus said...

Calvinism probably creates more atheists than any other theology. It's morally bankrupt, in my opinion.

John W. Loftus said...

Jason Bird emailed this to me and wanted me to post it:

Man did I enjoy the post and I enjoyed the point about the friendship between John and James - I find that rather enlightening.

I struggle with a lot of the same things as many of the writer's on the blog - which I actually enjoy to read. No person has this world all figured out and that's honesty I enjoy. I am a Christian person who has his views, and as simple as I can make them, I do. I find that simplicity for me seems to be key in some scenarios - namely in 'spur of the moment ones'.

I enjoy the critique of my faith and the questions being asked - heck I ask a lot of them too. I think open dialogue is something we need as a community of people to thrive - it's when we get 'close minded' on something that we delve into pushing the other aside for our own 'pride'. And maybe that's what this blog has shown me.

Hey John, loved it man!

Tommy said...

I don't struggle with my atheism at all. I look at it this way, if there is a higher power in the universe, I figure it is rational and advanced enough that it is not going to be bothered if I do not believe in its existence. If it judges us at all, it will judge us based on our conduct towards our fellow men and women and not whether or not we were willing to believe in bizarre stories.

An argument from design does not mean the God of the Bible.

R said...

Tommy's statement above made me think. And then I realised that I don't struggle with Christianity.

Still, I'm a self-confessed Christian doubter. It is my oft expressed opinion that there would be no need for faith if there was no cause for doubt. Our relationship to God would then be renamed fact. Or, for that matter, truth, which sounds more spiritual.

Even though I doubt sometimes, my long term experience continues to support my belief. So, I believe. And, it seems to me, everytime I doubt, I become a stronger believer.

But, at the same time, I do not disparage doubt, being one who grapples with it from time to time.

Michael said...

Coming in a bit late here...

As a former Christian of 24-some-odd years, I can say that I do still contemplate the "Design of the Universe" and that I do still, occasionally, play the "If God exists game." (It was precisely my ability to become comfortable playing this "game" that led me to question my faith and eventually, led me to realize the honesty of atheism).

The degree to which we take seriously the "what if"-type questions, seems to be in direct proportion to the degree in which we believe a judgmental God is waiting on the other end to have his way with us.

The act of even mentioning this is, however, enough to convince me of its foolishness.

Christian hit over the head by struggle said...

Boy! I wrote a whole novel, just about, then it got erased because i wrote it BEFORE I became a member. So this'll be short and sweet. I'm a christian who's had very strong and plentiful doubts. i'm still dealing with them. to the anonymous person who said you'd better keep your mouth shut about your doubts: I think i can relate because I've stopped going to Bible studies and prayer group meetings due to feeling in the minority with the intensity of my doubts. I was lucky to find exactly who I needed to tell my doubts to. A Christian minister-psychologist licensed to counsel in my state. i like him because he's not horrified at my unholy thoughts (thoughts directly related to the faith issue and all kinds of other thoughts), he acts less holy than thou, and he's a deep thinker. Maybe you can consider talking with someone similar. P.S. i found this website cause i was searching for a church that caters to chrisitans struggling with their faith.
To the site host: thanks for creating this forum in the spirit of disagreeing agreeably and discussion that can be beneficial.