The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson is worth reading. In fact, it’s worth getting the book just to read the last nine pages of his final chapter that beautifully and poignantly describes a Christian life well questioned.
The theme of the book is the challenge of questioning well. Anderson argues that not only is questioning important to a well-reasoned faith, but it is core to the development of Christian intellect and character. Writing out of a conservative Christian context that is often characterized as an anti-intellectual space that discourages those whose questions would disrupt the status quo, Anderson makes a critical case for questioning’s importance to that community — a case that applies well to the Christian community as a whole.
The End of Our Exploring includes his critique of a culture that prizes “sincerity” above all else (35), his distinction between easy access to information and pursuing understanding (72), his condemnation of the constant pursuit of novelty in place of truth (117), and his encouragement that churches allow “belonging after believing” for those who have turned away from their faith (204), just to name a few. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the section in which he points to our personal friendship as “good for America,” as we are friends who believe that the other is wrong about nearly everything (160).
In that vein, I don’t want to spend too much time pointing out my areas of agreement when we both have a lot more fun jumping in on the areas of contention.
In chapter 3, “On Doubt and What Doubt Isn’t,” I can say that he isn’t entirely wrong. He makes the important distinction that “questioning” is not the same as “doubting.” Questioning is typically experienced as an action, while doubting is a state of being. Anderson also points out that the modern church has almost entirely lost any sense of its need for “lament.” When tragedy strikes or “bad things happen to good people,” our response does not always have to be doubting God’s goodness but rather lamenting the world’s fallenness. While he makes a good point, I would probably argue for doubt and lament to walk together more than Anderson would feel comfortable with.
However, he overstates his case against the role of doubt. He goes on to argue that doubt is “a vacillating double-mindedness that prevents us from living a fully integrated life within the world.” While questioning should be a regular practice for Christians, he argues that “Doubt is not an inevitable part of the Christian life, nor is it a sign of maturity or strength- but will always remain a possibility.”
Anderson essentially argues that doubt is like weeds in the garden of faith. Everyone might have a few now and then, but they are by and large undesirable. An experienced gardener will limit their presence and pull them out before they can take root and do damage. The existence of weeds in a garden does not mean that faith is absent or invalid, but if one allows these weeds to run rampant, they can and will eventually overrun and destroy the garden entirely.
I would counter that vision and say that doubt is the fertilizer in the garden of faith. The point of the garden is not to have fertilizer, but it is impossible to have a garden for long without at least some of it. Manure and other biodegrading organic matter can at times be unpleasant as they break down. But it is that process of decomposition that makes fertilizer valuable to the garden.
Still, with this analogy it is important to acknowledge that health in a garden requires some balance. Your garden will quickly die and turn into a compost pile if all you do is continue to dump on manure.
To question well requires doubt.
If we do not experience a deep sense of uncertainty as to how the question we are asking may or may not be answered, then we are not, I would argue, in full exploration of the question. Anderson argues that our questions should occur “within the borders of faith” and that when we question “we do not weigh Christianity in the balances.” These sorts of presuppositions can not only make the questions we ask anemic, they also leave us open to the great danger of assuming that what we believe today as a “border of faith” should actually be a “border of faith.” A growing faith quite likely means that what we think it means to “weigh Christianity in the balances” at one point in our life, will not mean the same thing later. And that’s a good thing.
Anderson and I would agree that good questions have a role in the growth of our faith throughout the life of a believer. We always live with the knowledge that we might one day discover that a belief we have held is wrong, insufficient, or able to be improved upon. But Anderson believes this ongoing pursuit of better questions and answers can continue without doubt. I disagree. Without truly doubting and opening yourself to the possibility that even many of your most deeply held tenets of faith could be wrong or inadequate, questioning will remain a mental exercise that does not reach its potential for personal transformation.
Doubt, I would argue, is that state of change that allows for the questions to continue and faith to grow. And as the husks of beliefs that were wrong, too small, or in other ways insufficient fall aside, they join in the process of fertilizing a more perfect faith through their own decomposition.
Faith is grown not by the removal of doubt but by acting in its presence.
Timothy King is Chief Strategy Officer for Sojourners.