View all Novenas | April 24, 2023
Part 1 Faith – Week 4
Introduction to Christianity: Doubt and Belief (III)
If we learnt last week that the situation of the believer is necessarily characterized by both belief and doubt, today Ratzinger tells us that the same is true of the atheist or agnostic: his ‘belief’ in the absolute value of material positivism is constantly threatened by the ‘perhaps’ of faith, by the haunting possibility that ‘perhaps’ what believers say about a good and loving God is, in fact, true… Both the believer and the unbeliever, both the Christian and the atheist, are thus united by the fact that they share both belief and doubt in their ultimate explanation for all of reality, Ratzinger concludes. The fact that God cannot be seen and laid out on a laboratory table to be dissected, ‘proved,’ and ‘understood’ by man is precisely what makes Him God and makes us His creatures – and it is thus also the problem that constitutes the fundamental dilemma of our entire human existence.
“If, on the one hand, the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt, if he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith, on the other, the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as a mere man without faith. Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life, either. However vigorously he may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty about whether positivism really has the last word. Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be. Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.
It may be appropriate at this point to cite a Jewish story told by Martin Buber; it presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma of being a man.
An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him, too, and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room, he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, rapt in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly, and said, “But perhaps it is true after all.” The scholar tried in vain to collect himself – his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Yitschak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps” that echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.
Here we have, I believe – in however strange a guise – a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.” That “perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him”.
Questions for reflection:
How often have the “perfect” words to defend my beliefs eluded me?
Consider how the man of faith and the man without faith both suffer doubt. The next time you are looking for the perfect words to defend your faith, offer instead, “Perhaps, it really is true.”