Guest Book Review: Doubting by McGrath
First, my thanks to IVP for a review copy of Alister McGrath's Doubting. Click here for the table of contents and an excerpt. Second, thanks to Nelson Moore for the following. As you will realize by reading his superb offering below, Nelson has a very sharp mind and he is not afraid to say what he honestly thinks. Plus it made me laugh. Prepare for a tremendous review ... Hang on, this sounds like I'm reviewing a review! I'll stop now.
The book at hand was originally published by IVP in 1990 under the title Doubt. Its current edition, entitled Doubting, first appeared in 2006. It is written not for an academic audience, but rather on a popular level, having originally been created as a series of talks to a group of university-aged people. Because of this, I do not recommend this book for those who are trained in theology or philosophy. You will be disappointed by its thin content in many areas.
The book is divided into eleven chapters, each of which attempts to deal with some element of the overall discussion. For example, chapter one attempts to define the terms "faith" and "doubt" while chapter two discusses what McGrath calls "the vain search for certainty." The list goes on (doubts about Jesus, doubts about the Gospel, etc.) as McGrath tries to provide a cursory treatment of a variety of matters relating the doubt and faith.
McGrath does deal capably with some items. He responds quite helpfully in chapter one, for example, to the notion that faith should be defined basically as the absence of doubt. In this model, one begins with doubt and as soon as every single doubt has been overcome, then the residue is called faith. McGrath rejects this model, viewing faith as more of a "saying 'yes'" to the call of God – a call to which people respond despite the fact that do not have the answer to every objection.
He also does a very good job in chapter two supporting the claim that no side in the debate over the existence of God is going to have absolute certainty. He is quite clear that faith in Jesus is ultimately going to require a leap (p. 25) in which you choose to believe and follow. Take heart, however, because your ideological opponents also need to make a leap in order to arrive at the conclusion that no God exists.
In some of his later chapters, he does a good job of using biblical narrative in a pastoral manner, drawing upon the Exodus narrative and subsequent wilderness wanderings, for example, to illustrate the need for persevering faith. There are plenty of instances in which he engages the biblical material in this way. These later chapters also contain simple, practical advice. Read the Bible, pray, join a community of faith so that you are not alone in your spiritual walk. I certainly do want to endorse his counsel on these matters.
Despite the above, I was disappointed by the book in many ways. My biggest objection is that at no point does McGrath ever address the question of whether doubt can be good and healthy. If the Jehovah's Witnesses come to my door, for example, and try to convert me, should I not exercise a kind of Cartesian doubt and ask them to prove their position? Or should I just jump on board and believe them, since to doubt is sin? Obviously, I am going to doubt them; and if I am going to do that with the JW's then it only makes sense that I have a similar doubts about traditional Christian claims. In short, there has to be some legitimate place for doubt and McGrath never addresses the question of where this is. (He would obviously agree with the statements above – he just never deals with the subject in the book, and that is my objection.)
I also found myself a bit disappointed by the thin treatment of philosophy. It seems odd to have a book that talks about faith as a leap without ever discussing Kierkegaard. And while Ravi Zacharias mentions Descartes in the foreword, I do not believe that McGrath ever discusses the French philosopher in the context of doubting what cannot be proven. Does it really make sense to write a book that is self-describedly geared toward university students and then never cite the philosophers whose insights you are using?
The exegete in me finds the book quite thin when it comes to actual biblical exegetical work. I know it's written for a lay audience, but I don't think it's wise to write a book in which you define the word "faith" without doing some pretty hefty exegetical work.
And finally, some of the statements McGrath makes are just plain silly. I will provide the most egregious two examples.
Chapter two is entitled "Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty." While the chapter ultimately proved to be quite good, I cannot help but comment on the following passage.
"Absolute certainty is actually reserved for a very small class of beliefs – for example, things that are self-evident or capable of being logically demonstrated by propositions. Christianity does not concern logical propositions or self-evident truths, such as 2+2=4, or 'the whole is greater than the part.' Both of these are certainly true, and we are able to know such truths with absolute certainty – but what is their relevance to life? Realizing that 'the whole is greater than the part' isn't going to turn your life inside out! Knowing that two and two equal four isn't going to tell you anything much about the meaning of life. It won't excite you. Frankly, the sort of things that you can know with absolute certainty are actually not that important" (23).
I am trying to imagine McGrath's response if his pharmacist were not altogether concerned about 2+2=4 when dispensing life-saving medication. Or perhaps the pharmacist might counsel a patient to swallow the whole bottle of pills since it doesn't really matter that the whole is greater than the part. That a trained scientist and theologian would make such an absurd statement is nothing short of stunning.
In chapter eight on "Doubts about Jesus Christ," he brings up the question of whether or not the resurrection might have been some sort of cover-up. He writes, "Doubts about the resurrection arise from suggestions – along with the deep-down feel of some Christians – that the resurrection is just too good to be true!" Such a statement is so ridiculous I can barely respond to it. I think people doubt the resurrection because it is difficult to believe! Now I do believe in the resurrection, but I think we need to engage skeptics sincerely, not with ridiculous platitudes.
In my own spiritual and intellectual life, I definitely find myself beset with doubt. "What if this whole Christianity thing really is just kind of a pre-modern folklore that arose to fill a psychological need?" "What if I leave behind other business opportunities to enter ministry, only to learn down the road a bit that the whole thing is a fraud?" "What if Dawkins is right?" "What if Mohammed is right?" These are very legitimate questions and I have been beset at times with every one of them. And it is clear to me that Alister McGrath also takes them seriously. I just wish he did a better, more thorough job of answering them.
If you are well educated regarding Christian life and thought, I suspect that you will want to skip this book. And if you are trained in philosophy, you will definitely want to skip it. But if you are more of an "average" person who is exploring the world of faith and doubting, then you may well find some encouragement from Alister McGrath's Doubting.