DAMON LINKER MAY 19, 2009
In Barack Obama's impressive speech at Notre Dame on Sunday (my opinion of it matches up quite closely with Ed Kilgore's), the president had some interesting things to say in defense of doubt, especially as it relates to religious faith.
But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own. This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.
This strikes me as indisputably true, albeit with an important caveat to which I'll return in a minute. But perhaps more interesting to me than the speech itself has been observing how certain religiously orthodox intellectuals have responded to this passage. Here, for example, is Daniel Larison (via Patrick Appel, who's sitting in for Andrew Sullivan):
Everyone is stricken with doubt at times, but it has to be understood that doubt, like an illness, is something from which one may suffer but which is something that needs to be remedied rather than perpetuated or celebrated. Physical illness can have a humbling effect, but a proper understanding of theological anthropology tells us that illness, like death, is part of our fallen state. Doubt is a function of a mind clouded by the passions -- it is the result of confusion. It does not teach us anything, but rather prevents us from learning.
E.D. Kain offers a mild rebuke to Larison here, but I would go quite a bit further than Kain's statement that doubt "plays a much more nuanced role in our lives (politically and spiritually) than merely as an agent of personal obfuscation and confusion." Far from being an intellectual illness from which we sometimes suffer and which we should work to overcome, as Larison would have it, I'd say that doubt arises from the ever-present sense that, short of analytic statements (if there are such things), all our statements about the world are opinions about which we can be relatively but never absolutely certain. And how could this not be doubly (or infinitely) true when our statements concern God -- an agent whose purposes and intentions transcend the world itself?
Doubt does not arise because our minds are "clouded by passions," as if we could conceivably attain a state of such dispassionate clarity that our statements about the world would become absolutely certain. That's a fantasy -- the epistemology of the willfully credulous. I say "willfully" because Larison is smart enough to know better, as he shows when he traces doubt to our "fallen state." That sounds to me like Larison is saying that doubt can be traced to the human condition as it exists in the here and now. I agree. By all means, believe if you wish that it once was and one day will be otherwise. But that's then and this is now -- and for now can we please agree that doubt is (and should be) the destiny of thoughtful human beings?
Unless, of course, one has had a divine revelation -- a direct experience of the absolute, nonrelativizable presence of God in one's own life, right here, right now. In that case, all bets are off, and doubt becomes superfluous. (Given how many Americans believe they have had divine experiences, from being born again to speaking in tongues to visions of the Blessed Virgin and beyond, I wonder how many will take Obama's paean to doubt as an expression of secular humanism rather than as a sincere defense of liberal Protestantism.)
Someone who's experienced a divine revelation possesses the absolute certainty the rest of us lack. Has Larison had such a revelation? If so, good for him. As for the rest of us, surrounded by the silence of infinite spaces, we'll have to make do with our doubts and relative certainties.