Facing doubt

In Defence of Doubt: an invitation to adventure by Val Webb
Publisher: Mosaic Press
Review by Noel Preston

The quest for certainty is part of the human condition. Of course it is ultimately an illusion – an illusion which reinforces another delusion: the desire to be in control of our lives.  However, the reality of life’s circumstances eventually overtakes us, not all questions can be answered, the seemingly unacceptable cannot be changed.

This can be a very unsettling experience, especially in the domain of religious or theological belief.
For Christians, doubting the certainties of belief we once took for granted may take us to the precipice of a more authentic faith, perhaps beyond the bounds of orthodox and creedal propositions.

The infallibility of scripture? The virgin birth of Jesus? His bodily resurrection? The existence of a theistic supreme being? On the edge of that precipice some have floundered to the rocks below, while others soar into a new experience of faith.

Val Webb explores this territory in her latest book In Defence of Doubt: an invitation to adventure (a revised and fresh edition of a 1995 publication). For Webb, “Doubt is the grace that allows us to escape from prisons of inadequate belief systems”.

In large part this text is a self-exposure, a personal testimony to how the author has honestly faced doubts which, in turn, has led to a richer and more credible faith development. Following a discussion on doubt, the book moves into narrative mode giving an inspiring and very readable overview of many significant figures whose doubts led them to a revised faith.

Because, as the author says, women have often been left out of the narrative about the survivors of doubt, there is an entire chapter canvassing the stories of women (tellingly, many on this list were unknown to this reviewer). The chapter, ‘Doubt and the God question’ is pivotal in her analysis and provides a very useful summary of ‘process theology’ and how doubt about theism (the divine being ‘out there’) can open the way to pan-en-theism (the divine presence in all).

The Val Webb story is remarkable. In her Brisbane youth she embraced a traditional Presbyterian Christianity, trained as a scientist, married and raised a family, and worked in executive roles within the Queensland Uniting Church Synod. Subsequently, in the USA, she completed a Ph.D. in theology. For almost two decades she has been a major contributor as author and lecturer to what is known as the Progressive Christianity movement.

On the prospects for this movement she writes:

“Progressive (theological) thinking has been around for centuries in different pockets and places. The difference today is that this movement is being named, and responsibility for its survival is in the hands of the laity as well as clergy who will not be silenced into blind obedience and belief.”

That said, Val Webb’s own theology is not presented as a new creed. Her mission here is to defend and affirm ‘doubt’ as a positive necessity to credible and contemporary faith.  Sometimes this is called ‘living the questions’, an adventure which may lead down various pathways.

In Defence of Doubt is directed to a wide readership; and it is an inspiring gift, particularly, for those wanting to discern a credible approach to belief and faith.

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