Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Doubt unleashed

Written by: on January 25, 2018

Dominic Erdozain, in his remarkable book, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, takes conventional wisdom and flips it on its head. While most would claim that doubt is a child of secularity, finding its source in the abandonment of faith, Erdozain demonstrates that an outcome of the Reformation is the freeing of one’s conscience. The ability to doubt rather than believe, to question rather than conform, is grown in the verdant soil of religious belief as it springs up together with reason.

The advent of print capitalism and Martin Luther’s works being so rapidly disseminated allowed for a sustained criticism of ecclesial power. Between 1518 and 1525, Luther sold one-third of all German-language books printed.[1]  With the upheaval brought by the reforming movement, the Church no longer spoke with one clear voice. No longer was the Magisterium the definitive voice of catechesis.

The abandonment of this authority led to fragmentation, confusion, the Peasant Wars, and violence against those who would be deemed heretical. While the external upheavals eventually ceased, the interior reasoning of the conscience was unleashed to begin a journey that continues today.  Going forward, one didn’t need to defer to the Pope; instead one’s conscience became the guide.  An obvious problem emerged as the Bible and orthodoxy were critiqued. “As Spinoza later commented, there was truth in the Dutch saying, ‘every heretic has his text.’”[2]

While David Bebbington calls the Victorian Age “the Evangelical Century”[3], typified by its missionary zeal and social action, Erdozain illuminates what was going on in the mind. “The Victorian crisis of faith … was a time of painful and intense disenchantment, in which the Bible and orthodoxy came under sustained attack, but it was driven by conscience, not science.”[4]

Western civil society has been built upon the universities, hospitals, schools, social service agencies, as well as the political frameworks, rights and freedoms that have roots in Judeo-Christian values.  The flourishing of religious faith created the conditions for these structures to thrive and benefit all citizens, whether they professed faith or not.  Christopher Johnson from the University of Wisconsin states, “Even when the doctrines and forms of that religion are rejected, the religious motivations of freedom of conscience and confessional tolerance can persist in even the most disdainful critics.”[5] Without vibrant faith, we wouldn’t have the societies we have today; yet one of their key features is the ability to disagree with the founding faith.

One of the headline grabbing items in Canadian news over the past few weeks is the Trudeau Government’s restricting access to public funds by religiously-motivated charities. If a faith-based charity cannot in good conscience check a box on the Canada Summer Jobs application which attests that abortion services are a right, then they aren’t eligible for funding.[6]  These small grants are awarded to charities to hire young people over their summer break and give them an opportunity to earn money while doing good for their communities.  Yet virulent strains of political correctness have become increasingly anti-Christian and have gathered against the freedoms of speech and religion we share.  The result is that people of faith and their organizations are now frequently sidelined as a curious appendage by secular elites that disdain religion.

In our culture, we are free to believe; but it seems we are now freer to doubt. This is true even more so for the young who record growth in unbelief[7]. As one who will be creating a giving group of Millennials this year, it is important to recognize the powerful cultural influences which favour doubt over faith. How to nurture belief in those constrained by doubt is a key issue for consideration.

While doubt can seem threatening and people of faith often feel attacked, I take consolation in an unusual exemplar of one who doubted. It was a shock for many to discover posthumously that St Teresa of Kolkata (formerly known as Mother Teresa) was a woman who was frequently beset with doubt. In her journal entries now transcribed in a book Come Be My Light, she shares her often black nights of depression and sense of abandonment by God who she served through her Missionaries of Charity order.

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one-You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer-no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One. –Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness.”[8]

Surrounded by the abject poverty and cruel hopelessness of the poor in  the slums of India, St Teresa was overwhelmed. Yet she kept waking each day and serving her constituents with a willing heart. This relentless persistence reads more to me of faith than it does of doubt, regardless of those journal entries.

Maybe it’s time, like Dominic Erdozain seems to suggest, to embrace doubt as the shadowy side of faith. It’s not in opposition but another manifestation of belief. The fact that we are struggling in the darkness with God is evidence that faith is there. Our freedom to believe and to doubt illustrate that we are created in the image of God, and that, like Jacob, we meet God in the struggle.[9]


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (New York: Verso, 1991), 39.

[2] Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 75.

[3] Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 149.

[4] Erdozain, 174-175.

[5] Johnson, Christopher D. L. “The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, by Dominic Erdozain,” Religion 47, no. 3 (July 3, 2017): 526–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/0048721X.2016.1244635.  Accessed on January 25, 2018.

[6] http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/summer-jobs-abortion-hajdu-analysis-wherry-1.4499907. Accessed on January 25, 2018.

[7] Smith, Christian, and Melina Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[8] Markey, Eileen. “Mother Teresa’s silence.” National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2007, 8. Academic OneFile (accessed January 25, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A168748378/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=a9b46fc2.

[9] Genesis 32:22-32

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

14 responses to “Doubt unleashed”

  1. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Mark, well said. “we meet God in the struggle.” Doubt has been key in shaping my personal faith in many of the same ways Erdoain describes doubt shaping history. But you bring up an important point in noting that our modern culture is more apt to embrace doubt than faith–which is another way of robbing us of that essential struggle.

    If missionaries (and those who receive funding) were more candid about their doubts, how do you think that would effect donors?

    • I trust those who are truthful and don’t look for tightly sealed packages of faithful purity when we fund Christian initiatives. 😉 In other words, I hope I allow space for people to doubt and grieve and sin etc etc. More authenticity on all sides is needed.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    I loved your reminders of Mother Teresa, but I did not know of her struggles with doubt. It doesn’t surprise me though. I think this is fairly normal, of there is such a thing as normal doubt.

    I think Erdozain called this a “crisis of faith” and I believe it is common in someone coming to a saving faith. Like John the Baptist, who said something like, “Are you the one, or should I be looking for someone else?”

    Is he a good example?

    • I think John the Baptist is a great example. His life ended with his head on a platter, and without seeing the fullness of Christ revealed through life, suffering, death, and resurrection. All these saints through the ages that didn’t see what they hoped for are such good role models of those who had faith despite the blackness of evidence surrounding them.

      From Hebrews 11:

      Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

      39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

      And, Jay, you are a great example too!! 🙂

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, great job…though I did not recognize you by the new profile picture at the top of your post. LOL.

    I appreciate the practicality of a discussion on “doubt”, but the rational in its power for growth kind of eludes me. I think of the story of Peter walking on water…something I have never been able to pull off…and remember Christ response to him; “O you of little faith, why did you doubt.” Matthew 14:31. I have always seen to looks on Christ face in this scripture; first, the proud Master that watched as His learning disciple eagerly jumped out of the boat and actually WALKED ON WATER. I believe Christ was pleased that Peter’s faith had grown stronger than his doubt. But then Peter sinks, and we are confronted by the second face of Christ; that of disappointment. Doubt showed Peter’s still remaining weakness in his faith. I have told people that I believe Christ came to the world to accomplish two main goals; first, He came to overcome death through His sacrifice on the cross, and second, to train a small group of men to take over for Him once He left this world. Doubt was the factor that was dragging out the process of His return to heaven. So I never saw doubt as a good thing.

    How do you view doubt in relationship to a growing an emerging faith?

    • Shawn,

      I had a good laugh with your first comment above! 🙂

      Another way to look at faith/doubt is to see both of these being different manifestations of faith. Doubt is normal in all of our lives. Doubt is struggling to believe. I think doubt is a critical part of any faith journey because it shows that the struggle towards believing is present.

      So my view is that it’s not doubt that is the negative of faith, since both are struggling towards belief. The negative side of faith/doubt would be: not caring, not feeling, not struggling… just being apathetic and not seeking God.

  4. M Webb says:

    Excellent opening and clarification on how conscience fit into Erdozain’s break-out themes from the post-Reformation. I think you have a good contextual understanding on the relationship between doubt and faith and see the challenges for end-times evangelism.
    You relate to doubt and faith together like how I saw Erdozain’s religion and secularism. Their relationship, to me is almost symbiotic, but not to survive, but to grow into where evangelicalism is today.
    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    Great read on the shadowy side of doubt. As you walk through the difficulties in working with millennial givers and the “loss of faith” what is the angle which you are bringing to them to see the benefits of faith and giving?

    • I think one of the benefits is that giving is a very practical expression of faith in action. I think Millennials especially need to have faith expressed in concrete ways. And I will look for the Millennial group to expand beyond giving to being involved, being changed by those they seek to help…

  6. Trisha Welstad says:

    I too thought of Mother Theresa as I read Erdozain as well as St. John of the Cross and his “Dark Night of the Soul.”

    I am sad to hear about the news report of faith-based charities not receiving funds due to their religious beliefs being in conflict with the political leanings of the day. I think the US is not far behind on making moves this way, as we have already begun.

    You say, we are free to believe but we are freer to doubt. I don’t disagree but I do wonder, how do we make healthy space for people to be free to believe? Is it individual, social, spiritual? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  7. I think we make those healthy spaces by being genuine, honest, and authentic with ourselves and others about our own faith journeys, our own struggles, and being really present with others. This creates a space where people can begin to believe, or at least begin to struggle to believe, again. I have been so impressed by the little community we have here at SSU http://www.ssu.ca which encourages community, and accepts people where they are at, with all their baggage. It doesn’t require people to sign a form saying they believe in various points of doctrine or lifestyle commitments. But it does claim that Jesus is at the centre, like a glowing fire, and we are free to gather near the fire and warm ourselves. Not coercing the community to believe seems to make it a place where this freedom is truly appreciated and embraced.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Excellent post, thank you, Mark! I enjoyed your combination of overview of the book, application to contemporary society (especially in Canada) and your critical thinking about what all of this might mean.
    As I was reading, especially the description about Millennials and doubt, I was thinking: sometimes today’s “doubt” seems really disconnected from any sense of faith. Or, that I feel like people have rejected a “faith” that they never knew, or barely heard about, or have very twisted ideas about. This seems like a major change from the historical perspective that Erdozain’s book gives. I suspect today’s “doubters” would seem of quite foreign origin to most of their kin who came in centuries before…

    • I agree with you, Dave, regarding today’s culture of doubt. That’s great food for thought – disconnected from any sense of faith our minds are already made up in today’s culture. Those are powerful negative forces.

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