On the Feast of The Ascension, Jesus presents us with a profound message, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” But before the disciples went out on this great mission, we are told, “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Even after Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, some of his most committed followers harbored doubt. For those that doubt and at times lack certitude, shouldn't we feel comforted that Jesus’s own disciples doubted?
Like it or not, doubt remains an inevitable reaction to responding to the litany of ideas in our world - this includes the doctrines in our faith. However, doubt offers two sides of the coin. Doubt can be a healthy exercise in which we learn to put aside our tribal prejudices and think critically, or doubt can be a soul-shattering crisis that radically destroys our faith (see CCC 2088). The key to which direction doubt takes us hinges on how we respond to it.
The Church has never had a problem with doubt, provided it is rightly ordered doubt. The gospel, after all, is forged in a crucible of doubt. John the Baptist doubted both Jesus and himself, asking, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mt 11:3). And it will be noted that Jesus did not, in the slightest, rebuke the honest doubts. After all, He offered evidence to “Doubting Thomas” (see John 20:24-29).
Honest doubt is really a quest for faith. The person who is sincerely doubting is humbly questioning in pursuit of something more - the truth. With honest doubt, one is willing to face his suspicions and go beyond the self to seek out the truth. When doubt becomes destructive is when we don’t seek answers, and we refuse to accept anything we doubt.
Some of the most ardent saints approached their quest of committed faith at all costs by taking on doubt head-on. Take, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas craved clarity, and in pursuing it, he carefully and methodically covered thousands upon thousands of doubts about the Catholic faith. He knew, as the apostles knew, that the Faith, having walked out of the grave, had nothing to fear from the truth and that it was already, even in his day, an anvil that had worn out a thousand hammers. So he interrogated his doubts relentlessly with thousands of real posers that began, “It would seem . . .” and then put a question opposed to the teaching of the Church in the strongest possible terms he could find. Interestingly, Aquinas articulates the opponents of the Church’s arguments better than the opponents themselves. This gentlemen-style academic debate was customary back in the 1200s. All welcomed consulting, investigating, reviewing opposing views because they wanted clarity, truth, and answers to doubt. Wouldn’t we love today to see our politicians and journalists muster up the moxie to approach their own simplistic ideologies with such honesty and courage in addressing doubts to their world view? Debate involving logical investigation is a thing of the past. Today, any attempt at honest debates inevitably reverts into who can proclaim their catchy slogan louder.
God’s answers are hidden under layers of questions of doubt. As Proverbs says,“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is the glory of kings to search a matter out.” (Proverbs 25:2) We are to worship God with our minds as well as our hearts. So the desire to find answers, to come to resolution of doubt, to demand that the living God show His face and hear our cry is a perfectly legitimate enterprise. Don’t forget that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to counsel the doubtful. This tenet is considered a spiritual work of mercy precisely because in counseling those who doubt you are directing the doubtful to seek the only thing that can satisfy that hunger - the truth. As Aquinas states, "The greatest kindness one can render to any person consists in leading them from error to truth." At one point, Jesus defined Himself as “the truth” (John 14:6) and declared that “the truth will set you free” (John 8: 31-32, 18:37). Therefore, bringing someone to the truth is analogous to bringing them closer to the Lord.
From doubt comes questions. From questions one then sets off on a journey of truth. Therefore doubt can be the catapult toward God. In the quest for truth, one goes through discourse — whether internal or external. Sadly, today’s discourse in religious debate has freed itself from the strict bounds of truth. Instead of debating and using discourse for the purpose of drawing people to the truth of the faith, we now are encouraged to utilize “dialogue” lest we don’t offend someone’s belief system. Here, seeking truth has been bracketed for fear of rupturing people’s feelings. Gone are the intellectual debates where both parties put aside their subjective wants and foster rigorous questions and answers to uncover what both long for - the truth. Now discourse has turned into a banter of one person saying, “I feel this,” while another responds with “I feel this.” Here, there is no direction to concrete truth; instead, what follows is a sharing session of a different aspect of what they believe, but no one actually talks about the existence of which belief system is objectively true. This benign method of sharing different sentiments goes nowhere in seeking objective truth yet solely focuses on the individual’s perspective. Therefore, religion, and anything for that matter, boils down to one’s personal experience over and above objective truth.
Today a bolder response to doubt has emerged. Rather than address doubts about his worldview, modern man ignores them and attempts to shut down anyone who sheds light on his doubt. Sadly, today when opposing views clash, one side uses bullying tactics to get the other side to concede their point (I think you know which side does this). Such maneuvers of harassment are displayed through childish name-calling that goes something like this. Do you support marriage as one man and one woman? Then, you’re ignorant and a hater. Do you believe a person’s sex is “assigned at birth” and not changeable at will? You’re cruel and evil. Do you believe abortion should be outlawed? You’re a misogynist who wants women to be slaves. While such tactics are incredibly immature, they are generally effective at coercing people to go along with the ideological ruse. All they have to do is declare your valid viewpoints as “hate speech” and then problem solved.
Such intimidation where the opposing view’s questions are squashed is reminiscent of the “will to power” approach of Friedrich Nietzsche. It should be noted that Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Nietzche’s philosophy and credited his rise to power from Nietzsche. Under this philosophy, the main driving force to get what your disordered passions crave is to aggressively will it into existence while flexing might over any opposing viewpoint. This philosophy can be summarized as self-determination, the concept of actualizing one's will onto one's self or one's surroundings, and coincides heavily with egoism.
With this modern Nietzsche approach, we have essentially made reason into the slave of the passions. A person wants to indulge in their sexual perversions - then you respond to any opposing viewpoint to your ideology with angry accusations. Indeed, in such a case, your language becomes nothing more than an instrument of power. And this was precisely the appeal of Nietzsche. Fundamentally, Nietzsche's practice of rhetoric was not oriented toward the truth but toward power. Words without truth, empty words, become mere instruments of control and manipulation. If the government and courts are the sources of power in your society, and if your goal is power rather than truth, then the methods of this aggressive rhetoric are highly desirable for it represents a flexible means for achieving power.
With all these tactics to divert the truth tells us that the truth gets people going in two directions. The truth is a magnet. A magnet repels and attracts. So does the truth. It repels those who don’t want it into a world of shutting down the question of what is true in favor of the question of what I want to be true. But, the truth also attracts those who seek it. In the third century, St. Ignatius wrote, "Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” Therefore, the Catholic Church has the fullness of the Truth, for she houses Jesus Christ, the Truth. Given this, it is our duty to speak the truth to others with charity and clarity. Our truth is the crucified Lord. Many have left the Church because to follow Christ means a death, at least to ourselves and what we want to be true.
While doubt can escort us to the fullness of the Truth, we should caution that one cannot stay in that state of doubt indefinitely and refuse to allow doubt to take one on an exploration of truth, for where we go with our doubt shows who we trust. When doubt becomes perverted, the person only shows trust only in himself – and he doubts all things outside of him. Here, he is not skeptical about his skepticism. In this stage, the person in doubt always “questions” in order to refuse light rather than seek it; as Paul refers to such, they are “ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). Doubt in our faith creeps in when our trust in God falters. When doubt runs amok rather than trust God, we trust our dubious, fallen wisdom.
At some point in our Christian life, the overwhelming majority of us experience doubt. It may be doubt about God; His existence or goodness. It may be doubt about Jesus, the Church, the Bible, or some aspect of the teaching. It may be doubt about one’s self, or some person that has constituted a sure anchor for your soul. It may seep into your soul with the accumulation of thoughts and feelings that perpetuates desolation. It may be pounded in with a nail through your heart by the short, sharp shock of a tragedy or betrayal. But however it comes, it must be faced. And for Christians, it is meant to be faced with the help of Jesus Christ through His body the Church.
Coming back to Christ’s message of the Great Commission. Before we can go out to do God’s mission, we have to let God address our doubts with depth and precision. Then, we’ll be in a better position to go out and make disciples of all nations.