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EPISODE 73: Josh Chatraw and Doubt
Some Christians have been told they should never doubt. But Josh Chatraw and his co-author Jack Carson say that doubt can actually lead to a deeper faith - if handled properly. I chat with Josh about their book and how we can respond well when we face doubts of various kinds.
- Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith by Josh Chatraw and Jack Carson.
- Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age by Josh Chatraw
- Our previous podcast with Josh on Telling Stories.
- The Center for Public Christianity
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. At the Institute, we pursue discipleship of the heart and mind. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I'm delighted that my conversation partner today is Josh Chatraw. He's been the director of the Center for Public Christianity in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area. He's moving to Birmingham, Alabama, to be on the faculty of Beeson Divinity School. He’s written a number of books. He's been a guest before on Questions That Matter. He's written several books about apologetics, and he's written a new book about doubt, Surprised by Doubt, and that'll be what we’ll center our conversation on. Josh, welcome back to Questions That Matter.
Thanks for having me. It's a delight to join you today.
Well, tell us a little bit about the Center for Public Christianity, which you're no longer going to be the director, but you're still involved in it, and it's this really great ministry. Give us a little spiel.
Yeah, the spiel is that, eight years ago in Raleigh, a group of Christian leaders came together and said, “We need to think about the discipleship in a secular age. We need to particularly think about how we're doing discipleship for emerging leaders who in their twenties and thirties and forties and how to better equip them for what's coming down the pipe within our culture.” And they started looking around, “Who’s doing this well?” and they found a program in New York that Tim Keller had started called Gotham Fellows and the Center for Faith & Work. And they brought in Katherine Alsdorf, who was leading that Center and doing some consulting, wooed Katherine into helping them launch this for two years, and then I had the privilege of serving as the director for five years, and we really brought in a lot of thinking not only about faith and work but culture in general, how to do evangelism, how to talk about the gospel in public spaces, and the kind of core of that is a nine-month fellowship program for people in the Raleigh area, but we also do other events for the public in the Raleigh-Durham area. So that work is continuing on. There's a great group of leaders that are carrying that out, and I have the privilege to stay involved, even as I take on this new role at Beeson.
And so tell us about Beeson. I think some of our listeners will be familiar with it. It’s part of Samford University, but it's the Divinity School, if I'm correct on that.
And you're going to be a professor, I imagine of apologetics? Is that right?
Yeah. My official title is Professor of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement.
Apologetics is part of both of those things.
Great! And, for people who aren't familiar with Beeson, give us a little bit of a snapshot.
Beeson one of the, I think, treasures that many people don't know about. It is a confessional Protestant evangelical divinity school that is only residential. And you have the opportunity to come and study with what I think is one of the best faculties in the United States, and yet the faculty-to-student ratio is seven to one.
And it trains people in different Protestant traditions, Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and the Methodist tradition, all in one community, and then you have different tracks depending on your particular tradition. So it's a wonderful environment, theologically orthodox, Protestant, as I said evangelical, and yet has this spirit of togetherness, even while learning from people of different traditions. And my job there is to teach on culture, to teach on evangelism, and to figure out and kind of pool the resources that are there, the theological resources, the historical resources of the faculty together to say, “How do we actually meet the challenges of evangelism and apologetics in our churches?” We're equipping church planners and missionaries and pastors.
And so one of our convictions is not only that theology should be done in the church, but as we're thinking through how to best reach the next generation and how to deal with secularization, those answers are going to come from within the church as God has designed it. And so that's at least my angle on Beeson Divinity School.
Well, I'm really happy for you. I had the privilege of visiting there at Beeson. You're stepping into the role that a good friend of the Institute, Lyle Dorsett, has had. And Lyle invited me a couple of years ago to be a guest speaker in one of his classes. And I just was struck with that very pastoral, intimate kind of environment for a seminary. And you're right, the student ratio to faculty is seven to one. I got to be a guest in his advisee group. That may not be what it was called. But it was there in his office, and people shared prayer requests and prayed for each other. It was really, really beautiful. And it was the exact opposite of the stereotype that I think a lot of people have of a seminary. I think a lot of people think of that as very sterile and academic, which is not fair, I don't think. But some do better than others. And I think this is going to be a great chapter for you there at Beeson.
Well, let's talk about your newest book. You've co-written it with Jack Carson, who is a professor at Liberty. But it's a book about doubt, and something tells me some of the listeners might say, “The guy sounds like he's quite confident, and he just became a professor of apologetics and evangelism and cultural engagement. He probably doesn't have any doubts, does he?” And yet you begin your book saying, “Sometimes people ask me if I, Josh, still have doubts. I sense that, for many, it's a surprise and a letdown when I tell them that I do. Perhaps they like to imagine theologians, and especially apologists, as iron-clad warriors who, having conquered all of their demons of doubt, are triumphantly parading with the angels from conference to conference, basking in the glory of victory. If that's your image of either of us, let me disabuse you of that notion right from the start.” So this book is to help people, but it sounds like it's also a struggle that you yourself have faced, is that right?
That's right. And I think sometimes what we've done is we do a disservice as theologians and as leaders when we act as if, “Hey, maybe doubt was something I struggled with back in the day, when I was an immature Christian, but now I’ve conquered all of that,” and we give this kind of over-realized vision of the Christian life. And I don't think that's helpful for those who are actually dealing with doubt, because, I think, at least for me, that's not actually the case. There are still questions spinning around in my mind. And as I explained in that chapter, I know how the church and different theologians have responded to that through the years, to some of those questions, but I'm not exactly sure what the best response is always. And so the Christian life isn't having a kind of certainty on every question that might pop into your brain.
And so it's first of all saying that, “Hey, doubt is something that Christians, even mature Christians, still struggle with.” However, that doesn't mean that I'm valorizing doubt or I'm saying doubt is a good thing. Rather, I think we need to have a realistic vision, particularly in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a secular age, where we no longer live in this kind of culture where Christianity is just assumed. So we interact and we deal with people every… for many of us who… we watch television shows that don't assume that there is a God. We have these patterns in our life where God isn't actually in them because we live in this secular age. So we still believe, but we also feel what Charles Taylor describes as cross pressures. So I think it's really important to be honest about those cross pressures that we feel. At the same time, they’ll say, “Hey, but there's good reasons to believe, even as I'm feeling these cross pressures.” And that's what I'm trying to do in that opening, is say, “Hey, let's own up to the fact that we feel these cross pressures, and I'm not immune from that, just because I have a PhD and I’m a theologian.”
You know, I've told this story a number of times, maybe even on other recordings of this podcast. I was in an Apple store, buying a computer. I was about to start my doctoral program, and I told the guy, salesman, that I was buying a computer to start a doctoral program, and we got talking, and he asked what the program was in, and I said religious studies, because I was trying to make it comprehensible, and he said, “Oh, I used to be religious, but I had too many doubts.” He said, “I just could never be a hundred percent sure,” and I said to him, “Oh, I've never been a hundred percent sure.” And he said, “What? Wait a minute! You’re going for a doctorate in this stuff.” I said, “Oh, that'll probably lower the percentage even further,” but I think there is this idea that it either has to be 100% certainty without any doubts or I need to abandon it. And I think that both non-Christians and Christians seem to have that assumption. Do you think that's a picture for a whole bunch of people?
Yeah. So I would describe…. You could break it down into kind of four groups. You have the religious who are kind of spinning, saying, “Oh, no! I've got this complete certainty, and everyone else who doesn't believe like I believe is just an idiot, so it's just vile and crazy.” And then you have kind of the opposite extreme, where you have the New Atheists with that kind of rhetoric as well. “Everyone who’s religious is just dumb and crazy.” What I actually find, especially when I'm meeting fellows program of twenty and thirty year olds, is that most people are actually in between. They believe, but they have their doubts, and at least in our program, the way it was designed, they'd be open about those doubts. But they still believed, and they still wrestled with those, and they wrestled in community, which is the way to do that, but then on the other side, there were those who I talked to quite bit who aren't believers and yet they're actually open. They don't think that religious people are all crazy. They sense a kind of lacking in their life. And so I actually find that many atheists or agnostics or the “nones” feel the cross pressures of belief. They're tempted by belief, where believers are tempted by or are dealing with doubt. They’re dealing with temptations to actually believe this. And I actually find those conversations are much more productive, as of course anyone could imagine, rather than just…. But I don't think it's it's helpful, even in those evangelistic conversations, to cast it as, you know, kind of what you were saying in that conversation, as “Well, I'm absolutely certain, and let me just throw out the evidence, and if you can get to 99% or 100%, then you can become a Christian.”
Our lives are full of choices or decisions that we don't have 100% certainty. And so we use some of the language of Pascal in the book, and I think it's helpful. We creatively treat Pascal to talk about a wager and making a wager, and after looking at the big picture, what are you going to wager your life on? And you know what? Everyone, in some sense, wagers, even if you say, “Well, I'm not going to wager,” you have to live somewhere. You have to make certain decisions. You’re going to value something. You’re going to go somewhere for meaning. And it seems like religion, one of the things that religion has done is it provides those things. It gives you a grid. It gives you a story by which to view your life and live your life and have meaning and value. And so it seems to me that everyone's kind of wagering on a story of some sort with their lives, even if they don't think that through.
One of the ministries we have here at the C.S. Lewis Institute, we call Keeping the Faith. It's a program that's been developed to equip you, particularly parents and grandparents and other adults who are caring for children and grandchildren, for the intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got a lot of resources at the Keeping the Faith tab on our website. We know that, if you're caring for children, you're busy, and you're tired, and so our goal is to provide you with resources that will be available to you at a moment's reach, as well as deeper, more thoughtful resources when you have the time to fill your well. So you'll find videos, articles, a monthly newsletter, recommended resources. We regularly post on Facebook and Instagram. We also have two study programs available, so please check out this resource at our website, cslewisinstitute.org/keeping-the-faith. And it's keeping hyphen the hyphen faith, but you don't even need to know all that. Go to our website. I think you'll find Keeping the Faith pretty easy to find, and there's a wealth of resources there. Thanks.
Well, all right. So I'm going to sort of kind of play devil’s advocate. Or maybe I'm trying to represent some… I think there may be some of our listeners who might be thinking right now, “Well, yeah. This sounds really nice, Josh and Randy. You guys tend to agree. Good. I’m happy for you. But doesn't the Bible offer us a very, very high level? Don’t we have statements in the Bible, ‘So that you may know that you have eternal life.’ I mean, isn't there a certainty? Or shouldn't faith eliminate doubt according to the Bible?” Where are the places that you look to in the scriptures that say, “Well, yes. There’s a very high level of confidence, but I don't know if the Bible promises 100% certainty.” Sorry, I've put words in your mouth. That’s probably not right. So where do you turn in the scriptures for support of your thinking about all this?
Yeah. Well, I would just say that we're talking about… oftentimes, what people are talking about when they're talking about certainty is through the lens of the Enlightenment, epistemological certainty, coming with a certain, “Okay, what can I prove just using reason alone?” And so they're talking about certainty along those lines. And when the Bible talks about certainty, it can be using that word not in exactly the same way. A kind of confidence. And I would say that confidence comes through the work of the Spirit. And so, when the Bible is talking about this kind of confidence in the Gospel, a certainty in the Gospel, I do think that the Spirit does that in our lives, but it's not through a kind of logic-chopping neutrality, right? That you would get in certain forms of Enlightenment reasoning. And so certainly the Bible wants to give us confidence, and it's, as Augustine famously said, “It’s by believing that we understand.”
And so I guess that would be one distinction to make between how people typically talk about certainty today and then the biblical usage, which isn't along the same lines. And so we're talking about a work of the Spirit, which isn't going to be some kind of neutral way to approach that question, which is demanded by an enlightenment, modern, epistemological conversation, or at least many are thinking along those lines.
So, I'm wanting to make a category distinction there. And at that same time, I'm wanting to say, theologically, I would want to argue that the gospel does… actually the Spirit works with the gospel to give us a kind of confidence. But I wouldn’t want to say that that is always at this same level, right? There's times that we experience doubt, and then other times the Spirit works, and we don't have that same nagging doubt. But there can be long periods that we're experiencing that, and I would want to maybe draw a similarity with my understanding of remaining sin in the Christian's life. So the Bible speaks about sin, and it speaks about sin as remaining, not simply something that, once you become a Christian, is going to completely go away. And so I do think there's this moment in conversion where we have this confidence, but that doesn't always stay at the same level throughout the Christian.
Yeah, good. I want to underline… you're using terms. You’re saying confidence, certainty, and I find confidence to be a really, really good word. And certainty also. But again, you're right. In our modern world, people hear certainty, and they think that means absolute, without any chink in the armor at all. And it doesn’t seem like that's the same way the Bible uses the idea of confident hope or confident trust. I like what you say about there still is ongoing sin. There still is the need for us always to be renewing our minds and to be growing in our understanding. And a whole lot of doubts come from, “Well, I really haven't dwelled on that enough or haven't thought about that enough.”
So what about some practical advice you'd have for someone who really does struggle with doubt? A Christian who’s struggling with doubt. What are some things you offer? Your book offers a number of strategies and insights, and I think it's really helpful. What are just a few?
Yeah. Well, one of the things, the dominant metaphor of the book is we're borrowing from C.S. Lewis, which I'm guessing most of the listeners will appreciate.
I would certainly hope so. Yes. And by the way, we're required to say his name at least three times in every podcast, so you're doing well.
Okay. And so, of course, he has this famous analogy of a house in Christianity—in Mere Christianity, he describes it as him trying to get people in the hallway. And not so much wanting to wrestle with the intramural debates that Christians have. And I think that’s helpful, but the question in our book that we turn to is, “Yeah, but what happens if you always grown up in the house? But what happens if you've actually grown up in the attic?” And the attic is this kind of reactionary structure built in the corner of the Christian house, the larger Christian house, the larger Christian tradition, that is really built out of a kind of fear, is built for protection against certain things happening within culture, and yet at the same time, because of that, it can begin to feel suffocating. And so, for many…. Today, you have sort of movements like the ex-evangelical movement or just the deconversion movement, deconstruction movement.
They’ve grown up in this small corner of the Christian house, and they start feeling pressures, and they start feeling like they can't breathe, and they jump out the window. And what we're encouraging in the book is we're saying, “We understand what you're feeling and some of what you're saying is absolutely right, but we just don't think jumping out the window from the attic is your best bet.” Instead, if you would come down to the main floor of Christianity, then actually what you will find is a more capacious dwelling. You'll find some interesting figures that have had to navigate doubt and who give us a more ancient way to do that's not reacting against the kind of things that the attic was built reacting against.
So the metaphor, what I’m trying to get at, and here's my advice, is first we need to say, “Okay. What kind of Christianity are you reacting against? What kind of Christianity have you maybe grown up in? What version? And what's distinct about that room versus what is essential to Christianity?” And I think that's a distinction that the historian Mark Noll gives, and I think that's really important. Because sometimes what we're wrestling with is a certain distinctive that we inherited, but that's not the primary thing. That's not essential to Christianity. And so coming back to the main floor helps you, because you see, “Oh, actually. Augustine,” for instance, “his version of Christianity was rather different, and some of the things that I thought were so central weren’t central to him, or to Pascal or Lewis, at all.”
And it doesn't mean you necessarily have to shed all your distinctives that you grew up in, but it does help you navigate, prioritize what it is that you might be rejecting or having trouble with. Some of those things you might just be able to let go. But, and this goes back to what we were talking about before, Randy, the attic not only says, “This is what's important. Cast your eyes on certain things that are maybe not the most important things,” but it also forms the way that you go about trying to believe. And sometimes that can happen with an anti-intellectualism, where you were taught, “Hey, don't look into that science,” or, “Don’t look there,” or, “Don’t talk to this,” or, “Don’t read that book.” Or a kind of what we call a quasi-rationalism that imagines that faith is really easy. “All I have to do is just read this book and look at the evidence, and you’d have to be an idiot if you don't believe this, because we've got all the evidence right here in front of you.”
And we find both of those postures actually problematic.
And so what we advise people to do and here, at least the second time I’ve used Lewis’s name. What we advise people to do here, is as Lewis models, which is, yes, to look at Christianity, to look at it. Yes. Look at the evidence for the resurrection. Look at the evidence for the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus died and rose again. Look at that evidence. But also look through that truth to the incarnation and the resurrection to see how it illuminates the world that you find yourself in. So look at and look through. And then we get a little creative here with Lewis, but we also say, “Step into that truth.”
And so what's actually happening when we experience doubt is often that we're not doubting everything. We're actually believing certain things that cause us to doubt other things. And often what we believe we inherit through certain practices. What we good and beautiful and true. We actually inherit at a deep level through the practices we're engaged in, whether that's spending our day scrolling on Twitter or through shopping or watching sports. What’s most real, what's most important, comes into us and is absorbed into us by these practices. And Christianity gives us all of these practices that help wake us up to attend to the world differently. Whether that's, as Lewis said—so we've at least got three here now. Lewis talked about, be careful not only what you read… an atheist can't be too careful what they read, but also he encourages people just to take walks in nature, to touch some grass. Some really practical advice.
But also, since we’re riffing off Lewis here for a moment, the Psalms. The Psalms are an important part of his life, and are we praying as we experience doubt? Are we going to the Psalms? And is that becoming the kind of cadence for our spiritual life? So we have to step into those practices. This is how Christianity was meant to work. And often I talk to someone who's doubting, and I’ll say, “Well, how's church going?” and they'll say, “Well, I gave up on that.” But it seems to me that, if Christianity is true, the way that you're going to get this confidence isn't through simply looking at, or kind of coldly, or in a neutral way, looking at the evidence, but by adopting the practices, trying on and seeing. And the Christian claim is, as you do that, and you do that while you're looking at and looking through the Christian story, your eyes begin to be open more. You have a certain posture, so that you actually receive those evidences, and you see the world differently through that posture, and that's an important part of it.
I'm very excited to tell you about a new resource we’re working on at the C.S. Lewis Institute. It's going to be a series of relatively short articles that answer challenging questions to the Christian faith, so less than a thousand words, which is like the front and back of one piece of paper, maybe even less than that. Of questions like, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” and, “Isn’t Jesus just like all the other religious people?” and, “Aren’t all religions the same?” and the questions that people are likely to ask us if we get into some really good, deep conversations with them. And it's going to be a growing resource. There'll be a new topic and piece of paper, basically, for you to read and share with nonbelievers. So check it out. If it's not already, it will be at cslewisinstitute.org/resources-category/challengingquestions. Or, if that's just crazy, go to cslewisinstitute.org and search for questions. I sure hope that'll help. Thanks.
So looking at, looking through, but stepping into, and the stepping into, I don't hear that from too many places. So I think you're contributing something that's really very, very helpful. And it's not a, “Oh, stop asking your questions and just go to church.” No. But there are things about us that we experience, and toward the end of your book, you talk about things like beauty and dignity and getting involved or appreciating things around you as part of dealing with doubt. I think that's very helpful. I'm helped a lot of times just from that little cute slogan of, “Sometimes we should doubt our doubts.”
Sometimes I have these doubts, and, “Okay, well, let me look at it. Well, yeah, it's a doubt. It's a problem. It's not quite as big….” You know, start evaluating, doubting my doubt. “Well, okay, yeah, it's a problem, but it's not a defeater. And if I were to abandon the faith and walk into whatever that is, atheism or secularism, well, that creates all sorts of other problems.” And now I have trouble with, “Why do I love looking at nature so much if the world is totally pointless and meaningless and random?” “Why do I love listening to Sibelius, of all composers, if life is pointless and meaningless?” That was probably a bad illustration because some people would say, “I've listened to Sibelius, and he makes me think life is pointless,” but never mind.
But I'm drawn to beauty, and we’re drawn to story and literature, and the Christian faith has a more capacious dwelling—that was a phrase you used, and I really like that. Let me push one more thing: The subtitle of your book. So your book is called Surprised by Doubt, and then the subtitle is, “How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Phase.” Now you've already started on this a little bit. Can you say a little bit more? Okay, let's say, okay, you're surprised by doubt. You realize, “Oh, I was told I should never have doubts, but no, I have some doubts, and that's okay.” Now how can that then lead me into a deeper faith?
Yeah. For people who might be listening to this podcast, they grew up in certain forms of Christianity that didn't talk about the great tradition. And so when they began to wrestle with doubt, they had the resources right in front of them, or maybe the popular apologists that were right in front of them, and yet, what I would hope that doubt would do and our book would do is help people realize that there's 2,000 years of critical inquiry, of thinking about these deep questions. And so, to be able to tap into that and be resourced, and what we try to do in the book is to do that in a way that is digestible for the typical reader. So, in that way, I think, being exposed to the richness of the Christian tradition, as you're dealing with doubt.
The second thing is, I think, for me, doubt has caused me to rely more on God, rather than simply my ability to figure everything out. Now, that doesn't take away from anything I just said about critical inquiry, but the best Christian thinkers in the tradition have said that Christianity is much more than a philosophical system and should not be reduced to simply a philosophical system. It’s an encounter with a living God. That's at the heart of Christianity. The heart of Christianity is a Person and an event. And so when we begin to imagine, “Hey, I have all these questions, and Christianity is going to solve all these questions and neatly put a bow on this.” Where does grace come in? Where does prayer come in? Where does me on my knees before God come in? And for me, it's as I've wrestled with questions, I can see different periods in my life where I was treating Christianity as primarily a kind of philosophical guide to life. And I mean not philosophy as a way of life, which I think in that way Christianity certainly is, but philosophy as basically, in that kind of modern guise that just becomes epistemology, which is, “How do you know what you know?” imagining yourself having some very abstract questions, but Christianity, at the heart of it, is a relationship with God and an experience with a living God. And so disillusionment, doubt, struggles, they’ve driven me back to prayer and back to a dependence on a living God.
And so in, in those two ways, I think God is sovereign enough to use our doubt and disillusionment for good and even for our good. And that brings me great hope as a Christian.
Boy, that's a really good insight, and I'm really thankful for it. And I think that that may be a good place for us to kind of draw this to a close, because…. So your approach, it is as intellectually rigorous as we need, but you're very quick to say, “But that's not all we need.” And so, yeah, there are answers. And yes, we should wrestle with this. And we want to bring in the best minds who have wrestled with this deeper. But, as you say, we rely on God's ability to meet with us in ways deeper than just our intellect. Not contrary to our intellect, but deeper, and I think that your book does a really good job with this in a really short amount of time. It’s less than 150 pages or so. So it's a great resource, and I think that that approach of looking at, looking through, but stepping into, is tremendously helpful.
So any last thoughts you want to leave us with before we sign off?
Yeah. One thing we didn't cover that I want to just mention is that, in the middle of the book, we really are wanting to take some of the spaces or some of the alternative spaces that people are stepping into when they need Christianity seriously, and I think the way we try to do that is just to say, “Let’s inhabit those, and what would it be like to live there?” And, “Why are people jumping off there?” and then, as you said before, Randy, “What are some of the real issues there?” In other words, if you're going to leave Christianity, or even if you're dealing with doubt, consider the alternative. You have to live somewhere. And that's really important, because I think, for some people, when they're dealing with questions or uncertainty with the Christian faith they grow up with, I think they should wrestle with those things. They're not as critical about what they're about to jump into.
And so, to just kind of jump in, as you said before, oftentimes that brings a lot of problems, a lot of questions, and in many cases, they're just kind of barely keeping afloat. They've just jumped into this big ocean. They're just barely keeping afloat. And I think Christianity has been worked out and has remained for two thousand years because there's something to it. And so that's one thing I wanted to note for our listeners is that that's the other move to make is, before you jump, see what you're about to jump into.
Great word. Great word! Thanks so much. Well, I'm going to put a link for your book in the show notes and some other things that will be relevant to this conversation. Thanks so much for this. May the Lord bless you as you step into this new chapter there at Beeson.
To all our listeners, we hope this podcast and all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute will be very helpful for you as you seek the discipleship of the heart and mind, as you pursue digging deeper, and as you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks.