Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

John Wilson

Doubts and Questions

I've spent much of my life listening—listening in the form of reading—the way a child listens to adult conversations. There is no instruction manual, but the conversations themselves, overlapping, teach you how to interpret them. Imperfectly, to be sure, but such is our lot.

Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist and bon vivant, has collaborated with Anton Zijderveld on a book just published by HarperOne, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic . David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse and The Gospel According to America, has a new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything , published by Zondervan in April. Both Berger and Dark will be familiar to many readers of Books & Culture. (Zijderveld, based at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, has doctoral degrees in sociology and philosophy and is the author of a number of books. I don't know his work, and I will have to follow up.) I recommend both books, and I think something is gained by reading them together.

In Praise of Doubt grew out of a project called "Between Relativism and Fundamentalism," sponsored by Boston University's Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, which Berger directs. The book opens with an epigraph from Goethe, in German and in English translation: "If we did not have the doubts / Where then would be joyful certainty?" This sets the tone for what follows: a witty, urbane essay. Berger and Zijderveld argue that relativism and fundamentalism are "two sides of the same coin. Both are profoundly modern phenomena, and both are reactions to the relativizing dynamic of modernity." In this schema, doubt—"consistent and sincere doubt"—plays a crucial role, marking out a "middle ground" between the extremes of "fanaticism."

Although In Praise of Doubt is concise and clearly argued, it covers a lot of ground. Here I can only take up one of the questions it raises. Berger and Zijderveld acknowledge that doubt "is a rather complex phenomenon—multifaceted and pluriform." But they don't give enough attention to the distinction between doubt as intrinsic to our experience as human beings, with limited knowledge—doubt that is largely involuntary—and a conscious strategy of doubt.

On the one hand, they perceptively observe that "the human condition seems to be determined by doubt about doubt." This aphoristic formulation emphasizes the involuntary aspect of doubt, and it harmonizes with the account of doubt given by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger in his Introduction to Christianity:

both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man's destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty.

It is worth noting that Ratzinger's account of doubt appears at the beginning of a book-length meditation on the Apostles' Creed.

But in the very paragraph that affirms the perennial reality of doubt, Berger and Zijderveld go on to make the following distinction, where doubt becomes a fundamental orientation, consciously chosen:

True believers found their existence on the alleged rock of an indubitable truth that offers scores of verifications"—that is, proofs of this indubitable truth. Yet doubters—those who live a life carried by sincere and consistent doubt—search instead for "falsifications"—that is, for dubitable cases and situations. Eventually, in a slow evolutionary process, an individual may come close to a resemblance of truth—or, if you will, verisimilitude (literally, "something resembling truth").

I read this passage several times, thinking that I must be missing something. Perhaps I am. What I find every time I read is a smug, inadvertently comical rendering of a very familiar stance, self-flattering in its ostensible modesty. Is this what is implied by the epigraph from Goethe? (I doubt it.) Is this what it means to be "between" relativism and fundamentalism? (In other places Berger and Zijderveld seem to have a more nuanced, less exalted understanding of doubt.) If so, I guess that—along with Pope Benedict—I should be consigned to the hell of "fanatics" and "true believers."

If In Praise of Doubt is a very European book (and believe me, it is), The Sacredness of Questioning Everything is a very American book, not least in its critique of many assumptions held dear by defenders of America. Dark works by way of poetic association; by suggestion and juxtaposition. His range of reference is generous (one chapter begins with epigraphs from Aquinas and Stephen Colbert; another leads off with quotations from Hugh Kenner and Krazy Kat). Dark is a cousin of Charles Olson and Susan Howe.

Faced with such a performance, there will be some who resort to a bumptious literal-mindedness. Humph! they will say, fleeing the poetic. I don't want to make that mistake—after all, I find Dark's way of proceeding quite congenial. I know that titles are often designed for provocation and should be understood thus. Still, I must dutifully register dissent. We can't question everything (we simply aren't made that way), and we shouldn't question everything that we can question, and to say that questioning is "sacred" is even more fatuous than those bumper stickers urging us to "Question Authority."

But does this title capture the spirit of the book? Mostly no (though at times—in a presumed first audience of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings—the reader is encouraged to feel that she's one of the Questioners, not like, you know, Them, the tacky true believers skewered by Berger and Zijderveld). What Dark urges much of the time is an alertness to discrepancies between what is said or proclaimed or taught and what is actually done: "Abstract nouns such as freedom and security are defined—and undermined—by actions taken in their name." Dark adduces the "State Peace and Development Council" in Myanmar, which brought "lethal force to its own citizens" under that hypocritical banner. And he notes that "the council began to be deprived of its advertising power when Buddhist monks excommunicated the council's leadership in the name of another, higher public order." He jumps from this example to the battle for women's rights in the United States early in the 20th century, a juxtaposition that forestalls any temptation to feel self-satisfied as we contemplate the perfidy of Myanmar's rulers.

There's much to chew on and much to savor here. I do wish that David had built into the book another motif, questioning questioning. I'm certain that he is himself quite aware of the extent to which a self-conscious stance as a Questioner can go awry (as with Berger and Zijderveld's serene Doubter). Perhaps extended attention to the dialectic of "questioning" struck him as too meta, but I felt its absence most acutely when I bumped into the "Questions for Further Conversation" at the end of each chapter (a regular feature in the series from Zondervan in which this book appears). Any reader who has taken to heart the substance of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything will recoil from these scripted questions.

Dark's book concludes with an epilogue of sorts in which he remembers a friend who recently died, Harmon Wray, "a friend of prisoners, an advocate for prison reform, and an activist against the death penalty." In the context of the legality of the death penalty in the United States—a theme that Berger and Zijderveld also take up at the end of their book—and in other salient ways as well, Harmon Wray exemplified the questioning spirit that David Dark urges on us. But "questioning" itself has no content. In a setting in which (as among many of my Catholic friends) there is consensus that the death penalty is fundamentally wrong, to "question" is to wonder if that is true. Which reminds me of the title that the artist and Gordon College professor Bruce Herman has given to his blog: "Question Autonomy."

Most ReadMost Shared