Between Doubt and Dogmatism (A Review and Reflection on Perhaps by Joshua McNall)

I’ve written a lot about the topic of doubt. Whether it’s about “doubting Thomas,” or that verse in James that tells us not to doubt, or wrestling with my own doubts, this is a subject that resonates with me personally. Perhaps because of my inquisitive mind, I always find myself drawn toward difficult questions.

But some folks don’t like wrestling with questions. Some people feel like they just need answers now. Maybe some personalities just don’t do well with a lack of closure, so they rush toward a system that tries to answer everything, even if the answers don’t actually hold up to close scrutiny. Whether it’s a specific theological system or a political party line, we seek shelter from the storm of life’s questions behind a wall of dogmas that someone else has nicely constructed for us.

And as soon as anyone questions our sheltering system, we get defensive. We try to shut them down in our social media comments. We berate them for daring to question what is so obviously the truth (duh).

After all, if enough holes are poked in our shelter, it’s back out into the storm again.

I myself am rather seasoned when it comes to walking in the rain and adjusting my shelter as needed, but others aren’t. Which is why I want to talk about a useful and timely book: Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism by Joshua McNall.

McNall (a theology professor at Oklahoma Wesleyan University) argues that contemporary American Christianity too often polarizes people into one of two camps: either a shrill and angry dogmatism that pushes away honest questioners, or else a pervasive doubt and skepticism that refuses to accept any answers offered by traditional orthodoxy.

To use my analogy of structures in the storm, the “dogmatists” are the ones who lambast anyone who questions their system. They don’t see that their makeshift shelter is flawed or incomplete or still has provisional parts, so they idolize it and defend it in ways that only push others out further into the storm rather than inviting them in for warmth.

On the other hand, the “doubters” in McNall’s scenario are those who’ve gone from being honest questioners to only ever wandering lost in the wind and rain, refusing to ever set up shop in one place. They are the rising “religious Nones,” or they are those super-progressive Christians whose doctrines shift in step with the contemporary cultural milieu du jour.

In place of these two extremes, McNall suggests that what is needed is for more Christians to adopt a healthy intellectual humility that is willing to say “perhaps” when it comes to hard questions. Perhaps there’s an answer we just haven’t explored yet, so let’s stop beating up people who disagree with our system. Or, on the “doubt” side, perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our faith entirely just because some points may not make sense to us or just because someone asked us a tough question about the Bible.

In other words, things I’ve already been passionately proclaiming to all and sundry, and to which I give a hearty “Amen!”

Now, while the source of McNall’s burden here definitely appears to be the social and political climate of America post-Trump (he admits as much on p. 5), the focus of his thesis is not primarily political discourse but rather theological speculation. It’s a call for believers to distinguish between essential doctrines and non-essential opinions. To focus on those elements of creedal orthodoxy as opposed to matters of adiaphora. To stop making mountains out of molehills.

Again, MASSIVE amen. I’m sold. Pass the collection plate.

But what kills me about enjoying a book like this is that I’m sure the majority of people who desperately need to hear its message will never read it because they’re too busy obsessing over their Twitter feeds or cage-staging on Facebook. In a world of bite-sized tweets, this is a college-level book. And while the main ideas were readily understandable, some of the writing was in a very academic register for a popular-level work.

Still, the overall points McNall makes are spot-on, and I appreciate the philosophical ground he covers. He does an excellent job defining what he means by “dogmatism” and “doubt,” with all the necessary nuances to clarify who is and is not intended by those phrases.

And his argument that we should be willing to entertain a healthy amount of theological speculation is careful and balanced, with a whole chapter devoted to listing ten guardrails on such speculative enterprises — like making sure we’re clear on what we should believe, and not doing our speculating alone.

And in the best part of the whole book, Part Four, he gives examples of how to do such speculation — humbly and cautiously — with three particularly thorny theological questions: Why does God allow animal suffering? What does Romans 9 affirm about determinism and human choice? And is there any possibility for salvation after death?

Those chapters alone are worth the price of the book, and I learned a great deal from them. (Though, on the Romans 9 one, I don’t really think McNall needed to say “perhaps” quite so much, since he simply ends up giving the most sensible and contextual reading of the passage.)

Overall, I think this book will appeal most to those like myself, who are already on board with having a generous Christian orthodoxy that recognizes where our certainty ends and speculation begins. It’ll give such readers even more food for thought. It will also appeal to those Christians who have maybe leaned a bit more in the “doubt” direction in their faith, who will appreciate having someone tell them, “Yeah, you know, it’s okay that you have those questions and I’m sorry that some of the more uber-fundamentalist folks have beaten up on you for asking them. That’s not the way of Jesus.”

And I can recommend this book because at the same time McNall never sacrifices historic orthodoxy for a wishy-washy, “question everything” brand of super-progressive Christianity. He strikes the needful balance, and does so with empathy.

There are Christian dogmas that have stood the test of time, that are sturdy structures within which to find shelter from life’s blasts. And we are justified in seeking warmth within those hallowed halls. We are also justified in defending them, too — if we do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

But there are also certain wings of the Christian edifice that are not yet finished being built; where we can still feel the rain, and where the wind sneaks in and jumbles our certainty like leaves on the floor. Christ is still building his church until we all reach maturity in love and doctrine (Ephesians 4:11-16). In that process, we still have questions. We see as “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It’s up to us to become familiar with each part of our shelter, and to learn how to hold to our dogmas and doubts with charity, humility, and a much-needed dose of “faith seeking understanding.” [1]

See you down the path.

[1] The motto of St. Anselm of Canterbury (c. AD 1033-1109). “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand” (Proslogion, 1).

Categories: Book Reviews, Practical/Devotional, Resource Recommendations

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