A Review of
Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
In addition to growing up immersed in the conservative, American Evangelical subculture through the 1990s and early 2000s, I also spent 8 years in full-time college ministry in New England (from 2012 – 2020). I start this review on this note to emphasize that over these decades I have personally witnessed many peers, friends, and college students I ministered to experience profound pain and disillusionment with the apparent dichotomy presented to them between the path of fierce and unquestioning certainty or the path of vague, nebulous doubt and deconstruction. I have seen many of these individuals throw up their hands in despair at the irreconcilability of these two choices, and as a result, throw themselves into the ever-growing demographic of the “nones” or enlisting in social media movements like “exvangelical.” It is with these personal experiences and stories in my background, some of them quite painful, that I approached with great interest Joshua McNall’s new book Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism. I had already read recent publications like Benefit of the Doubt (by Greg Boyd) and The Sin of Certainty (by Pete Enns), and was intrigued by McNall’s seeming quest to navigate a via media that ostensibly warned against the dangers of both unflagging certainty and overly valorizing doubt. (Incidentally, I adored McNall’s previous publication, The Mosaic of Atonement, particularly for his command of church history and ability to interrogate and integrate a wide view of doctrines and traditions, so this piqued my interest even more.)
As quickly becomes apparent to the reader, Perhaps defies simple categorization in the landscape of Christian publishing. It’s academically rooted, but the style is extremely approachable. It isn’t squarely a book on doctrine, or church history, or cultural commentary, though all of those are prominent. And yes, it even includes a thread of fictional narrative. But perhaps (see what I did there?) the combination of these various elements are precisely what set it apart from other argumentative writings as something needed in our contentious times.
The strongest– and my favorite– theme throughout Perhaps is what McNall terms a defense of “speculative theology.” In an update of a well-trod phrase that I particularly liked, McNall wants to reclaim the idea of “faith seeking imagination.” What would it be like to preserve a space for “speculating” about God and Christian doctrine? Can this be done wisely, in respect of our grand tradition and especially scriptures? And how might this bring healing to the seemingly-interminable impasse between the options I saw presented to my students? But if such “imagination” can safeguard us against overly shrill dogmatism, how might we avoid careening into an anything-goes speculation-fest that simply rebuilds a God and faith into what makes us most personally comfortable? Well, proposing a course through all this is precisely what Perhaps is all about.
In the first three sections of the book, McNall helpfully defines his terms. First, leveraging the story of Abraham, as well as some key figures from church history, he unpacks what exactly “perhaps” might mean as applied to doctrine. In particular, his chapter surveying the work of Origen, Julian of Norwich and Jonathan Edwards displays a remarkable command of a wide swath of primary texts, and an enviable ability to synthesize and distill that content for the uninitiated reader. This same ability was on full display in McNall’s wonderful book on Atonement, and I was thrilled to see it again.
Next, McNall unpacks the dichotomy of “dogmatism” versus “doubt.” It seems easy to pick on and deconstruct topics like “certainty” and “fundamentalism” these days, but McNall preserves a nuanced and thoughtful approach. “The dogmatism I describe has two features: 1) a shrillness of tone and 2) the presumption of certainty on positions that are far from obvious.” (p. 13) His focus on tone and posture, in addition to simple mental certainty, is quite helpful, “What I call “tonal dogmatism” comes across as an abrasive antipathy toward those who fail to see the obviousness of (Christian) truth. It involves the tenor of speech and not merely its truth value. After all, it is possible to be correct in what we believe and yet wrong in the way that we communicate it” (86).
While I deeply resonated with his take-down of dogmatism, what I want to give a rousing endorsement to is his willingness to also confront doubt. It is quite fashionable these days to pontificate on the importance of deconstruction and the dangers of mental certitude, but what feels refreshing about Perhaps is the willingness to go against the cultural grain and wave a cautionary flag regarding the perils of doubt. In a careful scriptural survey of texts in Mark, James and Matthew, McNall unflinchingly examines important warnings about doubt contained in scripture. This exegesis is buttressed by an empathetic analysis of the de-conversion and re-conversion story of popular communicator and writer “Science Mike.” All told, this section of the book may have been my favorite, and particularly when combined with the afore-mentioned puncturing of dogmatism, builds an argument that is needed in our moment.
McNall ends Perhaps with a brief foray into actual “speculative theology.” The problem of animal suffering, the notion of “vessels of wrath” (concerning predestination and Romans 9), and the question of purgatory receive chapters that entertain some imaginative “perhaps-ing.” While I understand the impulse to end by putting forward examples of the speculative work that McNall is encouraging us to engage in, I couldn’t help but feel that something was lost in the pivot from analysis to example. Perhaps (it’s so hard to avoid using that word!) the book needed this section, but I wonder if it would have been better to set this material aside for a second volume, in which even more depth and material could have been engaged. As it stands, these chapters are thoughtfully written, but feel more like an appendix than a vital part of the monograph.
Finally, and to circle back to the personal note I began with, I want to heartily commend both McNall and IVP for including a fictional narrative about Eliza, a young adult who travels through her own deconstruction journey upon admission to college. From an anecdotal perspective, this narrative resonated powerfully with what I have seen in my own college ministry work, and to boot, McNall apparently has some chops as a fiction writer! I imagine the inclusion of this aspect of the book felt like a risk, but to my mind, it pays off wonderfully. The emotional engagement offered through following Eliza’s story truly helps the reader understand what is at stake in the spiritual and emotional well-being of real people who are caught up in impossible binds in our culture right now. It also puts “flesh and blood” on the abstract ideas McNall is working with. When added to everything mentioned above, Perhaps becomes a welcome, thoughtful, deeply-informed, salve on wounds that have been perpetuated by the equal errors of “doubt’ and “dogmatism” today, and I hope more people read it.