By Nick Comiskey
Every ministry context presents unique challenges and opportunities. Here’s mine: I serve as the associate rector of an Anglican (ACNA) church in Austin, TX, a city marked by the density of a certain psychographic type: progressive, prosperous, outdoorsy, online, and educated.
The pocket of Austin that is my congregation reflects these trends. Especially education. And in a particular kind of way. We have a number of Ph.D. students who work in analytic philosophy. This means they pay rigorous attention to how language works – the meaning of words, the logic of inferences, the validity of arguments. They make astute (if bruising) sermon critics! They tend to also — and it is unclear which direction the line of causality flows — struggle with doubt.
Doubt is both a universal and particular experience in religious life. Everyone doubts; no one doubts in the exact same way. For me doubt is tied to disappointment. God seems to let me down somewhere in lived experience and I find hard to trust unreservedly in God’s promises. That is not the kind of doubt related to me by these nascent philosophers. At least not in full. Nor do they exhibit the performative doubt I associate with evangelical deconversions (which is also a feature of my congregation). The folks I am referring to want to believe, and even hope Christianity is true, but they are unconvinced by the available evidence.
I have spent the better part of the last two years considering how I might help make Christianity work for people who struggle to believe. I think I have found something in the work of Martin Luther.
Personal, Unreflective Faith
In his latest book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology, Phillip Cary tells a particular story to explain what was new and distinctive in Luther’s conception of faith. It starts with the 95 Theses. The controversy surrounding them caused Luther to think seriously, perhaps for the first time, about the nature of sacraments — specifically the sacrament of penance. Luther’s monastic practice before the Reformation is well-known. He confessed regularly and arduously. In fact, he counted himself forgiven because of the intensity of his sorrow over sin; he was justified by faith in his own sinfulness.
What changed? Reflecting on the Scriptural promise behind his confessor’s absolution, Luther realized his continued sorrow after hearing was not praiseworthy but amounted to a denial of his forgiveness promised in the word of God. Where he once placed his faith in the quality of his penitence — and agonized over whether he believed enough or in the right kind of way — he now understood that what mattered was the truth of God’s promise. Cary refers to this kind of faith as “unreflective” in that it “looks away from the self even when it is about myself” (155).
Luther needed something else, however, to make faith not just unreflective but deeply personal — to be sure the promises of God applied to him. He found this assurance by likewise looking to the sacraments and understanding them in light of what Cary calls “the double structure of God’s word” (154).
This concept brought the scriptural promise undergirding the sacraments — true for all people at all times and in all places — and the actual sacramental word — spoken to a particular person at a particular time and in particular place — together. For Luther, the words we hear in the administration of the sacraments carry a similar authority to the words we hear read from Scripture. And because what is spoken to me sacramentally carries the same authority as what God speaks in Scripture, it too is an object of proper Christian faith. It is something we are commanded to believe, albeit unreflectively — believed by counting myself as an object of God’s promise and trusting the truth of that promise as the sole warrant for my self-understanding.
In practice, this type of faith often looks like ignoring my own faith. For example, I may sense within my heart unbelief and therefore doubt that God is truly giving himself to me in Holy Communion. However, the body of Christ has been broken for me. I know this because I heard my priest say it. I should therefore approach the Lord’s table with confidence, not allowing my lack of faith to hold me back.
Luther memorably warns that “by paying attention to myself and considering what my condition is or should be… I lose sight of Christ.” He therefore counsels his readers to “form the habit of leaving ourselves behind” (Luther, 1535 Galatians Commentary, LW 26:166).
Is that the answer? “Leaving ourselves behind”? This feels unsettling. It is possible to struggle to believe while also enjoying the confidence before God (and in life) that comes from faith? Perhaps. Because — and in this way faith functions differently than any other thing God commands us to do — what matters is not how well we believe but the truth of what we believe.
As I write this essay central Texas is experiencing its coldest winter weather in decades. If I want to know what I make of the reported temperature, I don’t search my heart to ascertain if I believe it, I simply go outside. Once I perceive it is indeed shockingly cold, I know what I believe. The degree to which I believe it has no bearing on whether or not it is true.
In a similar way, Luther would counsel anyone who struggles with faith not to examine their heart to determine if they believe. He would tell them to “go outside” — to listen to Jesus as he speaks personally to them in the word of God and sacraments. And because it is God speaking, they cannot be lies. We may continue to grapple with unbelief — we may disbelieve the forecast — but that does not change what is indeed true, and we can be confident that our lack of faith does not invalidate the certainty of God’s grace moving toward us in Jesus Christ.
Taking Luther Seriously
Luther wanted to hear a word from God that consoled rather than accused. His theological achievement involved making faith unreflective while remaining deeply personal. This allowed him to bypass his unbelief and be certain God’s promises applied to him. Yet Luther did not struggle to believe God spoke (or existed) in the first place. This is the pastoral situation in which I find myself. How helpful is Luther’s conception of faith for those who suffer that kind of doubt?
While this reading of Luther will probably not make it any easier for people to outright believe in God, it does point to a particular pastoral strategy. I have typically responded to intellectual suspicion in my congregation by trying to help people see the reason for God. My shoddy imitations of Tim Keller have (unsurprisingly) not fared well.
Taking Luther’s insights seriously might mean responding to skepticism with declarations of promise. For his great insight is that faith needs external things to cling to in the struggle with unbelief. My job as a minister is not to persuade but boldly offer those things upon which faith is built: words, water, bread and wine. This may not silence every doubt, but it may very well still disquieted souls. It may not answer every objection, but it could help those discouraged by unbelief to “leave themselves behind” and attend to the Word of God as it addresses them in the life of the Church.
Finally, taking Luther seriously might help provide a rationale for why people with weak faith should still worship regularly. For what ultimately concerns me as a pastor is not that those who doubt will be condemned, but rather that they will remove themselves from the lifeblood of Christian community and further entrench their unbelief. A healthy dose of Luther could go a long way in creating a situation where those who doubt the most in my congregation are the most eager to be in church.
The Rev. Nick Comiskey is the associate rector at Church of the Cross, a student in the Doctor of Theology and Ministry program at Durham University and co-host of the Our Triune Pod podcast.