I don’t know when doubt became a virtue, but it has. “Doubt,” as the author John Eldridge puts, “is in.”
Superman would have a hard time getting a job in today’s marketplace. Contemporary heroes are doubters: they doubt themselves and they doubt their cause. Without an extended period of existential angst on the resume, it’s very difficult to land a role.
As an example, Eldridge points to what Peter Jackson did to J. R. R. Tolkien’s great hero Aragorn, in the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings.” He made him “a postmodern hero riddled with uncertainty, self-doubt and regret.” It’s as if the only thing we can really believe in anymore is doubt.
One can see how it happened. It is the political hardliner, the religious extremist and the dogmatically dangerous – the person who has no doubts – who causes all the trouble. Hitler had no doubts – and who wants to be him?
But then Churchill was no doubter either, and where would the world be without him? It’s possible that by conferring virtue status on doubt we may forestall the appearance of the next Hitler. That’s the reward. The penalty, however, may be that, when the next Hitler does arise, there will be no Churchill to defend us.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom portrays the distrust of certainty that exists in the current intellectual climate: “The true believer is the real danger. The study of history … teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”
Bloom understood the sentiment of the intellectual culture of the time: “The true believer is the real danger.” Now, twenty-five years later, it might be argued that the situation has changed. The true believer is no longer “the real danger.” He is in danger. Indeed, in the West he is an endangered species.
Not only is the true believer in danger, truth itself is on the run. For several decades at least, the primordial intellectual soup of academia has given rise to a pessimism regarding (or an outright denial of) propositional truth claims, whether in science, philosophy or religion. Subjectivism has won the day. Doubting Thomas has become the patron saint of the age.
In such a climate, people take pride in the fact that they, unlike their forebears, are open-minded. But as the inimitable Chesterton wrote: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” And, like the mouth, the mind that never closes on anything will starve to death.
Doubt is currently seen as a mark of authenticity. But it also may be a mark of cowardice. Or laziness. Doubt, like love, is capable of covering a multitude of sins. A lack of certainty becomes reason to do nothing, to risk nothing. Doubt allows a person to retreat from conflict and settle into a comfortable posture of self-centeredness behind a façade of humility.
But one doesn’t settle into real doubt. It is painful and full of anxiety, in a way that is not sustainable. Real doubt inevitably leads to belief or unbelief. If it doesn’t, it’s not doubt. It’s mere distraction. For these reasons and more, one should learn to doubt one’s doubts.
Real doubt is a bed of nails. One cannot lie on it for long. When the pain of doubt has been replaced by a posture of doubt or a predisposition to doubt, it’s clear that a person is no longer doubting his or her beliefs but believing his or her doubts.
Yes, Doubting Thomas is the patron saint of the age. But one should remember that when Jesus, following the resurrection, met Thomas again, he did not congratulate him on his authenticity. Instead, he told him to “Stop doubting and believe.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, April 26, 2014