Sometimes I Doubt...
by Walt Hearn
. . . that I can produce a “Beyond Science” column on a particular God and Nature theme. “Doubt,” however, is right down my alley. That alley might seem dark and threatening if doubt were the opposite or enemy of Christian faith, but that's not the way I see it. Doubt can be either helpful or harmful, depending on what we mean by “faith.”
When faith means accepting a claim to be factual, an appropriate synonym for doubt is skepticism, which is more or less descriptive of the whole scientific outlook. As scientists, we solve problems by knocking down possible solutions until only one is left standing. In much the same way, Christian faith is strengthened by getting rid of false claims, as when the apostle Paul urged Christians to “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20) and to “let no one deceive you in any way” (2 Thess. 2:3). That kind of "intellectual doubt” guards us against error. So, I doubt boldly.
Faith can also mean believing IN something (or someone). To have faith in that sense means to trust in, or “bet our life on,” an idea or person, even when the basis for our trust seems stronger or weaker at any given moment. As scientists, we trust our ability to understand nature even when nature looks chaotic or unfathomable. Senior scientists often urge younger ones to “believe in your ideas, even if nobody else does. Pursue them wholeheartedly.” In that context, doubt shows itself as inability or reluctance to hold on to a basic commitment for fear of being thought foolish. Such "existential doubt” could be toxic to Christian faith (or to a scientific career). So, I doubt cautiously.
In the Gospels, Thomas is the “poster apostle” for this topic, as described in John 20:19-29. Not wanting to be hoodwinked, he insisted on seeing evidence that Jesus had come back to life after being crucified. Seeing and touching Jesus' wounds convinced him. But “doubting Thomas” wanted to stay committed to following Jesus, even expressing a willingness to die with him (John 11:7-16).
In my first year of graduate school, students in the church I joined were encouraged to pair off as prayer mates. When I was paired with a physics grad student, I anticipated the kind of faith-nurturing prayer-time I had experienced as a chemistry undergrad. For months, another science student and I had prayed together earnestly while cooling off after a vigorous weekly bout of handball. (The aroma of smelly gym socks still gives me the kind of spiritual boost others get from incense.) But my first experience at prayer-partnering in grad school turned out to stretch my faith rather than nourish it.
At our first meeting, the physics grad (I'll call him “Ed”) told me that he had been coming to church only to please his minister father, that he was about to abandon Christianity entirely, and that he had signed up with me to give it one last shot. He was full of questions about the Bible that had never occurred to me. Thinking I should be better prepared with answers, I went to the university library which, sure enough, had in its Religion section a shelf of books on “Christian Apologetics.” I could see from the call slips that Ed had already checked out every one of them. He couldn't bring himself to pray, but we had many lively discussions. He wanted to disbelieve. As his faith continued to wane, we became good friends and I prayed for him for years afterward. That experience taught me a lot about asking questions but at the same time learning to live with unanswered ones.
Religion is rampant all over the world. Most people at least suspect that a spiritual reality may exist, beyond mere “matter in motion.” Trusting the Bible as the real deal―an authentic revelation of one God as Creator and Redeemer―won't keep us from wondering at times if our belief is irrational. So what? If we were materialists, we'd have to cope with similar doubts about our unbelief: (Why do I believe that the Cosmos is all there was, and is, or ever will be? Because intelligent people like Carl Sagan said so? How did they know? Does my moral sense of right and wrong really come from random circuitry in my physical brain? Could God really exist? Why am I even asking these questions? What's wrong with me? Etc.).
For awhile during my academic career, I led a Sunday school class of university students in an inductive study of the Gospel of Mark. I was pleased to see students grappling with difficult questions and being willing to leave some questions unresolved. A newly hired associate pastor fresh out of seminary began sitting in on the class. From my perspective, he poisoned the open-minded atmosphere by pronouncing that each of our questions had been settled by “modern scholarship.” I parried some of his negative thrusts but I could see that he wanted to teach the class himself. The next semester he took it over, teaching mainly by lecturing (really, practice preaching). I sat in, to make myself available to kids from theologically conservative churches. Some were beginning to suffer a crisis of faith or “dark night of the soul” from doubts of the Bible's validity being sown in that class.
It's almost always better to correct a speaker's goofs privately rather than in public. I soon realized that “the Rev” got his information from what scientists call tertiary sources, such as textbooks or magazine articles. So, I used the university library to look up a few of the topics he was so dogmatically certain about. I went to the primary sources in which investigators actually publish, like the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Near Eastern Archaeology, or Journal of Biblical Literature. (Scholarly reviews of other scholars' research are considered secondary sources.) Then I showed him how diligent most research workers are to acknowledge uncertainties implicit in their conclusions. In real biblical research papers, weasel words like “possibly,” “tentatively,” or “assuming that such-and-such is true” abound. Even so, tertiary sources tend to present the best current hypotheses as certainties. I think my library studies helped The Reverend So-and-so become somewhat more careful in his assertions.
Only once do I recall going to the mat with him in class. In a litany of biblical “errors,” he included the value of pi (π, the ratio of the perimeter of a circle to its diameter), given as 3 for a round ceremonial bowl in 1 Kings 7:23. Looking squarely at me, he said, “In the modern world, everyone knows that it's actually 3.14.” I couldn't let that one go unchallenged. I spoke up, saying that even though I knew π to six figures (3.14159), to three significant figures his value of 3.14 (meaning between 3.135 and 3.145) was indeed correct. But to a single significant figure, the value of 3 mentioned in the Bible is also correct (meaning between 2.5 and 3.5). Such things are taught in chemistry but maybe not in seminary.
. . . what links us to either physical or spiritual reality is evidence. The AAAS journal Science has been promoting what it calls EBI (Evidence-Based Instruction). I'm all for that, but I'm annoyed when “evidence-based” is glibly contrasted to “faith-based.” Like the apostle Thomas, I'm for evidence-based faith in Christ. Questions will always remain as to what counts as evidence and how to evaluate conflicting evidence. Sometimes we have to wait patiently for more evidence, refusing to jump to conclusions. Unbelievers often characterize Christian commitment as a blind leap of faith, but the serious Christians I know generally keep their eyes wide open.
I suppose living in Berkeley in the counter-culture days made me acutely skeptical of spiritual claims, which aren't subject to the same kind of objective analysis as physical evidence. When I was on a research leave at the University of California from Iowa State University in 1968-69, my wife Ginny and I spent many Sundays tending a Logos Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. The idea was to maintain a vibrant witness there more than to sell books. One Sunday a weary-looking hippie dropped in, expressing surprise that we sold Christian books. “I can dig that,” he said. Having hitchhiked up and down the West coast in search of spiritual enlightenment, he added, “Man, I can believe anything.” I replied that since I was a follower of Jesus, there were many things I couldn't believe. We talked about Jesus and the Bible for way over an hour, while Ginny took care of customers. At the end of our conversation the guy pulled out of his backpack a weighty copy of The Urantia Book and handed it to me, saying, “I guess I won't be needing this any more.” Eventually I gave it to the local Spiritual Counterfeits Project for their reference library.
After we moved more permanently to Berkeley in 1972, we met many young people who had found Jesus after first seeking truth through “spiritual paths” like the Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (guru of the Beatles), or the teachings of the now infamous Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, or hallucinogenic street drugs. My skepticism toward claims of spiritual experience was made public at one large Berkeley gathering after a relatively new Christian had enthralled the group with his story of having seen a vision of Jesus. The story didn't seem quite right to me, so I held up my hand and asked, ”Were you stoned at the time?” The audience looked angrily at me until he replied, “As a matter of fact, I was.” In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul had a lot to say about spiritual swindles.
No wonder that in 1660, the first real scientific society, the Royal Society of London, took as its motto, Nullius in Verba, Latin for "On the word of no one.” It can also be translated as “Take nobody's word for it,” or “Show me the evidence.”
It's beneficial to review regularly the evidence that brought us to Christ in the first place, and the reasons why we still believe in Him. It's also good to share that evidence humbly and respectfully with people not yet able to affirm, as Thomas finally did, “My Lord and my God!” The most important thing for us as Christians, though, is simply to be evidence of Christ's presence in our lives. When others get to know us well, are they more likely to believe in God's transforming power?
Walter R. Hearn grew up in Houston and majored in chemistry at Rice University. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1951. After doing research for a year at Yale Medical School and for three years at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent 17 years on the biochemistry faculty at Iowa State University. His research interests included peptide chemistry, hypothalamic hormones, and bacterial pigment biosynthesis.
For five years he was a Visiting Biologist to Colleges for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow and Life Member of AAAS and an Emeritus member of the American Chemical Society. In 1972 he switched professions and moved to Berkeley to do free-lance editorial work with his wife Virginia. They have edited periodicals and some 200 books, largely for Christian publishers.
Walt joined ASA while he was in grad school and served on the Council in the 1960s. From 1969 to 1993 he edited the ASA newsletter. He was a coauthor of the widely distributed publication, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (ASA, 1986) and author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997).
He has also contributed chapters to a number of books, the latest being "Creation Matters" in Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation (Penguin Academic, 2009), edited by anthropologists Richard Robbins and Mark Cohen. His articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in such publications as Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith and the Berkeley publication Radix, for which Ginny has been copy editor for over 40 years. Walt was once "poetry rejection editor" for Radix magazine. Walt and Ginny have strong IVCF backgrounds, helped to launch New College for Advanced Christian Studies in the 1980s, and are members of Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church.