The gift of skepticism
“Like all true believers, he was deeply skeptical,” writes Malcolm Muggeridge in tribute to Blaise Pascal (The End of Christendom).
It would be easy to dismiss Pascal’s skepticism as just another infamous Muggeridgism. Aren’t true belief and skepticism opposites? And Pascal of all people is known for his defence of Christianity against a world that worships science as the road to truth.
But while we naturally see a clash between skepticism and belief, Muggeridge is not just being innovative or clever; he is reflecting an often overlooked but essential aspect of biblical faith. Skepticism is God’s gift to his people.
Thirty years ago, Paul Brand collaborated with Philip Yancey to write the book Fearfully And Wonderfully Made. It explores the human body from the perspective of a leper specialist in India. An important facet of the book was Brand’s insight that pain is a gift from God. We all recoil from pain, but the loss of this important sense in a leper creates profound danger. Years later, Brand would write another book specifically called, The Gift of Pain. A healthy body needs this gift.
Without the ability to feel a wound or broken bone, the body is not protected. Pain is a gift from God.
In the same way, skepticism is a gift from God.
God’s warning system
Skepticism is God’s warning system. Without the instinct to be skeptical, we are susceptible to every wind of doctrine, to every exotic claim, to every charismatic personality that floats across our path. In short, without skepticism, we are a body without a critical sensory perception.
It is skepticism that tells us that appearances are often deceiving, that writing books, making claims, preaching sermons, and even winning arguments are easy. It is skepticism that always digs for the proof behind the words. “Test the spirits…” writes John (1 John 1:4).
Some claim that we live in a skeptical age – that this is one of the marks of postmodernism. Faced with seemingly endless possibilities, especially around the claims of religion, confusion seems to prevail. It appears that no one believes anything any more.
But is that skepticism? Let me suggest that it is not: postmodern “skepticism” is merely despair that anything can be known because we have too much information. Every fact known to man purports to be merely a mouse click away; if too much information should cause skepticism, we have reason to be skeptics.
But Pascal was not a skeptic of that type. He did not despair because there was too much information; he put his mind to work exploring it. Because Pascal began as a mathematician, he knew some claims are true and some are false. He also knew that mathematical formulas are not very good at testing complex claims, but he knew that there still is a difference between illusion and reality.
What can be known
Far from despairing at the wealth of information, he worked at discovering what can be known. He knew that truth is hard to capture in a proposition – but there still is truth and it can be known.
What else did Pascal know? He knew that we are created by a God who loves us and that this God reveals himself to those made in his image. In our tradition, this makes Pascal a true believer.
We need skeptical Christians today because we are living in an age that feels overwhelmed by postmodern “skepticism” and needs to hear that true skepticism is a friend, not a foe of the gospel.
We need skeptical Christians today because in every age the church is continually being overrun by preachers and teachers making exotic claims in the name of Christ. To quote a friend, “While it is true that the gospel can be foolishness, merely being foolish does not make it the gospel.” The inverted logic of Paul’s claim will always hang over the church. The duty of the skeptic is to root out and name foolishness for what it is.
Muggeridge is wrong when he says “all true believers [are] deeply skeptical.” Most of us accept things as they appear. Not every true believer has the gift of skepticism.
But he is right when he adds, “It is believers who can be astringent and skeptical.” This is profoundly comforting.
Like the other spiritual gifts, skepticism is not given only to the individual believer but to the church. I believe – now more than ever – our skeptics need to exercise this gift.