Doubt Has Its Limits: a book review

Some people think faith is about swallowing Christian truth claims full-sale and never doubting again, ever.  As the saying goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it). However when you become a Christian, you aren’t really supposed to leave your brain in the front closet.  We need our minds to help us think through problems, wrestle with ideas and to be able to discern truth properly.  Faith and doubt work together to help us press into God’s truth and experience al that God has in store for us.

Christina M. H. Powell is a person who knows well the tension between doubt and faith. In her day job she is a Harvard educated  biomedical research scientist conducting research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God.  When asked if she has ever questioned her faith, she answers, “Sure I question my faith, but I also question my doubts” (17).  Faith takes us into a realm beyond human reason, but Powell knows professionally and personally there is real value in doubt.

So in Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith she showcases the value and limits of doubt. In three sections, she unfolds some of her own faith journey and struggles and how she has resolved them, both as a scientist and as a person of faith.

In part I, she begins by ‘thinking through doubts.’ In chapter one, she takes up Isaac Newton’s challenge to ‘build more bridges than walls’ (17-8).  Rather than seeing doubt and scientific inquiry as antithetical to ‘real faith,’ Powell sees the value of science, doubt and inquiry for examining and exploring our world and weighing evidence. Faith takes us beyond on the realm of  measurable evidence and experience toward hope and expectation. Powell would have have us doubt and investigate even in the midst of faith  because both science and faith have important things to teach us (29). Chapter two explores deeper the ‘interplay of influences’ between faith and facts. As a scientist and a believer Powell has a keen eye for aspects of each that have shaped her calling and experience (48). Chapter three and four describes the value of doubt and questioning for discernment and growing in knowledge and understanding.

Part two explores the sources of doubt. Chapter five describes the limits of human reason. Sometimes doubts arise because are ability to reason and read the evidence only takes us so far (we see through a glass dimly). Sometimes we doubt because are questions remain unanswered (chapter six). Still doubts are not always intellectual. Sometimes our doubt is born out of real-life-pain (Why would a good God let this happen?) or disillusionment (why is the church so hypocritical?). Powell gives good strategies on how to hold out faith in the face of tragedy and how God uses disillusionment in our hearts to turn us into agents of change (chapters seven and eight, respectively).

Part three speaks about resolving doubts, not in the sense of getting an answer to every question, but in making your peace with them. Chapter nine talks about the authentic journey. Rather than trying to stuff doubts down, Powell shows that there is real power in honestly wrestling with them. In Chapter ten she talks about ‘retracing the path’ and the reality that a ‘reason’ for something is not always apparent in the moment. Sometimes we see God’s hand most clearly  in hindsight.  Finally Powell closes where she began with a passioned plea to ‘build bridges’ between faith and science:

I remain confident that the key to a greater understanding between scientists and minsters will come from making connections. If pastors reach out to scientists within their congregations to learn more about their work, then science might not feel so intimidating.  If scientists share how they integrate their faith and their profession with seminary students, then the next generation of pastors will be better equipped to minister to those with technological backgrounds. The friendships that form between individual scientists and individual ministers will become the bridge betwen the two professions. With mutual respect in place, dialogue will become much easier. (192-3).

What the above summary doesn’t fully reveal is how much Christina Powell shares her own journey: existential crises, discernment, clarifying her sense of call and making peace between science and faith. This book is not a detached, abstract ‘thought experiment,’ but describes her own journey of faith (and doubt) and offers the insights she has gained. She weaves together her own story with biblical reflections and insights on faith and science.

I think that pleasantly surprised me about this book. When I picked it up, I thought it was a new book on apologetics. It is that, but it is also is a book for Christians to how to better think through their faith. This will certainly be helpful for new college students (sometimes youth graduate church when they graduate high school because they were never given tools to think through their faith). But I think it can also be useful for deepening a conversation in church on the relationship between faith and doubt, God and nature, the scientific method and Revelation. As a pastor, I appreciate Powell’s challenge to be a better bridge builder and commend it to you.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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