Having Doubt About Doubt With a Healthy Does of Self-Criticism
Maybe it was no coincidence that Michael Patton posted on Roman Catholic scholars being incapable of critical scholarship the same weekend I completed a critical reading of neo-liberal Neo-Orthodox theologian Paul Tillich. Michael did admit that his post was going to be polemical, nor does he consider himself a scholars, and we should keep these in mind as I begin this conversation with a story.
Two years ago, as a Masters of Theology student at a progressive mainline seminary, I struck up a conversation with one of the school’s New Testament students, who, like me is Baptist, but he was admittedly theologically conservative. As someone who enjoys post-colonial and liberationist theologies, I, for one, am not opposed to self-criticism. In fact, on this blog, Chad and I last year had a series where we critiqued ourselves. It was a challenging task to public confess our blindspots. The one thing that I and the conservative student aforementioned could not agree on in our dialogue was the nature of religion. For that student, he believed that theology and biblical studies were driven by human subjectivity; it was experience that remained essential, and dare I say, the conversion experience. I know I am going to get in trouble here, but my reaction was to immediately draw attention to the similarities between my friend’s evangelical approach and the liberal approach, and he confessed that in terms of method, liberals and evangelicals shared common footings.
Today, I submit that Patton’s post does confirm the correctness of my argument. That what we have here is a form of dialectical thought, that faith is when a human being overcomes doubt. Patton indeed contends, “Without doubt, our faith can never really be tested. For to even take a test there must be some suspension of our presumption of perfection.” He continues, “I don’t think Christians should have any fear in testing their faith. We should not fear the doubt that leads to assurance of truth. Not only does God not mind our aspirations to such scholarship, he beckons us to such.” This comment seems fine, on the surface, of course it affirms the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints– who God has chosen to be saved will remain saved, and faithful, yes?
So, if faith is seen as primarily an free and subjective act on the part of the Christian individual, doubt is the opposite use of that freedom. Freedom, in this dialectic (oppositional form of thinking) is freedom FROM something, whether it be freedom from tradition, freedom from the community or freedom from the authorities. In this sense, Patton argues, Roman Catholic scholars ARE NOT free.
Is this notion of freedom correct, however? I would say that not only half of the story, Martin Luther, being the good Catholic that he was, would never affirm this definition of liberty. In fact, in his Freedom of a Christian (on of my favorite works of all time), all Christian freedoms are attached to servitude, to duty. Freedom is living away from sin and for others, as servants. Indeed, God came that He “that He might serve us, and that all the works He should do under that form of a servant, might become ours” On Christian Freedom. This is why in Luther’s 95 Theses, he proposes that the Christian should be taught to give to the poor rather than concern herself with indulgences (Theses 43).
By this understanding of freedom, could one not suggest that Catholic scholars are the freest of us all to be critical? What replaced Rome as the hermeneutical key for Protestants? I would say that here in the United States, it was America as Situation that replaced it, and thus, we have a ruggedly individualistic view of freedom, let alone academic freedom. My academic freedom to study the archaeology of the Red Sea means nothing if there are people in my neighborhood who are drowning in oppression. Scholarship, critical engagement, and doubt should not be centered around the self. This is the problem with conservative evangelical and mainline Protestant academia to begin with.
Faith, as I argued against Tillich, and I do here, against liberals and evangelicals who agree with Patton, is not something that starts with us Gentiles. In fact, in the story of Israel and Jesus, we Gentiles do not know what faith is outside of YHWH’s faithfulness Israel and Christ. Suggestions such as “Embrace your doubts. Doubt your doubts. Test all things. Follow the evidence, not your presuppositions.” sound okay, but is this the point of the writers’ of the Scripture’s own understanding of faith? I believe that the proper dialectic, if you will, is one of faithfulness overcoming faithlessness, and it is within that our Gentile story with our notions of doubt, faith, presuppositions, post-suppositions must submit itself.
As for critical Catholic scholars, I don’t think one has to look further than the emerging theologians from the Women In Theology blog. I have a difficult time taking Patton’s advocacy of doubt and critical scholarship seriously, especially since being aware that he comes from an institution in which students and faculty must not contradict the Statement of Faith. The very same statement in which one of my close friends was excommunicated from the DTS community and a letter mailed to his parents, informing them that their son was no longer saved. Brian LePort is completely right in comparing evangelical confessional scholarship and that of Catholics.
“Now therefore revere [YHWH], and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve [YHWH]. Joshua 24:14, NRSV