Wednesday, February 20, 2008


"A great philosophy is not that which passes final judgments, which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which introduces uneasiness, which opens the door to commotion."
Charles PĆ©guy, Note on M. Bergson

"Rowan Williams doesn't just think outside the box; he has boxes which are shapes and sizes no-one has ever really considered." —Martin Reynolds

"Religion, insofar as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification.... There are two atheisms, of which one is a purification of the notion of God... Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny." —Simone Weil, from Lectures in Philosophy and The New Christianity.


ChrisC said...

How do you square the spirit of these comments with the spirit of John 8 32? "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Could it be that doubt is not the insurance against tyranny suggested? There are difficulties nailing exactly what the truth referred to actually is (or even who it is) but surely the inferrence runs counter to this implications contained within these quotes?
This post reminds me of a line from 'Racing Demon' by David Hare that has always stayed with me;'All you offer these people is your doubt.' or words to that effect (it was a long time ago and I was only 16!). It's all rather self-indulgent I think was implied criticism.

Simon Barrow said...

Chris - doubt is knowing that there is a truth that can set us free AND that we do not own it. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. To doubt ourselves is not to dishonour God, it is to recognise that we are *not* God, that the world is tragic as well as redeemed, to spare others our attempts to be chillingly and dangerously right about everything. The Gospel is not about our rightness, it's about grace. That is very different, I think, from the kind of enfeebled doubt caricatured in Racing Demon. I used to work in Southwark Diocese, by the way, upon which the play is based. So, no contradiction at all, if the truth that sets us free comes from the brokenness of Christ, and not from us holding up a mirror to our own impregnability. Which is sadly what a lot of "Christian certainty" looks like, I fear.

Simon Barrow said...

PS. "doubt is not the insurance against tyranny suggested". If you re-read Weil, you will see that she did NOT say it was. She said that the suppression of doubt is the road to tyranny. A very important difference. Of course doubt alone is not enough. In fact you have to have conviction in order to doubt. And Simone had conviction in spades - too much, one might argue. Her whole life is such a counterpoint to "woolly liberalism" that mistaking her kind of agonistic, believing doubt for a kind of lackadaisicalness is about the biggest mistake one could make in this area. But it is easy to do.

ChrisC said...

Mmm, this is strange. I too think 'there is a truth that can set us free AND that we do not own it.' But then to me this represents certainty, not doubt. Also, I find the use of 'chillingly' and 'dangerously' revealing. Being right, even in a very flawed and woolly sense, confers benefits because it allows for action with right motives. Also, I don't understand the difference between conviction and certainty, especially the conviction that doubt is certainty (isn't this waht it effectively boils down to?). If doubt becomes a method, it must paralyse eventually all action and thought, at least of the concious, rational kind. Which is why I can't agree with your description of Racing Demon as caricature, although I am sure it might well be a caricature of the Diocese of Southwark from what I hear! (Is that unfair?)

Simon Barrow said...

I shall try to write more about this, Chris. My latest post on mystery may help - or not! I think you are confusing the assurance of faith, which is a gift and cannot be imposed, with epistemological certainty - which seeks or posits some guarantee of 'rightness'. This confusion lies at the heart of the most damaging distortions of religion, when "knock-down truth" is imposed on people's lives at great cost. How you get to that from Jesus in Gethsemane and the last words on the Cross is an interesting tale in itself. But we live in an age which craves certainty, and so cannot cope with faith. This is as true of Richard Dawkins as it is of the religious right (of whom, it has been observed, they are neither!) in the US, though in markedly different ways.

Doubt is not about denying right and wrong, it is a recognition of the importance of a qualification on our own certitude. In Christian terms, I would call this "eschatological reservation" - the conviction that what is finally the case abides in the endlessness of God's love, not our own apprehensions or prescriptions. As a guide to moral action this can be very powerful indeed. It is not about being woolly.

David Hare himself has described Racing Demon as a caricature, a term which is not (as I think you suppose) inherently negative. It is description of a certain kind of procedure for dramatically engaging us with something larger. I know the person on whom the play was based, too.

You might be interested to read Os Guinness's book Doubt (from the evangelical tradition) or Rowan Williams' Christ on Trial - Both, in different but overlapping ways, deal with doubt and ambiguity as spiritual gifts.