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James F. Sennet on Doubtful Belief

Cited in "Still a Believer" at (March 29, 2009).

I have doubts. I think I know too much for it to be otherwise. And I think I’m far too honest with myself about the best that unbelief has to offer. I have not mastered the blissful ignorance or self-deception that so many conservative or evangelical Christians manage to shelter themselves with. I don’t mean that to sound perjorative, but the fact of the matter is that I find it very difficult to convince very many "Bible believing" Christians that the case for unbelief has a single shred of intellectual strength, and that really bothers me.

Nonetheless, I do not consider myself to be on a road to unbelief, or in danger of “abandoning the faith” anytime soon — or ever, for that matter. I decided a long time ago that the issue really comes down to which set of bothersome, unanswerable questions you’re more at peace with — those you’re left with when you believe, or those you’re left with when you don’t. (One of my gripes about unbelievers is that they so often give the impression that the choice is between belief and lots of stubborn, unanswerable questions, or unbelief and full intellectual satisfaction.) Always I have been of the opinion that the unanswered questions of belief are much easier to live with than those of unbelief. For example (and this is a huge one for me), if I choose naturalism (which I see to be the only real alternative to theism), then I must accept that somewhere, at some time, something came into existence out of absolutely nothing. (For all the efforts of contemporary atheists to escape what Frank Hoyle saw clearly as the implications of big bang cosmology, this consequence still stands undefeated.) And this is a claim I don’t even know how to begin to get my mind around. The perplexities (and they are many) of the problem of evil pale into nothing by comparison. Which is harder to conceive, that one powerful enough to create a universe might have plans too complex for us to fathom that somehow make some kind of sense out of the state we find the world in, or that everything from quarks to DNA to dwarf stars to the whole of the cosmos came out of absolutely, positively, indefinable emptiness??? Sometimes, when my doubts are raging, this is the only place my faith has to stand. But, even at those times, it is enough.

I do have to say that my faith has evolved in recent years to something that most conservatives or evangelicals might not consider “true Christianity.” That’s okay, though. I long ago stopped worrying about what anybody else thinks of my faith. I have withdrawn from most forms of church leadership — I am honestly tired of the hassle, tired of the crap, and just plain tired. Furthermore, I find it harder and harder to sanction the bigotry and hard-heartedness that so often goes under the guise of redemptive behavior. Also, I’m much more inclined to a broadly inclusivistic respect for and even openness to other religious traditions, to the point that I am not ready to express anything like the quasi-exclusivistic “There is no other name” xenophobia that most conservative Christians insist on as a sine qua non of the faith.

When you add all of this together with the fact that several years ago I was divorced and remarried, I do tend to fall well outside most circles that many Christians are comfortable with. But, like I said, I long ago stopped worrying what anybody else thinks of me. It’s a very serene way to live. I’m very happy, I’m very much at peace. Like Tillich, I meditate; unlike Tillich, I also pray. I’ve learned a great deal lately from the Pali Canon and the Tao te Ching. I’ve also gotten to know Jesus perhaps better than ever. I still know that the intellectual case for faith is good, but not overwhelming. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that the existential case for faith can be — for those who seek it — downright irresistible.

One thought on “James F. Sennet on Doubtful Belief

  1. Daryl says:

    Thank you. I’ve always had these same sentiments about my faith, but never had the skill to put them into words. I’m a novice at philosophy, but didn’t Aristotle say that by doubting, we come to inquire, and by inquiring we arrive at the truth? I’ve been told that I’m no longer a “real” Christian because of questions I ask and knowledge I seek, but I stopped worrying about it a while ago. As Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”

    I simply cannot be content with sitting in a pew and listening to someone tell me what God wants me to do. The Creator expects much more work on my part.

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