Alister McGrath, the well-known and prolific Anglican theologian, has written a pastoral and not an academic book. Its origins lie in a series of talks “given to students from Oxford University at a house party in December 1988” (12). The current book is an updating and rewrite of those talks. Heavily oriented toward university-age students, especially those who are new to the Christian faith, Doubting is sermonic and retreat-oriented in tone, with lots of illustrations and practical applications.
The heart of this book can be summarized in a quotation near the end of the work: “It is by feeding your faith that you can starve your doubts to death” (124). For McGrath, doubt is mostly a practical and an intellectual problem to be overcome by deepening one’s faith through practicing the disciplines of the Christian life and by removing the barriers to belief through apologetics.
Many Christians are reluctant to admit doubt, McGrath believes, because they confuse it with skepticism (“the decision to doubt everything deliberately”) and unbelief (“the decision not to have faith in God,” p. 13). McGrath acknowledges that doubts emerge from both our human finitude (we can never fully grasp the mystery of God) and from our sinfulness. Through faith, however, Christians can be assured that even though they do not see the totality and see it through the lens of a fallen nature, what they do see is reliable.
Doubting chiefly operates under the assumption that doubt is generated as a result of a lack of understanding. Thus four chapters address specific doubts about the Gospel (will it become irrelevant over time?), one’s own self (am I really a Christian?), Christ (is the Jesus of history really the same person as the Christ of faith?), and God (Is God really there, and is God faithful?). The book ends with the warning that doubt can be a symptom of a neglected faith and explores the spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, journaling, etc.) as antidotes to doubt.
This book will probably be helpful to some but not to others. Without disparaging the role that apologetics can play in removing the barriers to belief, most doubts are more existential than intellectual. Few people ever embrace Christianity based strictly on intellectual arguments. Likewise, few Christians have probably lost their faith strictly because of intellectual difficulties. For example, even one of the most formidable obstacles to belief—the problem of suffering—touches most Christians at the existential and not the intellectual level. Paul Tillich once wrote “there is no faith without an intrinsic ‘in spite of’ and the courageous affirmation of oneself in the state of ultimate concern” (The Dynamics of Faith). The role that human personality plays in doubts, and the courage required to face doubts when grasped by the infinite, need much more attention than is provided in this book.