The Road to Dialectical Maturity: Doubt as a Tool and a Vice

Tim Keller would say, "doubt your doubt!" While a seeming contradiction, it is important to teach our students this principle. Keller's words are not an empty platitude.

To the classical thinker, vice lies at the opposite ends of a corresponding virtue (Aristotle’s golden mean). A vice can be the manifestation of a virtue in extreme exaggeration or deprivation. Courage is an example of virtue. Its corresponding vices are impetuousness (the exaggeration), and pusillanimity (the deprivation). In post-Christian Christianity, doubt has unfortunately been elevated into a virtue and any type of certainty has been made a vice, a problem which can be traced back to Descartes. An example of this mentality can be found in progressive Christian scholar Peter Enns’ book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More than Our Correct Beliefs: “A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life.”

In post-Cartesian philosophy and theology, doubt has come to mean a kind of systematic skepticism. Other times it can stand for epistemic humility, as opposed to “certainty” which is toxic pride in one’s own beliefs. Oftentimes the two definitions are melded together: If one fails to exercise a constant doubt about truth claims, he must be exercising the vice, or sin, of certainty. However, to a classical educator, doubt takes on a different role: it is a tool. (Still, as with any tool, it can be misused and devolve into a vice.)

The classical worldview begins with the presupposition that Reason works. Classical Christian educators would add that Reason works because God has made the universe intelligible. Creation is an act of revelation through which he has made himself knowable to man. St. Paul tells us this in Romans 1:19 (RSV), “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (See also Psalm 19:1.) The goal in education, then, is to holistically form our students into people who pursue God’s Truth not just with their heads but with their hearts, souls, and minds.

The Trivium is the means by which we tend to our students and cultivate them into whole people. During the Grammar (Poll-Parrott) stage, we give information to them. In the Dialectic (Pert) stage, they process that information. Finally, in the Rhetoric (Poetic) stage, the focus shifts to output of information. Said slightly differently, they are fed knowledge in the Grammar stage, they deconstruct that information in the Dialectic stage, and then reconstruct it in the Rhetorical stage. When we teach them this rhythm of learning, we instill in them tools which can propel them on the trajectory towards the Good.

In the Dialectic stage, students begin to ask and meditate on the question, “Why?” Appropriately, Dorothy Sayers describes this stage with the word “pert” which means “saucily free and forward.” In this stage, students really begin to think for themselves and take on the responsibility of their faith and education. They may begin to question what it is they believe and why. As educators, this is a step we should approach with a great deal of fear and trembling, but also with a keen awareness that it is necessary for our students’ continued development. If they are ever to take ownership of their education, they must actually begin to own it.

It is within this larger teleology that doubt plays a role. According to David Hicks in Norms and Nobility, “[Doubting] is healthy and indicates that their minds are coming into dialectical maturity, challenging received and fixed ideas in the process of rejecting them as extraneous or of accepting them as essential to life.” This process cannot be divorced from the end goal which, according to Hicks, is to teach “man what he must know to achieve full humanity; his obligations to himself, to others, and to God.”

Of course, since doubt has become a virtue to many people, there can be no real end goal; even that objective would be subject to cynical suspicion. As a result, instead of using the term “doubt” to describe the tool in the student’s Dialectical development, it may be more helpful to think of this as “intellectual rigor” or “honest questioning” lest, like the rest of the modern West, we stagnate in the shadow of Descartes, lacking the apparatus to move forward through the formation of concrete judgments.

If “honest questioning” becomes a virtue during the Dialectic stage, its exaggeration would be doubt and its deprivation over-confidence. There is plenty written about Christians struggling with over-confidence already, so it is important to focus on the other form of the vice: doubt.

Despite speaking in terms of eschatology, 2 Timothy 3:7 (KJV) could very well describe the modern man preoccupied with doubt, resulting in a person who is “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” It is precisely when doubt is elevated to a virtue that it becomes a vice because it obfuscates the Truth and steers us away from Goodness. The classical Christian sees within everything a purpose, a telos. Hicks sheds light on the ultimate purpose of pedagogy: “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.”

To be stuck with doubt outside of its proper confines is to be unable to move forward with the harmonization of head and heart, making it a very insidious vice indeed. To clarify, this is not a call for a lack of patience when our students may struggle or even disagree with what they have been taught. Rather, it is a call to come alongside students as they are in the Dialectic stage, providing them support and instilling in them a vision for the proper use of doubt, or “intellectual rigor” and “honest questioning.” When it comes down to it, this is really an issue of posture more than praxis.

There are two biblical examples of “doubt” that can be used as teaching tools: Job and Habakkuk. The proper posture towards doubt looks more like Habakkuk. In Job, the title character uses a theological system known as retribution theology as a way to insist that God had made some kind of error and that his suffering was unjust. Still, the problem with Job seems less to do with his theology and more to do with the way he accuses God. Indeed, the oft quoted, “For I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25, RSV) is a defiant stand on his own self-righteousness and a complaint that he has to look elsewhere to be vindicated because God is in error.

In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet sees injustice in the geopolitical circumstances of the world. Israel, God’s covenantal nation, is being bullied by other, stronger peoples. The prophet hears God pronounce this as a judgment against Israel and can’t believe his ears. He argues against God’s plan but then, at the end of his protest, he says, “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1). Habakkuk is a model of doubting for those of us within the Church. He is honest with God while simultaneously raising legitimate questions due to his lack of understanding.

Tim Keller would say, “doubt your doubt!” While a seeming contradiction, it is important to teach our students this principle. Keller’s words are not an empty platitude. Rather, they are an exhortation to radically interrogate the source of doubt. “Honest questioning” must not be allowed to become a vice in us or our students, lest it become an intentional or subconscious means by which we distract from our own flaws and sin, allowing them to perpetuate.

But in instances where our students do have legitimate doubts, let us teach them the posture of Habakkuk that they may ultimately be willing to accept God’s answers to their problems. Honest questioning and intellectual rigor can help us and our students further conform to the image of Christ and work through the tough issues, creating dialectical maturity. Yet, when misused, such questioning becomes a vice that frustrates attempts to pursue the ends for which God created us.

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