Travis Dickinson’s book Wandering Toward God attempts to square a difficult circle: He wants us to know that Christianity is “objective fact” while also desiring to honor the doubt individual Christians may experience.
Early on in the book, there are three concepts in play: the definition of doubt, the idea of belief, and the reality of faith. Faith, writes Dickinson, “is in the category of trust and action,” while belief is based on facts about which one can be certain. You might believe something you have data for—say, whether a bungee-jumping rope will hold (an example Dickinson uses). To actually jump, however, you need faith that the rope will do as you presumed it would.
Dickinson’s purpose in writing the book, as I understand it, is to explain how the categories of faith and belief relate to doubt in the context of the Christian life. He does this by drawing on the apologist Os Guinness, who writes, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is.” Dickinson takes this to mean that “having doubts, even serious doubts, does not mean you don’t have faith. Faith and doubt are not opposites like black and white.”
Believers might have questions about their beliefs, then, without abdicating their faith. Dickinson, who teaches philosophy and apologetics at Dallas Baptist University, is clearly addressing the book to just such people. Early on, he even confesses to having once been one of them himself. His motivation is showing how believers burdened by doubt might move from a hard-nosed view of certainty toward the goal of trust.
Dickinson does more than seek to destigmatize doubt. Indeed, he considers it a core part of a healthy faith. Dickinson is right about this—doubt really can deepen belief by providing what he calls “an opportunity for greater depth.” Thoughtful individuals might find that their doubts are not all that compelling once they engage in the work of “doubting their doubts,” “investigating them,” and asking questions that lead toward truth.
Dickinson’s example here is getting on an airplane even though we may not be able to explain how the plane functions. Doing so is perfectly reasonable, even where evidence or understanding is lacking. This is because we believe and have faith that the airplane will hold, even if we cannot perfectly understand how it flies. Faith, therefore, doesn’t require having all the answers. If doubt is simply not understanding how something works—the Resurrection, say, or the Virgin Birth—then it need not compete at all with a true faith.
Dickinson says that he wants Christians to have “sufficiently clear reasons” for having faith, but he also wants them to enlarge their understanding of what would constitute sufficiently clear reasons. Some of these reasons may be intellectual, but others might operate under the surface, in ways that are harder to spell out with words. As Dickinson observes:
When Christians are put on the spot to lay out a case for Christianity, they may not articulate it well. But they likely have far more reasons than they realize. All of us came to our Christian beliefs for some reason or other. Again, it may not have been anything academic or too carefully thought out. It may have been that someone shared a powerful testimony about how the gospel changed their life. Or perhaps you have had a powerful experience with God. These are good reasons and could have been what compelled you to believe.
Unfortunately, Dickinson spends most of the rest of the book on reasons that can be articulated: whether the Gospels are reliable, for instance, or what to make of the problem of evil, or how to explain violence in the Old Testament, or whether the Resurrection is believable.
Dickinson’s arguments for belief follow well-trodden paths, and at times they seem like they were written for an earlier generation. (His appeals to C. S. Lewis, for instance, might be persuasive, but mainly to the kinds of readers who are familiar with Lewis already). Quoting the apologist J. P. Moreland, Dickinson writes that faith is “relying on what you have reason to believe is true and trustworthy.” But this rests somewhat uneasily with earlier sections of the book, where he takes pains to demonstrate that the grounds for faith run deeper than what we can rationally explain.
All this is to say that, while I support Dickinson’s goal of destigmatizing doubt and encouraging believers with doubts to still believe, I wouldn’t have put quite as much emphasis on familiar apologetics arguments. In fact, I think we’d be better off if we stopped talking as though Christianity were primarily an intellectual exercise and worked, instead, to better investigate those hard-to-articulate, beneath-the-surface reasons for faith.
For me, Dickinson’s book title brought to mind the great Advent hymn “I Wonder as I Wander,” which is written in the voice of someone questioning how it is that God became a child. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky,” sings the hymn’s chorus, “that Jesus my Savior did come for to die.” It is a nearly perfect response to the question of doubt, grasping at both the spaciousness of the created world and the mystery of how God and humanity meet in the midst of it.
Somehow, this one chorus manages to do what so many books on doubt cannot: It places us in the frame of God’s action in the world and sets our doubts in the context of God’s work in history. The singer wanders, yes, but with a view of God’s beauty foremost at hand. Such a frame makes doubt seem the less interesting question, though wanderers we may be.
Kirsten Sanders is a theologian and writer living in Wenham, Massachusetts. She is the founder of the Kinisi Theology Collective.
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