Faith, Doubt, Anxiety

There is a world of difference between the proud courage which dares to fear the worst and the humble courage which dares to hope for the best.

— Søren Kierkegaard[1]

The Silence of the Universe

However confident one might feel on Sundays, there comes the intimate, private moment when one confronts another truth: our relationships with God are fraught with anxiety. Like all generations before us, we hear the silence of the universe, which enforces a sense of alienation. We know he is with us as we worship and go about our daily work. Is it so, Is that a case of self-deception? It takes a strong Christian to approach these questions forthrightly.

The Lord offers to bear our griefs. That includes the pain of anxiety. To accept his offer we have to confess it, to own our doubts. In the Eucharist we lift our hearts up to the Lord—not our scrubbed and shining faces, but our secret, overburdened hearts. We present our selves, our souls and bodies—the whole, omitting nothing, beseeching God to accept this offering, to cover us with the righteousness of Christ.

If we know how to use them, doubt and anxiety can be salutary things, but confronting them is hard and unpleasant. In a sense, it is a confrontation with death.

Denying Doubt

One way to alleviate the pain of doubt is to deny it loudly in public. A person unsure of what is happening in his insides gets counterfeit assurance from being the loudest voice in the room, believing three impossible things before breakfast. That is the sound of faith unraveling. When it unravels, it rushes around in a frantic search of reconfirmation, neurotic excess: compulsive Bible study, exaggerated emotionalism. This is not freedom in the love of Christ, but evasion.

Or a strange inward shift can take over. Expropriating the name of God to our felt needs, we construct another god; one we can bend to conformity with enfeebled faith, one who submits to our control; in other words, an idol. It is easier to keep one’s balance in the face of an idol than before the living God.

In that connection we have William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. James’ project was to show that religion can be subsumed under the science of psychology. And as far as that goes, remembering that religion is the great antagonist of faith, he is right. Unfortunately, many Christians are not equipped to distinguish between Christianity—Christian religion or Christian faith—and good mental hygiene.

Getting It

For a counterexample, one that witnessed death with clear eyes, we have Primo Levi, the author of Se questo è un uomo, describing his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Here is a passage from that book (my translation):

 . . . that our destiny is perfectly unknowable, that any conjecture is arbitrary and perfectly without real foundation. But men are very rarely rational when their own destiny is in question: they tend to take up extreme positions in any case, so that, according to character, there are among us those who are immediately convinced that all is lost, that one cannot live here, that the end is certain and near; and others, that however hard life is which awaits us, rescue is probable, and not far away, and if we have faith and will, we will again see our houses and our loved ones. These two kinds, the pessimists and the optimists, are not, however, so clearly distinct: not only because there are many agnostics, but because most, with neither memory nor consistency, oscillate between the two limit-positions, in response to the interlocutor and the moment.[2]

Protean being

Near the outset of this writing, we used the word freedom; freedom as part of the love of Christ; the freedom to approach death and come back alive. Freedom is the sine qua non of love, and therefore of faith, and therefore of life in God. God’s freedom may not be reassuring to people of faith, for By definition there can be no prescribed content to freedom.  People of faith accept this love as protean beings confronting an indeterminate future.


[1]         Søren Kierkegaard Journals, Nov. 15, 1840, translated and edited by Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks), p. 67.

[2]         Se questo è un uomo, Einaudi, ed., p. 31.

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