Doubt is one of the most difficult concepts we have to deal with as Christians. We are called to have faith in a God who we can not see and hear on a regular basis like we can other people and yet we do this in a world whose implicit epistemology and ontology values the visible, the measurable, the clear, and the distinct at the cost of that which can not be readily seen, measured, clearly understood, and readily distinguished. Having faith in such a world often leads us to a sense of doubt in our journey of Christian faith. In such a case, it is often tempted to quote from passages like James 1.5-8 that tells us the problems with such doubt: that we will never receive what we ask from God if we have doubt.
However, most people don’t realize that when we treat faith and doubt as being opposites on the same spectrum, we are actually mixing up two subtly different ideas: trust and certainty. Living in a post-Cartesian, post-Enlightenment world, we have had a strong predilection to interpret faith in terms of one’s certainty about God, Jesus, salvation, etc. Faith has been defined, essentially along the lines of Enlightenment terms, especially in conservative and fundamentalism circles who tried to pit the Christian faith against the Enlightenment in the terms of the Enlightenment. If faith is about certainty, then doubt is the opposite faith.
Faith as trust, however, is subtly different in that it operates from a different type of epistemology. Certainty is rooted in the study of measures and information and using that information to come up with the right inference. We derive at certainty according to the way we know things. Trust, however, is more about people. Trust is about what we expect from someone in light of past experiences. To have faith in someone is to expect they will be faithful to one’s expectations and commitments. The way we come to believe and validate our trust in someone, who they are, and what they will do is different from the way we come to believe and establish the certainty about what things are and are not true about the world.
The point is that when we treat the existence of ontological doubts about God, either in general or where God was responsible for a specific event, as the same thing as the lack of trusting faith in God, we actually conflate these two very different ways we make sense the world of beings we relate to and the world of objects we observe and use. We allow the Enlightenment to colonize Christian theology and even our interpretations of Scripture.
Takes James 1.5-8 where James calls people to ask for wisdom from God with faith. Doubt (διακρίνω) on the other hand, invalidates the request to God. As a result of this characterization, it becomes really easy to treat people who struggle with faith in God as if they are somehow unstable. But, I would put forward that this is due to an unfortunate interpretation of this passage. Rather than understanding faith and “doubt” here along the axis of Cartesian-like certainty, we should understand it along the axis of trust and skepticism in the context of a pedagogical relationship of teacher to student.
The Greek διακρίνω doesn’t typically mean doubt, at least in terms of a doubt due to uncertainty. διακρίνω was a cognitive term that related to the process of human thinking and reasoning. As such, διακρίνω was related to the pursuit of wisdom and ethics in the ancient world.
Often times, it referred to the way people made moral distinctions. For instance, in Romans 14.23 it is often translated as doubt to refer to those people who think certain foods are off limits, but it is perhaps better understand this to refer to people who distinguish between some foods as good and some as bad. In 1 Cor 14.29, it is used to refer to the discernment of what is said by the prophets, as if there is the proverbial wheat to sift from the chaff. Then, it is used in James 2.4 to refer to the act of make differentiation between the rich and the poor. διακρίνω was more about making moral and evaluative distinctions about people, things, actions, statements, etc. and determining what was good and what was bad. As a result, διακρίνω could also be used with a subtly different sense of skepticism towards what some has said or done. We see that usage in Acts 11.2, for instance, to refer to being negatively critical of someone.
Now, we do see the word used by Jesus in talking to his disciples in Matt 21.21 and Mark 11.23 where he contrasts faith with διακρίνω. Given the seemingly incredulous request Jesus uses to illustrate the nature of asking in faith, to move a mountain, διακρίνω is more likely referring to a sense of skepticism at a such a seemingly absurd request than simply a sense of uncertainty about the request.
Now, we can come back to James 1.5-8 with a different perspective in mind. Given it being used in a discussion about wisdom, διακρίνω is likely used to describe a specific mode of reason, particularly as it pertains to be skeptically critical. To engage in an act of διακρίνω to any pursuit of wisdom from God would be tantamount to saying “I am wise enough to judge, discriminate, and criticize what has been given by God.” This is where the source of the double-minded comes from: to simultaneously say “I need wisdom from you God” and then at the same time being negatively critical of whatever wisdom is coming. It is in a sense to act like a pupil depending upon God and then turn around and be skeptically critical of what wisdom comes from God.
James later discussion on wisdom in 3.13-18 is relevant here. He refers to a group of people who are boastful (κατακαυχάομαι), claiming that the wisdom they have is not from above, that is God. When James says the “doubter” ought not to expect to received anything from God, we can perhaps see what he really means: that the one who διακρίνω will instead receive a worldy, earthly ‘wisdom’ from below. To engage in a skeptical criticism in regards to wisdom actually inculcates in that person a sense of competitiveness and arrogance that tears down rather than builds up. In other words, διακρίνω as referring to a style of highly presumptuous criticism overlaps with the boastful arrogance of those who possess earthly wisdom in James 3.13-18.
Allow me to push this further and say the push for certainty actually has the effect of making us engage in this skeptically critical mode of thinking and reasoning, either by making us too confident in our own thinking and thereby highly judgmental of others or make us too skeptical of anything people say. In either case, the pursuit and expectation of certainty has the effect of making us doubters: not so much of the God that we think of, but doubters of God’s wisdom, as we risk vaulting ourselves into the role of discriminator what God would and would not want. Many a philosopher in the ancient day thought this way, and it no doubt could have been imitated by some Christians who wanted to pursue wisdom. Such people do not trust in God even if they ask for wisdom from God, but place their trust in their own wisdom or the wisdom of vaunted teachers of wisdom (cf 1 Corinthians 2.5).
I will close with making a very important clarification here. Firstly, as I alluded to earlier, διακρίνω is not about being in a place of uncertainty. It is about being in a place of personal confidence that erodes teachability. Secondly, διακρίνω is not about questioning and inquiring in to nature of wisdom. James is not saying “Be quiet and just accept what is given to you.” Inquiry is a good thing when done with humility to learn or even as part of a respectful challenge to something one has heard, although inquiry can be a way of expressing a skeptical criticism. Thirdly, James is concern about διακρίνω in relationship to God and not necessarily to human teachers. As James 3.1 expresses, there is a strict judgment that should come upon teachers. In other words, we should not take James warning against a skeptical criticism in seeking God’s wisdom as saying we should never be discerning of what we hear from others, as if they have an unquestionable access to God’s wisdom.