faith and doubt: Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams

As will be more than obvious by now I am only an occasional blogger. I figure it is only worth posting when I have something valuable to say and when life gives me the time to say it. even now, I have nothing original to tell you but I thought you might enjoy a meditation on faith and doubt. I have “borrowed” (stolen) an extended citation from Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, (Minnesota: liturgical press, 2010)– available for immediate download on Kindle.

I hope it gets you thinking:

Faith in what we cannot control, do not see, cannot understand destroys the idle that is ourselves. It is only that deep down belief that we are not the be all and end all of the universe that can save us from ourselves. It is the awareness of being part of something vast and intelligent and well intentioned that gives purpose to life, that leads us to seek beyond the horizon of our smallness hope that tomorrow, warped as we may be today, we can all be better.

Faith is one long hallelujah sung into a dark night, the only end at which is another challenging dawn.

Unlike answers that presume the static nature of God and the spiritual life, doubt stretches us beyond ourselves to the guidance of God whose face is not always in books. Doubt is what leads us open to truth, wherever it is, however difficult it may be to accept.

Doubt requires us to reconfirm everything we ever been made to believe is unassailable. Without doubt, life would simply be a series of packaged assumptions, none of them tested, none of them sure, and all of them belonging not to us, but to someone else’s truth we have made our own.

The problem with accepting truth as it comes to us rather than truth as we divided for ourselves is that it’s not worth dying for – and we don’t. It becomes a patina of ideas inside which we live our lives without passion, without care. This kind of faith happens around us but not in us – we go through the motions. The first crack in the edifice and we’re gone. The first chink on the wall of the Castle and we’re off to less demanding fields.

Doubt, on the other hand, is the mother of conviction. Once we have pursued our doubts to the dust, we forge a stronger, not a weaker, belief system. These truths are true, we know, because they are now true for us rather than simply for someone else. To suppress doubt, then, to discourage thinking, to try to stop a person from questioning the unquestionable is simply to make them more and more susceptible to the cynical, more accepting of naive belief.

It is doubt that is the beginning of real faith.

The only real corrective for passive disbelief is passionate doubt. Our institutions are filled with people who never question whether or not the government and the Constitution are of a piece, whether our churches and the gospel are compatible. So we produce unpatriotic patriots and corporate believers, people more committed to the system then they are to following Jesus. We produce them at an alarming rate.

Life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death … But in this case it is not the body that is dead, it is the mind, it is the soul.


selah, think on that.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Kerry Miller-Whalen
    February 18, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    “So we produce unpatriotic patriots and corporate believers, people more committed to the system then they are to following Jesus”

    So true. So tragic.

    Thanks for posting this, Shane – really worth reflecting on!

  • Steve Gore
    March 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks for posting this.

    My personal fear is that I will “purse my doubts to the dust” and find nothing of substance to build conviction on. Rationally, I understand the historical evidence for a resurrection. Experientially, however, I see suffering and loss all around me. The latter tends to overwhelm the former.

    Would be very curious Shane to see how (if?) you’ve managed to find (or recover) this conviction in your own circumstances.

    Think I should read this book.

    • Shane Clifton
      March 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      really good question Steve. I guess I have a twofold answer. If you do pursue your doubts to the dust (lovely phraseology) then I guess those beliefs had no substance in the first place. Better to realise that your belief is meaningless in the whole dogmatically onto nothing.

      Of course in the pursuit of truth, faith and doubt you may discover that there are some things that are mysterious and profound and that require faith. This is not blind faith but, rather, the recognition that absolute certainty is not always possible. I think that is true of many of the most important things in life. I know my wife loves me, but I cannot prove this absolutely (although I could give many indications) – but I have faith in her. I have a reason for this faith; it is not blind.

      So I find reasons for faith in God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There are historical grounds for this, although these are not absolute. I have other grounds – experiences et cetera. These also are not absolute. I can certainly doubt and question the resurrection – and these questions should lead me to reflection and the study and prayer. I have found that this study has not turned my faith in Christ to dust – although I have discovered that many of the things I formally believed have proved of little substance.

      Hope this makes some sense!


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