Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, Christina M. H. Powell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: This book comes out of the world of academic research and proposes that the process of questioning our doubts as well as our faith builds bridges of understanding deepening both our exercise of reason and confidence in our faith.
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges” –Isaac Newton.
Christina M. H. Powell grew up in Pittsburgh, a city of bridges spanning the hills and the three rivers that define the city. As a Christian inhabiting both the world of faith and science, she has concluded that part of her calling is to be a bridge builder. She holds a Ph.D in virology, having done her research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard. And she is an ordained minister within the Assemblies of God church. In her own life she has bridged what often seems a divide, and an important element of living her calling has been learning to question doubt and to learn how to live with these questions.
She begins by noting that doubts can be both intellectual and experiential. She contends that doubt, particularly when questioned, can actually deepen rather than cripple our faith because we were made to think. She contends that it is important to understand the interplay of influences in our lives that shape how we think and experience. All these may lead to faith but can never replace it. Within this context, doubt may actually be a good thing that leads to discernment. As she notes, misgivings about a fad teaching may be a good thing that saves pursuing a course that can end badly. She points out how important questions are in the world of research, and in the ministry of Jesus, in solving problems and leading to truth.
Having considered the value of doubting and questioning and both the importance and limits of our rationality, she moves in the second part of the book to consider sources of doubt. One has to do with our limits as human beings to know and the discernment to know when pressing past these is courage, or folly. Another is the reality that there will be unanswered questions in our lives. She realistically explores the place of mystery, the challenges of suffering and pain, and the “closed doors” in our lives. To conclude this section, she teases out the ways disillusionment can masquerade as doubt, for example when we experience painful encounters in Christian community.
The last part of the book explores the resolution of doubts in our lives. She sees this not as pat answers but as a lived journey of authentic faith in the midst of our doubts, which may be more compelling to others than our most well-reasoned apologetic defenses. Sometimes, our efforts to make sense of our doubts require that we remember and retrace the steps that have brought us to our present place just as Jacob’s journey of flight and return required coming back to Beth-el where he first encountered Yahweh. She also talks about the fact that this is a journey in community, something that both scientists and saints through history have appreciated. She has a wonderful sketch of Michael Faraday, a rigorous experimentalist and also a preacher who practiced community both in his science and faith. She concludes that we should not be discouraged if we feel we are going through cycles or circles of doubt and questioning and faith, because the journey of faith is one that takes a life to complete.
There are two groups of people for whom I would especially commend this book. One is students, both undergraduate and graduate, who struggle with the apparent divides between what they believe and what they are studying. The other is pastors and seminarians who may be confronting their own doubts as well as the doubts of those they will pastor. The added benefit for this latter group is that the author’s journey helps develop a vision of how science and faith need not be in conflict with each other and what the world of scientific research is really like, knowledge often lacking in our local congregations. The fact that the author bridged these worlds in her own life and pursuit of calling gives us a narrative that “gets real” about reason, faith, and doubt and the value of questioning in building bridges of understanding.
To the building of more bridges and fewer walls….
Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. I found this review of particular pertinance as we approach the Urbana Student Missions Conference (12/27-31) and partner with a number of resources as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries, including Loving Your Atheist Neighbor seminar by Rick Mattson. To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network