Doubt as Relational

Faith is personal, so it cannot depend solely on empirical data.

Excerpted From
Why I Still Believe
By Mary Jo Sharp

Perhaps one of the more difficult problems with my questioning was that my doubt was directed toward a person, and I was basically unaware of it. My doubt had beginnings in distrust of people, human persons who professed allegiance and submission to another kind of person. In hindsight, I can see that my distrust of Christians had transferred to distrust of Jesus. I had experienced poor relationships, authoritarian leadership, and anti-intellectualism from the outset of my commitment to a local church body. I had very little Christian relational influence upon which to model my relational trust of God. It’s like people who can’t believe in God the Father because they themselves experienced a bad father. (Ironically, I had a good father, who generally didn’t mention God unless he was telling a particularly funny joke.) However, if asked, I would have told you that I was interested solely in discovering what was true. Unlike “those” people who had grown up in church, I had no background in Christianity, no commitments I had to uphold. I could see with the dry light of objectivity.

Can you see my hubris? What a mess! I do believe that, in whatever way was available to me, I went looking for the truth about God. Yet I tend to think that when I’m investigating an issue, such as belief in God, I’m going to look at things for “just the facts.” For instance, when I initially grappled with the question of Jesus’ resurrection, I treated the whole endeavor as an academic research project. Well, the facts suggest that either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not rise from the dead. Logically, both cannot be true. So I’m going to have to go with the hypothesis with the most explanatory power … wherever the data leads.

I had such an idealistic view of my endeavor. Curiously, I didn’t carefully think through that it wasn’t an abstract idea or impersonal hypothesis that I was investigating, but a person. At the end of my investigation, if I believed that God was real, I wasn’t just faced with accepting a set of facts but a real person. Why does that matter? Because not only did I wonder whether belief in Jesus was merited, but I still had a lingering distrust of people, and Jesus is a person.

A friend of mine illustrates the relational side of doubt in his own work and life. Dr. Gary Habermas devoted his doctoral work at Michigan State University toward analyzing the evidence for the historical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. He collected and read all the scholarly writing he could find concerning the resurrection, around 2,400 sources at that time. In assimilating the material, Gary used only the facts that could be stated without belief in the Bible as inspired or reliable (this was in part due to the demands of his dissertation committee). He calls this method “the minimal facts argument.” He discovered that there was a wealth of evidence pointing toward a resurrected Jesus 2,000 years ago. Through debates, teaching, speaking and writing, Gary has been defending his belief that the resurrection is historical ever since, around 40 years.

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Though Gary’s life is full of speaking engagements and scholarly writing on the facts of the resurrection, he openly discusses, and even writes about, the doubt he experienced in suffering through his wife’s stomach cancer and consequent death. Even though he was convinced through his own dissertation research that Jesus died and rose from the dead, when faced with such a great burden as the death of a loved one, the questions began to overwhelm him. Did the truth of the Christian faith have anything to say when you’re not dealing with just a set of facts but with a devastating emotional experience? Why would God allow such suffering for Debbie, Gary and their family? What did he believe about Jesus in light of his wife’s death?

As Gary struggled to even want to find the answers to his own questioning, he came to a game-changing realization. If God is real and he raised Jesus from the dead, then God has demonstrated that he is trustworthy and in control, even when Gary doesn’t have “all the facts.” He writes:

“He [God] created the world, raised his Son from the dead, made a path of salvation for us, answered our prayers and prepared heaven for us. So why do we find it so difficult to trust him in our present circumstances?”

Based on what he already knew about God, Gary could trust God even in the things he did not know. For him, though, it wasn’t an easily won trust because the circumstances were so devastating, and God never answered him on why his family was suffering. Now, don’t forget, Gary was already convinced of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus as an historical fact. But he still needed to apply that truth to his relationship with God.

After learning about Gary’s experience, I felt as though I’d been hit smack in the noggin by the reality-check fairy. What have I been doing? I’ve been investigating God as a set of facts without acknowledging my distrust of persons! Even if I come to the propositional belief that God is real, I may not trust him. I wasn’t acknowledging this aspect of the search for answers. I’d learned to distrust persons, and God wasn’t exempt. So, though I’d like to think that my search for answers could be all calculation and no counseling, it just wasn’t true. In addition, over the years of discussing belief in God, I’ve only personally engaged with one person who changed his mind about God after accepting the intellectual arguments, only one “Mr. Spock” who felt he had to logically accept a different viewpoint when he recognized his own viewpoint was refuted.

I struggle with the atheist-versus-theist posturing. Both sides claim to be logical. Both sides say that their factual evidence leads to the logical conclusion … as if that’s the only thing going on here. Yet what should I say of the reality of the situation? If God is real, God is not reducible to a set of empirical facts. If I choose to trust God, it is the kind of trust, or faith, I give to a person with whom I have a relationship. This is not the kind of trust I would give to a scientific hypothesis or to an abstract idea such as justice. There is no personal element in these things. However, the Christian view of God is that he has personhood. He is a person. Therefore, doubt and trust are appropriated to him in a similar way that I appropriate these things to people. To be an honest doubter, I must understand the object of my doubt. In this case, there is no object, but rather a subject: the person of God.

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Excerpted from Why I Still Believe by Mary Jo Sharp. Copyright © 2019 by Mary Jo Sharp. Used by permission of Zondervan.