A Review of
After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It
Reviewed by Joshua Rhone
The existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich declared, ““Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” A.J. Swoboda, author of After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It, begins his most recent book by asking, it seems, whether or not this kind of questioning is indeed possible. Swoboda asks:
Is there a way to walk through this deconstruction with Jesus into deeper faith? Is it possible to come out on the other side more in love with the living God? Is there a way to navigate deconstruction and have a deeper love for the church afterward? Can deconstruction make us more compassionate and gracious toward others with whom we disagree? Can it forge in us the character of God? (17)
While it is not my desire to offer a spoiler, by any means, Swoboda’s answer is an affirmative “yes.” One can emerge on the other side of deconstruction with a deeper faith, a greater love for the living God, an extraordinary love for the church, and an exceptionally compassionate and gracious spirit towards others. So, how does this happen? How does one experience and/or endure a season of doubt without succumbing to it, while, at the same time allowing one’s faith to be shaped, formed, and grown in new ways?
Pastorally, A.J. Swoboda’s text explores a topic at the heart of spiritual formation and development for so many. Ours is an age of deconstruction. Doubt is ubiquitous, as is our voicing thereof. As such, we live in a time where doubt is not only encouraged but is touted as courageous, brave, and note-worthy. Within Christian circles, many times, the response has come in one of two forms: 1) double-down on “the truth” –– offering an apologetic defense of the foundational truths of Christianity; or, 2) demonize doubt –– portray it as antithetical to and in absolute opposition to faith. Unfortunately, such approaches tend to discount or downright ignore those, like the father who brought his son to Jesus in the hope of him being healed, who believed yet still struggled with doubt/unbelief (Mark 9.14-29).
In After Doubt, Swoboda suggests a way forward in faith, that both acknowledges the importance of doubt to one’s spiritual formation without celebrating, nor demonizing it. It is acceptable to have real questions that are sometimes big, hairy, and more uncomfortable than most of us would like to wrestle with. There are two dimensions and/or aspects to A.J.’s proposed path forward. The first aspect concerns the descriptive aspect of the journey –– defining terminology (i.e., creating a shared language for the journey) and depicting the ways in which Western culture shapes both one’s understanding and experience of faith and doubt. Part 1, which Swoboda entitles, “Deconstruction and Doubt,” focuses on this task. The second aspect pertains to the prescriptive aspect of the journey –– creating, sustaining, and growing faith throughout times of deconstruction and doubt.
With regard to the prescriptive task, Dr. Swoboda, does a fine job –– as one would anticipate, given his day-to-day engagement with college and seminary students, as well as his work as a church planter and theorist in one of the least churched cities in the country. He does a particularly good job, in my humble opinion, of highlighting for his audience the ways in which experience, crisis, and transition, affects a person’s spiritual formation. For example, he writes, “Transitions provide new freedoms of exploration without the watchful eye of the family of origin or the church back home” (33). Often, spiritual leaders and churches, are afraid that such transitions will result in faith destruction, but Swoboda suggests that what often happens is faith deconstruction –– taking “seriously of the biblical command to ‘give careful thought to your ways’ (Hag. 1:7) and ‘watch your life and doctrine closely’ (1 Tim. 4:16.)” (40). During these liminal seasons, we are evaluating and refining “what we believe about God and continually put it up to the task of the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit and the pages of Scripture” (40). As such, it seems that such seasons are to be embraced rather than avoided.
Where I believe A.J. truly shines, however, is with regard to the prescriptive work. Again, his experience as a pastor and training as a theologian prove invaluable. While there are a number of things that Swoboda suggests that are important to remember as one navigates doubt in a faithful way, there are two things that I found particularly helpful and insightful. The first is that doubt is best navigated in community. He writes, “Sometimes the best I can do when I struggle with my faith—is surround myself with the faithful the way the blind would for those who see. We all need a group around us who believe for us when we struggle to believe on our own” (89).
Doubt is often suffered in silence: the doubter alone with his or her thoughts, concerns, worries, and questions. A.J. suggests that a more faithful way forward is to surround ourselves with a community who is able to see when we cannot, and with fellow travelers who can believe when we struggle to believe. In other words, a local church community or community of fellow sojourners.
This leads to my second observation. Swoboda writes, “Order your pizzas and books online, but don’t take your deepest doubts and questions there. Bring them to us, God’s people on the ground. Please don’t replace us. Question the assumption that a PhD is the same as being wise, or the assumption that “most viewed” or “viral” has anything to do with veracity” (120).
We live in a world of blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos and the like. In such a world we search for answers that are a click away. Swoboda cautions against these voices, encouraging his readers instead to seek out embodied voices –– people, voices, and a community inhabiting a particular space at a specific time: again, the local congregation. It is within this context, and not alone, on a solitary pilgrimage, that one engages in the practices for reconstructing faith that Swoboda suggests in Part 2 of After Doubt.
On the heels of a global pandemic, as many people are asking questions about faith, doubt, and whether they have a need for a local faith community, A.J. Swoboda’s most recent book could not arrive at a better time. If you have doubts, find yourself with more questions than answers, or aren’t even sure how you would label what you are going through from a faith perspective –– this book is for you! Whether you are a lead pastor, director of discipleship, youth leader, Sunday School teacher, or in any way concerned with spiritual formation and development, you will find After Doubt to be an insightful, challenging, and practice-informing text that will prepare you to walk with others as they navigate the deconstruction and reconstruction of faith.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com