Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) is generally considered to be one of the founders of modern chemistry. He took the study of how matter changes out of the mystical realm of alchemy and turned it into a scientific endeavor. He is known by nearly every freshman chemistry student as the author of Boyle’s Law, which tells us how a gas behaves when its pressure changes. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, he was also a devout Christian, and he saw the pursuit of science as a way of learning more about the majesty of God. Here is how he put it:1
“…when, in a word, by the help of anatomical knives, and the light of chymical furnaces, I study the book of nature and consult the glosses of Aristotle, Epicurus, Paracelus, Harvey, Helmont, and other learned expositors of that instructive volume, I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all!”
Even though he was a firm believer in Christ, he was an advocate of doubt. In fact, his most famous work is a book entitled The Sceptical Chymist. In addition to his published works, he kept of series of “work diaries” in which he wrote down his daily thoughts. One of the entries reads as follows:2
He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.
We don’t know whether this is something Boyle came up with on his own or whether he read it and thought it was worth noting in his diary. Regardless, we know it was important enough to him that he wanted to record it. This seems to indicate that Boyle thought doubt was not only a necessary part of science, but it was also a necessary part of the Christian faith.
Why am I writing about Robert Boyle and doubt? Because it relates to the results of a recent survey of college students in the United States.
In the fall of 2004, Kara Powell and Krista Kubiak, under the direction of Dr. Cameron Lee, sent a survey to 234 college students who had graduated from the youth ministry of a Presbyterian church within the previous four years. They received 69 of the surveys back, which is a rather small sample. Nevertheless, they did find something interesting in the results, and I think it is worth mentioning. As one of the co-authors said:
One of the most interesting findings…was the importance of doubt in a student’s faith maturity. The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity [they had].
This, of course, is precisely what Boyle’s diary entry suggests. If you don’t doubt your faith, your faith is not very strong. However, if you doubt your faith, express your doubts, and work through them, you end up having a much more mature faith.
What’s the take-home message of this survey? High school students should be brought up in an environment where asking tough questions about faith is not only allowed, but encouraged. They should be encouraged to be honest about their doubts and discuss them with those who are more experienced and knowledgeable in whatever subject relates to them. In other words, rather than simply telling students what to believe, you need to encourage students to explore their faith, express their doubts, and find answers. That’s how students will come to own their faith, and in the long haul, those students will become more mature in their faith.
Too often we are afraid to let students ask the tough questions. Maybe it’s because we don’t think we have the answers. Maybe it’s because we never really dealt with our own doubts properly. Maybe it’s because we just don’t want to “rock the boat.” Maybe it’s because we are afraid our children might believe differently from what we believe. Whatever the reason, squelching doubt is not the way to produce a robust faith. Robert Boyle understood that more than 350 years ago. Hopefully, the results of this survey will help others understand it today.
1. Francis Wrangham, The British Plutarch, Volume 4, 1816, pp. 368-369
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2. Robert Boyle, Diurnall Observations, Thoughts & Collections Begun at Stalbridge April 25th 1647, Entry 24, 1647 (available online)
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9 thoughts on “Doubt Can Aid Faith”
This is right on. If your faith is going to be destroyed by questioning it even for a second, or from being exposed to any “wordly” (for lack of a better word) influences, then how strong is it really…
Excellent point, Vivielle!
Excellent point Dr. Wile! I’m not a parent, so I would never want to tell someone how to raise their child. However, there’s nothing more disappointing to me the conversations in which a person spews the words of someone else as if it is their own opinion. I once worked with someone (who was homeschooled) and any controversial topic (not just faith) that we discussed started with, “Well my dad says…” In her house it wasn’t appropriate to question. I’m so glad my parents raised me to RESPECTFULLY question things I don’t understand or am uncomfortable with. To this day there are topics that I disagree with my parents on, but that has never stopped us from discussing them, and it’s certainly never changed my love for them or their love for me. Personally, I think it’s made us all better people.
I agree, Black Sheep. I have also run into several people who simply believe what their parents, spouse, or pastor tells them to believe. I expect most of them to have a severe crisis at some point in their lives.
Well said, Dr. Jay! If you read the autobiographies (or honest biographies) of many stalwarts of the faith, most if not all went through serious times of doubt and searching regarding the deep issues of life. As an example, Francis Schaeffer went through a deep time of examination before becoming one of the leading apologists of our times. Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs, recorded some of his intensely painful periods of doubt and questioning during his extended period of solitary confinement. One cannot read Wurmbrand’s works without being shaken to the depths by his powerful words of agony.
I too have known have known many Christians who seem afraid to express doubts, or are condemning toward others who voice such questions. This can be true in any area, but I have repeatedly noticed it with many young-earth creationists. Any evidence that doesn’t seem to match that view is quickly brushed aside, or those who dare to suggest the days of creation may have been longer than 24 hours are branded as heretics and ostracized.
I truly appreciate your openness and willingness to consider contrary views on your blog. May other Christian leaders and parents follow this wise practice as well!
Thanks for your comment, David. I had no idea that Richard Wurmbrand had intense periods of doubt. Thanks for sharing that. I also wholeheartedly agree that many young-earth creationists are far too quick to brush aside any data that cast doubt on their views. This can be said of virtually any group, but young-earth creationists seem to be more prone to it than the other groups. It is unfortunate, to say the least.
Another thought. Could it be that working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) implies some measure of questioning and doubt? Not necessarily in the sense of doubting the fundamentals of the faith, but in careful self examination (as Paul commands elsewhere) and seeking to solidify our standing and understanding with God and His will.
An older brother in the faith once suggested that to put this in proper perspective, we “work out with trembling” (v.12) what God “works in” us for His pleasure (v.13). I think that is what can keep us stable during times of doubt, remembering that He is the author and finisher of faith (Heb. 12:2). He is faithful even when we doubt (2 Tim. 2:13).
God bless you!
That’s a good thought, David. According to Warren Wiersbe (author of the “BE” serioes):
So the verse clearly means you are to be diligent when it comes to your Christian life, so that you can “harvest” as much as possible. Doubting is definitely a part of the diligence necessary to be a good scientist, and it might be a necessary part of being the best Christian you can be. Of course, I hasten to point out that the passage doesn’t say work for your salvation. It says work out your salvation. Thus, this is not a matter of doing something to earn salvation. It is a matter of doing something to become the best Christian you can be.
I have always taken the “fear and trembling” part to refer to reverence. As we strive to live a truly Christian life, we should have a healthy fear of offending God by disobeying Him. We should also be filled with awe of His majesty and holiness.
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