Here I Stand

Doubt & the Community of Believers

There has been an interesting recent debate about faith and doubt, religious belief and atheism. Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic and the author of The Conservative Soul (HarperCollins), and Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation (Alfred A. Knopf), have had at it on the Web site Beliefnet. Harris argues that all religion is lethal, and that those Christians who are not fundamentalists don’t really understand that religion inherently tends toward fundamentalism and intolerance. Sullivan counters this, in his book and in the course of this debate, by emphasizing the role that reasonable doubt plays in any serious theology. Doubt is, in a sense, a form of humility.

On the whole, I agree with Sullivan’s approach, although there is a danger here. This approach could be seen more as a way of hedging your bets than as a form of faith—a way of half believing, as it were: after all, you could be wrong.

And of course you could be. Sullivan is right to stress humility and a respect for the opinions of others. But there may be a more effective way to approach this. Rather than emphasize doubt, it might make more sense to speak of the place out of which one believes—the community of faith, the tradition, the thing handed on to you.

Rather than say that I know what I believe, I think it is closer to the truth to say that I know the framework within which I believe, and doubt, and wonder. I know the persons who move and compel me—Paul, the saints, people I have known whose lives and witness matter deeply to me, all of them gathered in sometimes complicated ways in an assembly into which we are baptized, and within which we share the Eucharist—a word that means “thanksgiving.” This assembly is centered on Jesus, who saves us all, despite us.

All of what we usually see as the church—dogma, the creed, etc.—has to do with the person of Jesus, and unless it is seen always in relation to his person, it is distorted. Christian faith must not be seen as a series of propositions to which one assents. When membership in the church is reduced to this level, it cannot provide us with a community within which people may be transformed. Faith has to do with a relationship with someone, not something. It is not a party line. Seeing who this person is, as clearly as we can, is the reason for dogma.

The Orthodox anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) of St. Basil the Great, which is said on the Sundays of Lent and on some other feasts, speaks of the way in which it is only through the person of Jesus that we understand anything at all about our truest relationship with God:

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the great God and Savior, our hope, who is the image of your goodness, the seal of your true likeness, showing forth himself in you, Father—the living word, the true God, the eternal wisdom, the life, the sanctification, the power, the true light, through whom the Holy Spirit was revealed—the Spirit of truth, the gift of sonship, the pledge of future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life-creating power, the fountain of sanctification, through whom every creature of reason and understanding worships you and always sings to you a hymn of glory, for all things are your servants.

This outpouring may be a more moving statement of the living relationship between the Trinity and us than any creed. (It is also a powerful demonstration of the reason any Christian faith must be Christocentric.) We come to this as a community rather than as individuals, some of us more doubtful than others. We try to live in a way that reflects our belief that death and the fear of death do not define us, that this enemy has been overcome in Christ, in the hope of resurrection.

As Hebrews 11 tells us, this is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And we try to move toward the fullness of what this means from below, not asking for, or needing, proof or verification. Our ordinary relationships with wives and husbands and friends could not survive that sort of demand, much less the connection we have with Jesus in this hopeful, and hoped-for, relationship.

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.