In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, [Archbishop] Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”.
So Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby admits to occasionally doubting whether God is there, or what he’s up to if he is there. In another quotation from the interview, he said:
“The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”
Like many others, I applaud the Archbishop’s honesty and echo his sentiments. The only thing I disagree with him on here is that I don’t think there’s any ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ about it. Rather I think it’s exactly the sort of thing any honest, normal Christian does at times think, and I also think it’s right and healthy – perhaps even vital – to do so. I have a much higher opinion of him as Archbishop for admitting his occasional doubt.
There will be some both within and outside the church who look on his admission as a sign of weakness or failure, perhaps even a sign that he shouldn’t be in his position of leadership. After all, isn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury paid to believe in God? Shouldn’t he be above such lay-person’s questioning, and if he does ever experience doubts shouldn’t he keep them to himself? No, not in my view.
For sure, if Justin Welby became a committed atheist, no longer able to believe in God at all, then he’d have to step down as Archbishop. But to have moments of uncertainty, and occasions when you doubt the existence or goodness or capability of God – these are simply part of being a Christian, indeed of being a human.
Doubt is a vital component in honest and healthy faith. Without any doubt of this sort, it’s questionable whether faith can have any substance or reality, or can grow and develop at all in a living way. Faith without any doubt, uncertainty or questioning is merely fundamentalism; I’d even suggest that it is in danger of being arrogant, short-sighted and seriously out of touch with reality. Without doubt and uncertainty and questioning, I’m not sure there can be any real faith at all.
Given the messy, messed-up reality of the world we live in and of our own lives, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be times when we question God’s reality or his goodness or his ability to do anything useful. Faced with terrible and apparently meaningless disasters and tragedies and cases where evil seems to prosper, we can hardly help but ask what God’s doing.
As Welby himself pointed out, the Psalmists and Prophets of the Old Testament all experienced and expressed serious doubts along these lines. Welby referred in particular to Psalms 88, 44 and 22, all well worth reading in this context. He could also have mentioned Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and Habakkuk among many others:
“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
And of course such questioning is not limited to the Old Testament. Jesus himself quoted Psalm 22, in his darkest hour on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So I applaud both Justin Welby’s doubts and his honesty and courage in expressing them. What I think he could also usefully go on to doubt and question further are some of the doctrines of Christianity, and particularly of the evangelical wing Christianity from which he hails – biblical inerrancy, eternal hell, penal substitutionary atonement, homosexuality; some of the implications of the sovereignty of God. Questioning and coming to a different position on these has enabled me to keep my faith in a good and loving God, a God who I struggle to see in some versions of evangelical Christianity.
Finally, and as an aside, Welby commented very honestly about theology’s inability to deal with some of the difficult questions of life, including that of suffering:
“We can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain loads of things but we know about Jesus…”
I agree. What I would say is that though Christian theology can’t fully explain suffering – and is generally wiser not to make the attempt – it can still maybe offer some meaningful insight into the subject…
Anyway, good on you, Justin Welby. One of these days I might even be able to forgive you for not being Rowan Williams… 😉