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Doubt and Certainty

Written by: on January 25, 2018

Historian, Dominic Erdozain’s, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx focuses on the roots of secularism that arise from seeds of doubt within Christendom from the era of the Reformation and grow into the modern era. “The ‘religious roots’ that I consider fundamental to modern cultures of unbelief are twofold: the positive content of dissent, including conscience, Bible and Christian ethics, and the negative stimulus of dogma, persecution, and theologically induced fear.”[1] While quite varied from many of his colleagues on the presentation of Enlightenment history, Erdozain’s reinterpretation offers important understanding of the roots of unbelief both then and now.[2]

Citing Erdozain’s understanding of historic figures as being motivated out of personal conviction, or as noted time and again, conscience, Bradford Littlejohn writes, “rather than imagining the move from the Reformation to early modernity as a steady march of triumphant natural reason—cold hard facts over superstitions—or as a retreating tide of faith like that of Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” we must recognize the great movers and shakers of modernity as men and women motivated by passionate moral and religious conscience.”[3] This “passionate conscience” drives Erdozain’s text from Luther to Spinoza to Darwin, revealing their connection to deeply held Protestant belief in their actions and relations, even when the outcome was less Christian than those of their time.

Considering David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities alongside Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt, a more full picture of the Evangelical Christian tree begins to emerge including those who helped form it from its leadership to its dissenters. The scope of each author begins as early as the Reformation and utilizes the stories of important characters such as Luther (included in all three and dubbed by Erdozain as a ‘prophet of conscience’[4]) who’s influence, be it activism in promoting the gospel, distributing the earliest mass printed Christian material, or flexing their moral conscience against the dominant Christian culture of the day, left lasting effects on epistemology as we know it today.

It is important to note that Erdozain in particular, tackles a challenging subject from a historical framework. To map the route of doubt over a period of multiple centuries is a daunting task, with much of its evidence based in the outcomes of the doubter and those impacted. As critic Eric Carlsson witnessed, “Erdozain connects the dots across nearly four centuries, piling up a huge mound of evidence to show just how thick were the lines of continuity among the critics. The greatest feat of The Soul of Doubt is to have identified and explicated a broad and persistent tradition of religiously based anti-orthodoxy that has often eluded students of secularization and historians working on more narrowly defined epochs.”[5]

Further driving the message of the unlikelihood of scholars to take on the Enlightenment less fixated as an age of reason and more as the supposed secularization of those who sought to critique the bland status-quo propagating Christianity of the day is Littlejohn’s review stating, “Erdozain’s reinterpretation of the Enlightenment, which is at the heart of the book, offers an important and valuable contribution to our understanding of, in the words of the subtitle, “the religious roots of unbelief,” and the still-religious fruits of unbelief today.”[6]

Not all reviews of The Soul of Doubt were complete in their praise for the text. Littlejohn balances his highlight of the core theme with critical aspects from the introductory chapters, “The language of these early chapters especially—Chapter 1 on Luther and his radical opponents, Chapter 2 on Calvin and his, and Chapter 3 on seventeenth-century “Calvinism” and its critics—is disconcertingly polarized for a modern work of intellectual history.”[7]

Vincent Pecora remarks about the limitation of modern voices and the lack of critical view from varying disciplines on the term “conscience” in Erdozain’s writing, stating, “Beyond perfunctory references to Nietzsche and Weber, Erdozain…cites few modern scholars and seems innocent of the critical heritage they form.”[8] Regarding conscience, “Because the meaning of the term “conscience” is never explored philosophically or psychologically…the normative force of Erdozain’s preference always seems smuggled into the discussion.”[9]

In my reading of The Soul of Doubt, Erdozain indeed takes a differing perspective of the Enlightenment, with a critical view on how history is largely interpreted. He has an eye particularly for those who sought to reconcile their internal spirituality with their religious culture. Their motivation is out of unction, conscience, following God even. This fervor is notable and needed to shape culture, even with the fall out that lay ahead. Still today, many seek to understand God and their doubt or, further, don’t find a need for Christian religion in their life because of their own moral goodness and a view of Christianity as a perpetuator of privilege, patriarchy, and condemnation and oppression of outsiders. We have found this to be true of our non-Christian friends time and again, who by their external actions are some of the most pious people we know, but when asked about belief are far from affirming the gospel of Jesus as their truth.

Modern popular writer, Anne Lamott, captures much of what Erdozain has discovered in his historic research of the famed doubters and their critique of Christianity in the following quote, “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”[10]

As we hear in Lamott’s story, the church may be waking up to the great need for people to doubt in spaces where they will be received, but a gap remains for the humbling of the certainty of dogma and its trappings of persecution and fear, which continues to produce an anti-religious movement.

 

[1] Erdozian, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016, 7.

[2] Littlejohn, “Dominic Erdozain. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx.” Political Theology. 17, no. 6, (2016), 591.

[3] Littlejohn, 589

[4] Erdozain, 7.

[5] Carlsson, Eric. “Dominic Erdozain. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx.” Church History. 86 no. 3 (2017), 880-881.

[6] Littlejohn, 591.

[7] Ibid, 590.

[8] Pecora, Vincent P., “Dominic Erdozain. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx.” The American Historical Review. 122, no. 4 (2017): 1300-1301.

[9] Pecora, 1300.

[10] Lamott, Anne. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Riverhead Books, 2006.

About the Author

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Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

14 responses to “Doubt and Certainty”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Trisha, I’m wondering how you imagine discipleship might play a role in helping the church to create spaces where doubters can be received? Is there another way you see this book and theme connecting to your project?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jenn, I think providing space for people to just be, ask questions and not be in full-alignment all the time is a risky but healthy space for the church. There are always doubters among us, I just wonder if we give them room to be themselves. I don’t have particular prescriptions for discipleship as I think it needs to be contextualized. More than anything, the maturity of leadership to allow people to be who they are where they are without supposing to hold all the answers but while still genuinely loving them and the leader being still their own self is huge.

      Honestly, I did not think of this book much in regard to my project. I am sure I could have more but was mostly analyzing it and its critiques for what they were. On further inspection, I would look at the leadership of the church and how it was reacting to those critical voices on the inside.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Trish,

    Loved to think about this quote you included, “I remembered something Father Tom had told me—that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely.”

    I had never thought of this before. Like the author, I thought the opposite of faith was doubt (which comes from God’s enemy). To hear that the opposite of faith might be “certainty” is interesting. Certainty, when it goes past Biblical “assurance”, can go too far, and is probably also from God’s enemy.

    Am I on the right track?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Yes Jay, I agree. I think certainty does not allow for people to ask honest questions to get to the root of their belief or disbelief as it were. Assurance is needed but certainty may hinge on arrogance.

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    First, Trish, you are a talented writer. You have a gift of retaining information from past readings and eloquently blending them into new readings.

    Second, you made a comment that I appreciated, but at the same time was curious of your opinion on. “Still today, many seek to understand God and their doubt or, further, don’t find a need for Christian religion in their life because of their own moral goodness and a view of Christianity as a perpetuator of privilege, patriarchy, and condemnation and oppression of outsiders.” Do you believe this is truly the case? Do people today seek to understand God, or do they seek to abide by their own moral goodness? Are those two things actually the same, or do you see the potential for conflict between them? Your post mentioned the failure to actually defining “conscience”, and I suppose that is my same impression of the modern problem with Christianity. There are some who truly seem focused on trying to understand God, while others simply cling to their religious affiliation, and yet others, they cling to what they have decided is right according to their own conscience. These will very seldom net the same result.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      You found my provocative statement Shawn. I think this is sometimes true and people do both- seek to understand God and sometimes go toward their own moral goodness based on what ever definition of moral goodness they hold. I think we have a lot of roving definitions, from conscience to Evangelicalism to nationalism to good. Well, at least many different starting places which often lead us to very different ends as well.

  4. mm M Webb says:

    Trish,

    I like your comparison comment about how Bebbington, Anderson, and Erdozain paints a “full picture of the Evangelical Christian tree.” Like we talked about in the last F2F, activism is what stands the Evangelical world view apart from the rest. The passion, motivation, and divine drive to share the Good News around the glove is the hallmark difference, and solution to humankind’s problem with sin.
    How did you feel about Erdozain’s symbiotic type relationship between religion and secularism? I rejected it at first. After digging around some other authors, looking at the Latin definition for secular, and wondering how the Holy Spirit could help Luther, Wesley, and others break away from the strongholds of Catholicism, I began to see the relationship. In God’s economy, nothing goes to waste, and I think in this situation, secularism was the catalyst to help drive the change and transport Protestant Christianity to the West.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  5. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Trish! Well done post. I loved this statement:
    “the church may be waking up to the great need for people to doubt in spaces where they will be received, but a gap remains for the humbling of the certainty of dogma and its trappings of persecution and fear”. I believe that until we are able to embrace the doubters and non-believers in love and acceptance, the church will not grow. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to loving the unlovable. Your thoughts? And this is especially challenging on a college campus where young adults are going through a developmentally normal stage of doubt?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Yes, Jean, I totally agree. I was sitting in church this morning and started thinking about the sermon I am going to preach next week on the fruit of the Spirit. I will focus on love, joy and peace. But as I kept reading it says, “against such things there is no law.” I immediately thought of all the laws we have, which are about keeping people from doing certain things wrong or harming others. Yet, we don’t have any laws on loving one another or caring for the other. When we actually live in the fullness of the Spirit of God, the fruit will be abundant and everyone benefits and no one is harmed. So why don’t we live in the fruit of the Spirit as Christians and love others well? I think the answers are varied and Mike has some things to say in his post about it as well. I just know that the love of God is the answer as overplayed as it sounds.

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Trisha,
    Good post, I wonder if those you spoke of towards the end of the post have been scarred by Christians and harbor a resentment or if, like many they have just watched from the outside at the ugliness we can sometimes perpetrate? Would be an interesting study.
    Nevertheless, being able to question God and bring our doubts to him is not something new. Nicodemus doubted what his tradition told him and went to Christ for affirmation. The father whose some was demon possessed came to Christ and cried out help me in my unbelief. Our doubt does not harm God, I have always felt it leads to a deeper conversation with his spirit.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Yes, Jason I agree God is more than enough to handle human doubt.
      Your question, “I wonder if those you spoke of towards the end of the post have been scarred by Christians and harbor a resentment or if, like many they have just watched from the outside at the ugliness we can sometimes perpetrate?” leads me to think both. It would be an interesting study but from my off-hand experience I would say I have seen both up close and from afar.

  7. Trisha,

    In my opinion, this was the best post you ever done! I loved how you made it work and apply even to today’s culture with the Lamott quote.

    I think Erdozain offered a unique gift when he saw the history of doubt not as an attack on Christianity but as a struggle within it. It’s good revisionist history. My undergrad was in post-Reformation European History, but I learned the Enlightenment was the beginning of a wave of secularity, purging us of our religion, rather than people struggling with their freed consciences.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Mark, thanks. I never know how I feel about these when finished and you all surprise me with your comments and your own posts each week.

      I have multiple thoughts for you. First, do you listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s revisionist history podcast? I think it’s fascinating and really informative for a non-history buff like me.

      Second, I didn’t know your undergrad was focused on post-Reformation European History (I guess, how would I?) but am now very intrigued to have a conversation and to go read your post. With each book this semester I keep thinking, “Oh my, I have not studied the Reformation or the Enlightenment enough and need to learn how all these strings come together to lead us where we are today.”

      Finally, I totally agree about Erdozain’s gift and the need for self-reflection and critique by the church. This is how we grow. It’s sad that reason and science would be shunned by the church when they too are gifts from God that help us know Him, ourselves and our world in new and beautiful ways.

  8. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job Trish! You are right on, embracing doubt can be a very attractive thing to outsiders. On the same side though, at some point, we might need to take positions of moral authority and say, “ok this is how it is”… but then also I have doubts about it. Great quote from Anne Lammot. I’m reminded of the story of Mother Theresa who when asked to pray for someone to give him clarity on what to do, she said “no, I will not pray for that. I will pray for you to have faith to do it in the midst of uncertainty.” (that’s my paraphrase version at least.

    I think there are two sides of this doubt issue. One is in the individual life of the believer struggling over a wide spectrum of issues. And secondly is the corporate issues of the skeptic authenticity of our Christian religion.

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