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Peter Berger, writing in The American Interest, makes the point that “faith is typically tinged with doubt.” He seems thus to assert the obvious, namely, that faith is usually imperfect. Indeed it is. But Berger goes on to say:

Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

How all this pans out in his book, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, I can’t say exactly, not having read it yet, though the article supplies some hints. But I hope the present point is made only in passing, for it doesn’t make much sense. If faith is typically tinged with doubt, then faith and doubt do form a polarity of opposites. 

In any case, Berger is mistaken in subsequently opposing faith and knowledge. Faith, as the Hebrews text suggests, is a mode of knowing—an incomplete mode of knowing but not a lack of knowing. The proper opposition here, even grammatically, is between faith and sight.

While I’m at it, I’ll take a poke at the far more common mistake of placing faith and reason in opposition. That opposition makes fine sense, of course, where it is shorthand for reason operating beyond its natural limits through faith, aided and abetted by higher forms of grace, versus reason operating within its natural limits without benefit of the same. It makes very poor sense if it implies that faith, if pure, somehow takes leave of reason altogether. 

But I’ll not ask a sociologist, even so insightful and theologically interested a sociologist as Peter Berger, to worry about that. (If he wants to worry about it, Anselm and Aquinas can both help him; so perhaps can D. C. Schindler’s book The Catholicity of Reason, though Anselm unfortunately is missing there.)  I will however point out that Berger’s city of God illustration is also misconceived, and tellingly so, if by city of God he means something that exists only beyond all the skylines of this world. Au contraire, it exists also in this world, in the Church militant, which the eye of faith, however tinged with doubt, perceives as already participating (with the Church triumphant) in the world to come.

One last point, if I may: It both is and isn’t right to associate the faith—doubt polarity with punishment or with an angry God.  Hebrews itself says, in the same place, that without faith it is impossible to please God. It does not conclude that God damns one to hell for doubt, much less for wrestling with doubt, though there is a kind of doubt or unbelief—the willful, deliberate kind—which, left unchecked, is indeed damning: self-damning. God preserve us from that.

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