Daniel Larison takes issue with Obama’s Notre Dame speech and especially Obama’s use of doubt, which Larison maintains is not a quality, but rather “a function of a mind clouded by the passions”. Doubt, Larison writes, “is the result of confusion. It does not teach us anything, but rather prevents us from learning.” This is interesting coming from Daniel – and a bit surprising, since I think doubt plays a much more nuanced role in our lives (politically and spiritually) than merely as an agent of personal obsfucation and confusion. Where Daniel finds the most fault is in Obama’s inability to separate apophatic theology from doubt – the one being an acceptance of the “unkowability of God” and the other being the “function of human confusion.”
Doubt, to my mind at least, is not at all the “function of human confusion” though it can certainly lead to confusion if we let it consume us. Then again, if we let our appetite for any emotion or passion or pursuit consume us it is possible we will be rendered helplessly confused – by love, by greed, by faith even. By certainty, even.
Daniel goes on to discuss the doubt of the Apostle Thomas:
Following the first week after Pascha, we hear the Gospel reading that tells us of the Apostle Thomas’ doubt that the Lord has indeed risen. The One Whom we have been proclaiming to be truly risen ever since the week before has to appear to Thomas so that he may believe in the most fundamental truth of the faith, without which, the Apostle Paul has told us, our faith is in vain. In other words, St. Thomas’ doubt at that moment was a failure to believe in things not seen, and in that failure he was failing to believe the one thing that all disciples of Christ had to believe if their faith was to mean anything. If we look at it this way, we understand that doubt is not necessary, nor is it profitable, nor it is good, but it is rather a betrayal of the power and truth of faith. Doubt is a kind of denial of the Master. While we might understand how St. Peter, on the night the Lord gave Himself up for us, might have been so terrified as to deny that he knew the Lord, what excuse do we have to offer up such denials, much less wrap them up in faux-serious introspection and self-serving poses of humility?
I read this entirely differently than Daniel. To my mind it is the doubt itself that makes the experience valuable for Thomas. Rather than looking at this as a failure, I see it as a step in a longer journey which could not have been taken without doubt helping, in the end, to shape the revelation of belief. Doubt is the window into the world of disbelief, the thorny road, the test. It strikes me that without it our faith would be much less meaningful.
Peter’s denial of Christ is a glimpse into the humanity of Peter, into our humanity, our struggles and fears and our redemption. Doubt is far from a useless confusion or “faux serious introspection” but rather the necessary pain that accompanies us in a world of sin – a valuable pain, that shields us from spiritual leprosy. We are given the examples of Peter and Thomas and the multitudes of others who throughout history have in fact strengthened their belief through tangles with their own doubt. We are meant to be Christ-like, after all, not Christ, and even the Apostles were at some point struck with doubt. This is not to say we should be consumed with doubt, or that doubt is somehow more vital than faith – indeed the two exist together in a rather strange and necessary harmony.
Now, this is mainly a commentary on the nature of doubt – and I realize that Daniel was commenting fairly directly on Obama’s stance toward abortion, to which he writes:
This “fair-minded words” dodge is one of the oldest tricks in Obama’s book, which is how he can continue to portray himself as some sort of reasonable interlocutor, especially on those basic issues of human dignity and justice concerning the unborn on which he is among the least reasonable and most reflexive and ideological. Perhaps if Obama were more prone to doubt the ideological certainties that prompt him to oppose any and all restrictions on abortion, he might then seem like less of a caricature on this issue and more like the reasonable person he wants us to think he is.
Which seems to be a pretty good case for doubt.
Beyond this, it strikes me that much of conservatism in general is founded in some sort of skepticism or doubt, including Daniel’s own brand, which is very down to earth and critical especially of optimism in foreign policy. To simply write it off as a function of human confusion is to sell it short.
P.S. It appears that Benjamin Deuholm has beat me to it:
This whole mindset is characteristic of a certain approach to Christianity that stigmatizes and marginalizes the lived experience of faith in favor of an almost obsessive return to ideal forms. How many souls have been burdened with unrelievable doubt because they’ve been told it’s an illness we’ll never know.
This is not to say that Obama’s invocation of doubt, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, isn’t shallow and self-serving. Doubt for thee but not for me, you might call it. It’s an approach to doubt that is used to defend the status quo, in this case on abortion but just as easily in another area as well. But the misuses of doubt do not define its properties.
Update. Damon Linker throws in a cent or two…
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?