Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Healthy Doubt vs Unhealthy Doubt

Yesterday, StandFirminFaith pointed out a support group for non-believing clergy,
"The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold the supernatural beliefs of their religious traditions. The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011. 
Currently, the community's nearly 100 members use it to network and discuss what it's like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community. The Clergy Project’s goal is to support members as they move beyond faith."
I am not sure what "moving beyond faith" means to the leaders of the support group, but it does not sound like a direction in which clerics should be supported.

Let's face it, we all have our doubts. We all have our own ways of dealing with those doubts. There are some ways which are healthy and some which are unhealthy. The difficulty comes in telling when you are following the path to health because the unhealthy path often appears to offer the most tempting message and the tastiest meal. In fact, skepticism has such a following that it has become a great vehicle for making a name for oneself, landing an academic appointment, or getting a book published. There is even an emerging name for the phenomenon, "Emergent Skepticism," although it is sometimes referred to as "liberal skepticism." From what I can tell, emergent skepticism leads to unhealthy doubt.

From Fors Clavigera (H/T Treading Grain),
"But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can't believe it, it can't be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let's come up with a rendition we can believe in."
I am not sure that the emergent skeptics really know what they want, but in the long run, their "unhealthy doubt" has a corrosive effect on that person's relationship with God, and if promoted publicly in Sunday school classes or from the pulpit, such "unhealthy belief" has a corrosive effect on the faith and practice of the Church as a whole.
“The prayer of the doubter is not, ‘Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief,’ but rather: ‘Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.’” (Mark 9:24 and also Fors Clavigera)
 Unhealthy doubt definitely seems to lead to the first form of prayer. Healthy doubt, if there is such a thing, leads us to the latter prayer.

It does seem (in so far as the Episcopal church is concerned) that emergent skepticism and unhealthy doubt has the upper hand. Simply watch revisionist clerics discuss the meaning of "pornea," and you will know what I mean. For the person in the pew, unhealthy doubt expressed by their spiritual leaders can be a stumbling block and a cause of confusion. It is unwise to set a foundation on the shifting sands of doubt. The end result for a church enamored with liberal skepticism is the well deserved numerical decline of the denomination (witness The Raw Numerical Truth about the Episcopal Church).

What is it about emergent skepticism that draws people in and holds them?

From my experience, most who are bound up in emergent skepticism will vigorously defend, and recklessly promote, their philosophy. A vigorous defense seems difficult to imagine. After all, how can a true skeptic believe in anything, especially if the thing they are defending is sometimes disbelief itself? For persons to develop such strong convictions, they must get some positive reinforcement either from friends, family, associates, heterodox authors, or, I am sorry to say, from their church.

How can people break the chains of unhealthy doubt?

Once again, I shall speak from personal experience. Emergent skepticism tempted me many years ago. I found it led to a spiritual dead end. I found that I was being tempted to doubt first the scriptural revelation of God, and ultimately the very existence of God. I was being supported in this line of reasoning by many who, on the surface, appeared to be "good Episcopalians." I encountered no resistance from the church as I traveled this path, and in fact I saw that the church, in its affirmations or its silence was nuturing such teachings. Doubts piled onto doubts. Nothing was certain, and certainly not the Word of God.  I thank God for the correction I needed. Perhaps it was Him who led me to confront my own skepticism. This involved getting back to the Word of God through daily personal study, the help of fellow Christians, striving to live a prayerful life, and a lot of hard work. That may be a clue as to why people do not escape the bonds of emergent skepticism. The hard work part I mean.
"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." Matthew 7:13-14 KJV
That is not what people want to hear.

It might seem easier to doubt than to fall down and be humbled by those words.

We would rather listen to "a rendition we can believe in."

"Our Rendition" replaces "Our Father" when we follow the path of unhealthy doubt.


  1. Nice post. A lot of meat here to digest.

    As for "active" clergy being a part of some support group, well fine. Provided they immediately resign their pastoral positions. I'm afraid, that too many seek to become "evangelical" in their unbelief and try to sell as many tickets to the Titanic of their fallen course as possible. Common ethics should preclude such behavior, but my guess is ethics ceases to become a concern.


  2. I draw the line at promoting doubt. Perhaps ethics sometimes takes a back seat to concerns such as insurance and pensions.

  3. Anonymous5:25 PM

    For many of priests in England, it's a second career for both men and women, often ex-teachers and former atheists. You wonder why the C of E is dying? Check out the unbelief on display from the pulpit in the parish churches on your next visit to our Sceptered Isle.

    Like you, Pewster, I followed the same path of doubt, rationalisation and relativism. I, too, thank the Lord that He showed me the way in His infinite mercy and wisdom.


  4. I feel your pain and hear your squeaks Churchmouse.