Musings on the value of (self) doubt 2

The previous post, prompted by the utterly uncompromising figure of John Mitchel, ended up musing on the value of (self) doubt.

Mitchel took his lack of self-doubt all the way to the sacrifice of, in effect, most of his family and his own (prematurely shortened) life.

By doubt I had in mind a ‘space’ in our convictions that gives room for alternative interpretations of reality; other points of view; corrective voices and / or critical self-reflection. Which leads to not taking yourself too seriously – which leads to self-depreciating humour.

Self doubt is a willingness to acknowledge that we might have it wrong; a self-awareness that all we know is finite, limited and culturally conditioned. That we have much to learn from others.

This is well captured in a famous series of pictures about The Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might who has kindly allowed their reproduction from his site here via creative commons).

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don’t forget the bigger picture:

Keep Pushing!

So, all those years of hard work to produce a tiny pimple 🙂

I guess pimple creation is inspiring in its own way. But even in that act of creation, the bigger picture brings even the successful PhD candidate to a place of humility and self-awareness of his / her own narrow and tiny area of expertise.

Without that sort of self-doubt a student becomes unteachable because they know it all already.

A celebrity begins to believe his / her own publicity (not a pretty sight).

A politician boringly and predictably keeps banging the party drum. (When’s the last time in a political TV debate you heard someone pause, reflect and say ‘That’s a good point, I’ll have to think about that’?) The political party line is defended at the cost of any real learning and genuine debate. I guess that’s one reason for voter apathy – impervious ideologies are all just so predictable and self-interested.

And, as Michel Foucault would have said, ‘no doubt’ narratives can easily become tools of power and violence – be like me, believe what I believe or there will be negative consequences.

But, to return (finally!) to questions at the end of the last post, isn’t the Church a place where narratives of power and even violence have often been sanctified and blessed? Where there have been very negative consequences for those who have dared to doubt the party line?

I think any honest reading of history would have to admit ‘Yes – Christianity can and often has taken the form of a narrative of power, of control, of squashing dissent and silencing alternative voices.’

Most often this happened when the Church got mixed up with political power, status and money.  And that’s a pretty large chunk of church history.

So, some implications of these musings:

1. Self-doubt is not only useful, it is necessary for individual Christian growth and maturity

2. Self-doubt fosters characteristics of humility, co-operation and sober self-assessment. It is a pre-requisite for repentance, confession, learning and change.

3. St Paul was a classic ‘no doubter’ willing to use violence to eliminate those who transgressed his boundaries. Yet it was Paul who wrote these words. He knew too well the damage a lack of self-doubt could cause and the need for God’s grace to break human arrogance and self-sufficiency.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

4. We need, as Hauerwas likes to say, to speak the truth; to face our humanity and limitations honestly. And, as he would also say, we need to counter narratives of power, control and violence within the church with the upside down, weak and apparently foolish nature of the kingdom of God. (Well Jesus said that, Stan the man is just saying it again).

5. Prophets were often voices of doubt among the people of God. They were usually ignored, rejected, isolated and unpopular. Voices of doubt challenge the comfortable status quo that usually benefits the rich and powerful.  Luther was a voice of doubt that changed history. At the very least this should give us evangelicals, who by definition are passionate about gospel truth, pause to do some self-critical reflection when we are critiqued by alternative voices.

6. To value self-doubt is not to promote a lack of leadership or celebrate uncertainty as a goal in itself. I think this is where people like IKON over-react against what they perceive as neatly packaged impervious ideologies of traditional Christianity. I guess this is what they are getting at with their ironically titled  (anti-Alpha) ‘Omega course’ of how to ‘exit’ Christianity.

7. I guess this is why, at heart, I am a Christian first, secondly a Christian of evangelical convictions and lastly a Presbyterian. I find it hard to ‘get’ Christians who seem not to doubt their particular confessional distinctive – often in defensive and excluding ways – yet those distinctives are at best highly debated.

8. Self-doubt should foster a posture of listening and dialogue with the wider culture: combining a humble confidence in the gospel of God with appeal, reasoning, love and invitation: a distinct political community that is also willing to suffer persecution and weakness and rejection.

9. That willingness to suffer comes from having enough self-doubt to not want to be in power, to control the culture or believe that it is either possible or desirable to do so.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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