There is a subject which I think we as workers amongst young men cannot afford to keep out of sight – I mean the subject of “Doubt.” We are forced to face that subject. We have no choice. I would rather let it along; but every day of my life I meet men who doubt, and I am quite sure that most of you have innumerable interviews every year with men who raise skeptical difficulties about religion. Now, it becomes a matter of great practical importance that we should know how to deal wisely with these men. Upon the whole, I think these are the best men in the country. I speak of my own country. I speak of the universities with which I am familiar, and I say that the men who are perplexed-the men who come to you with serious and honest difficulties – are the best men. They are men of intellectual honesty, and cannot allow themselves to be put to rest by words, or phrases, or traditions, or theologies, but who must get to the bottom of things for themselves. And if I am not mistaken, Christ was very fond of these men. The outsiders always interested Him, and touched Him. The orthodox people – the Pharisees – He was much less interested in. He went with publicans and sinners – with people who were in revolt against the respectability, intellectual and religious, of the day. And following Him, we are entitled to give sympathetic consideration to those whom He loved and took trouble with.
First, let me speak for a moment or two about the original of doubt. In the first place, we are born questioners. Look at the wonderment of a little child in its eyes before it can speak. The child’ great word when it begins to speak is, “Why?” Every child is full of every kind of questions, about every kind of thing that moves, and shines, and changes, in the little world in which it lives. That is the incipient doubt in the nature of man. Respect doubt for its origin. It is an inevitable thing. It is not a thing to be crushed. It is a part of man as God made him. Heresy is truth in the making, and doubt is the prelude of knowledge.
Secondly: The world is a Sphinx. It is a vast riddle – an unfathomable mystery; and on every side there is temptation to questioning. In every leaf, in every cell of every leaf, there are a hundred problems. There are ten good years of a man’s life in investigating what is in the leaf, and there are five good years more in investigating the things that are in the things that are in the leaf. God has planned the world to incite men to intellectual activity.
Thirdly: The instrument with which we attempt to investigate truth is impaired. Some say it fell, and the glass is broken. Some say prejudice, heredity or sin, have spoiled its sight, and have blinded our eyes and deadened our ears. In any case the instruments with which we work upon truth, even in the strongest men, are feeble and inadequate to their tremendous task.
And in the fourth place, all religious truths are doubtable. There is no absolute proof for any one of them. Even that fundamental truth – the existence of God – no man can prove by reason. The ordinary proof for the existence of God involves either an assumption, argument in a circle, or a contradiction. The impression of God is kept up by experience; not by logic. And hence, when the experimental religion of a man, of a community, or of a nation, wanes, religion wanes – their idea of God grows indistinct, and that man, community or nation becomes infidel. Bear in mind, then, that all religious truths are doubtable – even those which we hold most strongly.
What does this brief account of the origin of doubt teach us? It teaches us great intellectual humility. It teaches us sympathy and toleration with all men who venture upon the ocean of truth to find out a path through it for themselves. Do you sometimes feel yourself thinking unkind things about your fellow-students who have intellectual difficulty? I know how hard it is always to feel sympathy and toleration for them; but we must address ourselves to that most carefully and most religiously. If my brother is short-sighted, I must not abuse him or speak against him; I must pity him, and if possible try to improve his sight or to make things that he is to look at so bright that he cannot help seeing. But never let us think evil of men who do not see as we do. From the bottom of our hearts let us pity them, and let us take them by the hand and spend time and thought over them, and try to lead them to the true light.
What does the modern Church say to a man who is skeptical? “Brand him! – call him a bad name.” And in many countries at the present time a man who is branded is put out of religious society - much more than if he had gone wrong in morals. I think I am speaking within the facts when I say that a man who is unsound is looked upon in many communities with more suspicion and with more pious horror than a man who now and then gets drunk. That has been the Church’s treatment of doubt, and that is perhaps to some extent the treatment which we ourselves are inclined to give to the men who cannot see the truths of Christianity as we see them. Contrast Christ’s treatment of doubt. I have spoken already of his strange partiality for the outsiders – for the scattered heretics up and down the country; of the care with which He loved to deal with them, and of the respect in which he held their intellectual difficulties. Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness. Loving darkness rather than light – that is what Christ attacked, and attached unsparingly. But for the intellectual questioning of Thomas, and Philip, and Nicodemus, and the many others who came to him to have their great problems solved, He was respectful and generous and tolerant.
And how did He meet their doubts? The Church, as I have said, says, “Brand him!” Christ said, “Teach him.” He destroyed by fulfilling. When Thomas came to Him and denied His very resurrection, and stood before Him waiting for the scathing words and lashing for his unbelief, they never came. They never came. Christ gave him facts – facts. No man can go around facts. Christ said, “Behold My hands and My feet.” The great god of science at the present time is a fact. It works with facts. Its cry is, “Give me facts.” Found anything you like upon facts and we will believe it. The spirit of Christ was the scientific spirit. He founded His religion upon facts; and He asked all men to found their religion upon facts. Now, gentlemen, get up the facts of Christianity, and take men to the facts. Theologies – and I am not speaking disrespectfully of theology; theology is an scientific a thing as any other science of facts – but theologies are human versions of Divine truths, and hence the varieties of the versions, an the inconsistencies of them. I would allow a man to select whichever version of this truth he like afterwards; but I would ask him to begin with no version, but go back to the facts and base his Christian life upon that. That is the great lesson of the New Testament way of looking at doubt – of Christ’s treatment of doubt. It is not “Brand him!” – but lovingly, wisely, and tenderly to teach him. Faith is never opposed to reason in the New Testament; it is opposed to sight. You will find that a principle worth thinking over. Faith is never opposed to reason in the New Testament, but to sight.
Well, now; with these principles in mind as to the origin of doubt, and as to Christ’s treatment of it, how are we ourselves to deal with our fellow-students who are in intellectual difficulty? In the first place, I think we must make all the concessions to them that we conscientiously can. When a doubter first encounters you he pours out a deluge of abuse of churches, and ministers, and creeds, and Christians. Nine-tenths of what he says is probably true. Make concessions. Agree with him. It does him good to unburden himself of these things. He have been cherishing them for years – laying them up against Christians, against the Church, and against Christianity; and now he is startled to find the first Christian with whom he has talked over the thing almost entirely agrees with him. We are, of course, not responsible for everything that is said in the name of Christianity; but a man does not give up medicine because there are quack doctors, and no man has a right to give up his Christianity because there are spurious or inconsistent Christians. Then, as I have already said, creeds are human versions of Divine truths; and we do not ask a man to accept all the creeds, any more than we ask him to accept all the Christians. We ask him to accept Christ, and the facts about Christ, and the words of Christ. But you will find the battle is half won when you have endorsed the man’s objections, and possibly added a great many more to the charges which he has against ourselves. These man are in revolt against the kind of religion which we exhibit to the world – against the cant that is taught in the name of Christianity. And if the men that have never seen the real thing – if you could show them that, they would receive it as eagerly as you do. They are merely in revolt against the imperfections and inconsistencies of those who represent Christ to the world.
Second: Beg them to set aside, by an act of will, all unsolved problems: such as the problem of the origin of evil, the problem of the Trinity, the problem of the relation of human will and predestination, and so on – problems which have been investigated for thousands of years without result – ask them to set those problems aside as insoluble in the meantime, just as a man who is studying mathematics may be asked to set aside the problem of squaring a circle. Let him go on with what can be done, and what has been done, and leave out of sight the impossible. You will find that will relieve the skeptic’s mind of a great deal of unnecessary cargo that has been in his way.
Thirdly: Talking about difficulties, as a rule, only aggravates them. Entire satisfaction to the intellect is unattainable about any of the greater problems, and if you try to get to the bottom of them by argument, there is no bottom there; and, therefore, you make the matter worse. But I would say what is known, and what can be honestly and philosophically and scientifically said about one or two of the difficulties that the doubter raises, just to show him that you can do it – to show him that you are not a fool – that you are not merely groping in the dark yourself, but you have found whatever basis is possible. But I would not go around all the doctrines. I would simply do that with one or two; because the moment you cut off one, a hundred other heads will grow in its place. It would be a pity if all these problems could be solved. The joy of the intellectual life would be largely gone. I would not rob a man of his problems, nor would I have another man rob me of my problems. They are the delight of life, and the whole intellectual would be stale and unprofitable if we knew everything.
Fourthly – and this is the great point: Turn away from the reason, and go into the man’s moral life. I don’t mean, go into his moral life and see if the man is living in conscious sin, which is the great blinder of the eyes – I am speaking now of honest doubt; but open a new door into the practical side of man’s nature. Entreat him not to postpone life and his life’s usefulness until he has settled the problems of the universe. Tell him those problems will never all be settled; that his life will be done before he has begun to settle them; and ask him what he is doing with his life meantime. Charge him with wasting his life and his usefulness; and invite him to deal with the moral and practical difficulties of the world, and leave the intellectual difficulties as he goes along. To spend time upon these is proving the less important before the more important; and, as the French say, “The good is the enemy of the best.” It is a good thing to think; it is a better thing to work – it is a better thing to do good. And you have him there, you see. He can’t get beyond that. You have to tell him, in fact, that there are two organs of knowledge: the one reason, the other obedience. And now tell him, as he has tried the
First and found the little in it, just for a moment or two to join you in trying the second. And when he asks whom he is to obey, you tell him there is but One, and lead him to the great historical figure, who calls all men to Him: the one perfect life – the one Saviour of mankind – the one Light of the world. Ask him to begin to obey Christ; and, doing His will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.
That, I think, is about the only thing you can do with a man: to get him into practical contact with the needs of the world, and to let him lose his intellectual difficulties meantime. Don’t ask him to give them up altogether. Tell him to solve them afterward one by one if he can, but meantime to give his life to Christ and his time to the kingdom of God. And, you see, you fetch him completely around when you do that. You have taken him away from the false side of his nature, and to the practical and moral side of his nature; and for the first time in his life, perhaps, he puts things in their true place. He puts his nature in the relations in which it ought to be, and he then only begins to live. And by obedience – by obedience – he will soon become a learner and pupil for himself, and Christ will teach him things, and he will find whatever problems are solvable gradually solved as he goes along the path of practical duty.
Now, let me, in closing, give an instance of how to deal with a specific point. The question of miracles. It is impossible, of course, to discuss that now – miracles; but that question is thrown at my head every second day: “What do you say to a man when he says to you, ‘Why do you believe in miracles?’” I say, “Because I have seen them” He says, “When?” I say, “Yesterday.” He says “Where?” “Down such-and-such a street I saw a man who was a drunkard redeemed by the power of an unseen Christ and saved from sin. That is a miracle.” The best apologetic for Christianity is a Christian. That is a fact which the man cannot get over. There are fifty other arguments for miracles, but none so good as they you have seen them. Perhaps you are one yourself. But take you a man and show him a miracle with his own eyes. Then he will believe.