Okay to Doubt but Don’t Look Elsewhere for Answers?
I have a friend that works at the First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’ve posted about things I’ve heard in his sermons before. I try to keep an eye on the church website, as they occasionally post some of his sermons. While perusing today, I came across a sermon title that I couldn’t pass up. Tom Ogburn, the senior pastor of this church, had posted a video titled, “Overcoming Doubt.” This sermon is below and starts at 31:30 if you want to see if for yourself. I will do my best to fairly represent what he says and respond to it, and I welcome any comments on where you think I am misunderstanding or misrepresenting him.
Let me start out with something that Ogburn said that I agree with. He stated that if his God isn’t big enough to handle big questions then its not much of a god. I completely agree with that. But after this point we part ways.
I won’t harp on quibbles I have with his sermon such as his misunderstanding of Buddhism. Instead I want to raise my complaints with his overall theme. I find that these can be difficult to condense out of sermons, where the goal seems to be to just circle around and say the same thing over and over again, interspersing short anecdotes which seem to be vaguely related until at the end the people in the pews think they heard a good set of deep teaching for half an hour instead of the same superficial arguments or directions presented multiple times.
Ogburn’s premises in his sermon seem to boil down to this:
- Legitimate truths can be subjected to skeptical review.
- Skepticism is bad, as it leads to confusion and frustration.
- Philosophies besides Christianity go nowhere and will lead you to have no answers and an unfulfilled life.
- Answering doubts is to be done by appeals to authority (Bible and faith traditions), as only an authority can give you satisfactory answers to questions.
The first point seems true enough. Everything can be subjected to skepticism. Unlike Ogburn, I don’t see this as a bad thing. As he said at the beginning of his sermon, if he God isn’t big enough to handle big questions then it is not much of a god. Despite this statement, however, Ogburn repeatedly makes it clear that he thinks that skepticism is bad. He seems to think it will only lead to confusion and frustration.
I put forth that perhaps asking skeptical questions about ones’ Christianity leads to confusion and frustration because it causes one to question assumptions and realize that perhaps they were mistaken. I, however, do not see this as a bad thing. Sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable to move forward. No one likes to think that they were wrong, but we are all wrong sometimes. In fact, we are all wrong a lot. Our natural human tendency is to avoid that awful feeling of realizing that we have messed up. Our brains have many built in mechanisms which try to help us do just that. But ignoring our mistakes doesn’t help us in the long run. I believe it is important to actually work to understand what is true, not just to pick the first thing that comes around claiming to be true and believe it.
It is the fact that I am worried about what is really true that makes me disagree with Ogburn’s method of dealing with doubt. Ogburn states that when one has doubts, they should take those doubts to an authority who will answer the questions and fulfill your soul. He states that “to find truth you must seek truth in the one that actually gives us truth.” This is positively circular and absolutely useless. If you knew which source actually gave the truth you wouldn’t really have any doubts, would you? Why address your doubts by making this appeal to authority, then? Because the authority that Ogburn points you to will give you the answer that Ogburn thinks you should end with.
Ogburn several times appears to try to instill fear into his congregation about leaving Christianity. For example at the end of his sermon he says, “If you have doubts and you walk alone- you do this without Jesus- I’ll tell you it leads to nowhere.” At another time he says that we should avoid questions which lead us to emptiness I think this is a pretty narrow view and a blatant appeal to emotion and fear. Billions of humans are living lives that they don’t think are meaningless or empty without Jesus. One doesn’t have to be scared to ask questions. One should not stop thinking skeptically because they fear the consequences. I for one would rather ask questions and face the fact that things may not be the way I wish they were instead of just assuming that my way of looking at things is right because I’m too afraid that I won’t like how the world really is.
In the end, Ogburn’s method is a way to try to bury one’s doubts to try to avoid being scared or uncomfortable. You should use it if you are afraid that you will find out that the trees aren’t really sneezing and you don’t think you can deal with that. But his method is a horrible way to deal with doubts if you actually care about what is true.