Having Faith and Doubt – When Both Sides Sometimes Make Sense (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

I’ve been sharing reflections on portions of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts), writing with my students at PSU Berks in mind.  Today I come to one of my favorite quotes from the book:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

Pascal is saying, it seems to me, that both embracing belief in God and rejecting belief in God make sense to him.  He can see why and how a person could go either direction.  He sees too much to deny God’s existence, but too little to be certain.

I am right there with Pascal on this one.

I used to seek certainty.  When I began pursing my faith more intentionally in college and when I began reading and studying I hoped I would come across a book or argument or something that would clinch it.  I believed that out there somewhere was a formula that, once I saw it,  would bring certainty about God, Jesus and the Christianity.  I eventually realized that such certainty was impossible.  Yet when I see books and blog posts and podcasts by certain apologists and apologetic organizations, it seems that many others are seeking this certainty.  Or, at the very least, there is not much humility out there that recognizes the other side might just have a good point or two.  Instead there is often a smug, condescending attitude that acts as if all obvious truth is on our side.

I write about my tribe, Christianity, but it looks like there is just as much smugness and condescension on the other side.  For many atheists, the sheer obviousness of unbelief means anyone who cannot see it is blind.  As one atheist, in the podcast Unbelievable, recently defined it, faith is believing what you know is not true.  It only takes a complete lack of, or refusal of, understanding of the other side to come to such a conclusion.  You may not find the other side’s arguments and evidence convincing, but a minimal recognition that some do should adjust such a faulty definition.

Too much certainty on two sides of any issue leads to shrill shouting, points to whoever can out yell the other, but to little engagement and understanding.  And I suspect many of us sit somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning to one side or the other, saying that both sides at times make good points.

Am I absolutely certain there is a God and that Jesus is the human appearance of that God in history?  No.

Are there dark days when I begin to think maybe the universe is just a meaningless void? Yes.

Is there enough out there to push me to embracing the hope and faith in the life and message of Jesus? Yes.

The thing is, faith is not about certainty.  I can’t recommend Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty enough.  Real faith is honest – a trust in God that admits it is not always easy.  Real faith is open to questions and doubts and humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers.

And I believe that, for college students, it is such a real and honest faith that admits to doubts and can understand those we disagree with that our friends will find compelling enough to want to engage with us.

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