Dealing with Doubt: An Augustinian Approach to Deconstruction

As millennials entered adulthood, authors observant of generational trends noted their increasing departure from the church, and they urged that a greater comfortability with doubt is necessary in retaining them (Boyd 2013, Evans 2015). Seel (2018) suggests that by repenting of its past pride, as evidenced in dogmatic claims and appeals to certainty, the church can bring wanderers back into the fold. In line with this idea, Smith (2016) asserts that the church needs to lead people away from the mind and toward the body and heart; namely, less of an emphasis on imparting biblical knowledge and memorizing bible verses, and a greater reliance on ceremony, liturgical rituals, and storytelling. In contrast to these approaches, this paper employs Augustine to argue that deconstruction of faith should be addressed by increasing assurance rather than increasing doubt.

People use the word doubt in a multitude of ways; for instance, it can refer to a lack of complete certainty, a humility in being open to the possibility that one could be mistaken, and the willingness to ask difficult questions that challenge one’s beliefs. Many of these types of expressing doubt are helpful in strengthening one’s faith. However, doubt should be not be the permanent state of a Christian, particularly the doubt that expresses itself as a general skepticism, that nothing can be truly known or grasped and that one should suspend judgment on all matters, or as a specific skepticism regarding the trustworthiness of the word of God, his character, or the relationship that his people have with him. Recent readings of Augustine have claimed him as a supporter against dogmatic belief (Elshtain 1995, Kolbet 2015, Wood 2017). However, in his writings, and especially in his early Contra Academicos, Augustine opposes the skepticism of the Academic philosophers, who claimed that while truth exists and should be sought, it can never be grasped. They concluded that since certain knowledge is impossible, a person should always withhold assent; probability is the furthest point one can achieve in pursuit of knowledge (Striker 1980; Cicero, Academica). In contrast, although he fully recognizes the limitations of human knowledge, defends interpretative charity, and commends the doubt that prevents a person from assenting to uncertain knowledge, Augustine resolutely maintains that people can still comprehend truth and reject falsehood. They can trust their sense perceptions, the authority of divine revelation, and credible witnesses (Confessiones, De Civitate Dei, De Trinitate, De Magistro).

Christians should not condemn doubt as a sin, promote a culture of pride that refuses to consider whether it could be mistaken, or be unwilling to address complex and challenging questions. At the same time, they should recognize with Augustine that “skepticism is a philosophy of despair” (Dutton 2016), leading to the loss of joy and strength in the Christian life. In order to move from deconstructing faith to strengthening it, one must move toward Augustine’s confidence in the truth of Scripture, in the character of God, and in his relationship with his children.

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Doubt: An Augustinian Approach to Deconstruction”

  1. thoughtful
    This paper should definitely be accepted at ETS — at least by Philosophy or evangelism. It may be good for SF. Seems very thoughtful, but perhaps more philosophical that formational and not as in-depth on doubt as it could be for SF.

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  2. An important topic and I
    An important topic and I especially appreciate her treatment of assurance which is often a missing dimension today. It should definitely be accepted but is this the best section?

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