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Faith and Doubt

Yesterday I read parts of a book called Is There a Text in this Class by Stanley Fish.  It is a book that looks at alternatives to literary theory, centring on reader response and arguing, contra some post modernists, that there are limits on interpretation determined by the unspoken rules/norms of an interpretive community.  (Are you impressed I wrote that? I am!).  Anyway, I found what follows in a chapter that explores the limits of what is, essentially, interpretive orthodoxy.

"doubting is not something one does outside the assumptions that enables one's consciousness; rather doubting, like any other mental activity, is something that one does within a set of assumptions that at the same time be the object of doubt.  That is to say, one does not doubt in a vacuum but from a perspective, and that perspective itself is immune from doubt until it has been replaced with another which will then be similarly immune.  The project of radical doubt can never outrun the necessity of being situated; in order to doubt everything, including the ground one stands on, on must stand somewhere else, and that somewhere else will then be the ground on which one stands."

The argument goes on for a lot more words and I can't claim to  grasp all of it, but it seems to say 'you can only doubt from a perspective of belief, otherwise there would be nothing to doubt.'  I found this quite fascinating, and potentially liberating for those who fear doubt (or questioning) as somehow indicative of loss of faith.  If I've understood him correctly, and if Fish is right, then bizarrely doubt/questioning actually demonstrates that belief is still there.  If belief goes, then the doubt evaporates as irrelevant.  Alternativley, so long as someone continues to doubt, they must also, to some degree, believe.  Lack of doubt might be more about lack of willingness to risk thinking or testing ideas rather than certainty.

I think there are some ideas here I might want to lodge for something I'm involved with next year where it just might be useful.  For now, I think I have found something helpful for pastoral situation where people express doubts or raise questions.


  • I'm sure you don't need me to tell you this, but it is always useful to get people to focus on their beliefs and not on their doubts. Quite often the reason for their doubt is found in their unstated and unexamined beliefs.

  • I agree, so long as it doesn't turn into evasion of real questions; maybe it's a both/and kind of a thing?

    I guess part of why it struck a chord is that people often keep silent about their doubts and questions because they fear rejection or ridicule. There is often a culture of dishonesty in churches and I am wondering if freedom to see that doubts are not the same as loss of faith might be helpful. I could, of course, be wrong.

  • I remember this comment from one of the "Duffers Guide" series - the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

    Doubts make you look at what you believe and at what you don't believe. Sometimes I work out what I believe by taking a doubt and pushing it as far as I can. In the end it becomes so ridiculous that I realise I don;t believe that after all!

    But I'm not convinced your quote is talking about faith. I think he's simply saying that it's impossible to doubt everything all at once. That we all start with prior assumptions as to what IS, and then build our doubts around it. We can't question the what IS unless we move to a different position.
    So for myself, I used to doubt that God existed. Then I had an encounter with Him, which made that particular doubt impossible. Now my temptation is to doubt that God is good or that he loves me.

  • Hi Helen, you're right, the quote isn't about faith, I'm just wondering whether it has any mileage in such a context ... it may not have and the comments help me thinking it through. So thank you.

  • I think Fish brings a very helpful insight. It reminds me of a quote from one of the Cadfael books that goes something like this: 'Doubt is the grain of sand in the oyster of faith.'

  • Thanks Tim, that's helpful and I think is probably the kind of thing I'm leaning towards. Hope all is well in the 'soke'

The comments are closed.