Beirut, Derrida, and the Beauty of Doubt

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In Reformed circles, doubt, it seems, is considered more of an existential problem rather than a truth problem. In other words, doubt is seen as a problem with an individual and not the doctrinal beliefs associated with their community. Through various cultural, ideological, political, or even theological pressures, doubt can arise in the person and cause them to be a little less uncertain about the thing they really ought to believe with certainty. The problem is not in the thing that is truthful; the problem is in the individual that cannot quite obtain to the weight of the thing’s forceful truthfulness due to other factors. This is a quite logical conclusion if we begin with the doctrine of the fall. Truth exists and humanity, in its fallen nature, cannot believe with certainty at all times the realities of truth because our cognitive, emotional, and God-sensing capabilities are skewed. In the final resurrection, our existential doubts will be relieved as we are sanctified completely in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Doubt is existential, and doubt will go away. Reasonable enough.

Yet, I do want to suggest a slightly different narrative to the story of doubt. What if, rather than just considering it an existential problem, we attach doubt to the doctrinal beliefs themselves. When asked about the emphasis on instrumentals in their music by NPR, the bandleader for Beirut, Zach Condon, said that “It’s not so much about lyrics being completely pointless or meaningless. But when I fall in love with the song, I fall in love with the timbre and harmonies and melody...I get this feeling that sometimes that lyrics almost force the song back to Earth or something.” When I listen to Condon and his music, I experience what he is talking about. His songs are elusive; I find myself unable to capture both the lyrics and the meaning of the song. I am left just listening without being able to predict what is coming next; enjoying the moment by moment progress of the music without being able to control it. There is a beauty to my inability to control the song because it leaves me open to the possibility of being surprised again and again in ways that might not be accessible if I had a complete grasp on the song and its meaning. That is, if I had a sort of dominance over the song that restricted the meaning within what I expected of it.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of similar things long before Condon’s music and NPR interviews. In fact, Derrida was a big fan of doubt (maybe too much of a fan). He believed that without a radical doubt, we are left with “fundamental immobility and reassuring certitude.” That is, we are left with the primary means of control over the meaning and truth of the thing; growth is limited and surprise is non-existent. There is little room for what he calls the “superabundance,” or the extra-meaning/truth contained within the thing; little room left because our expectations limit the possibility of further disclosure ever coming before us. The thing in question remains static, and possibly, harmfully static. As an example, if I limit my understanding of “human flourishing” to economic issues, I will drastically misrepresent both the heart of God and the imago dei of others. Something that the Western church was guilty at for a good long time. Similarly, I think we can do this with our doctrines if we attach certainty to them and doubt to ourselves. We don’t leave ourselves room for further disclosure or correction. Thus, I find myself more attracted to the narrative that doubt is both attached to my individual concerns, and my doctrinal beliefs (which, as a reminder, are also attached to humans).

As a disclaimer, I do not believe that a proper view of doubt excludes beliefs in doctrines such as the atonement, divinity of Christ, etc., but it does exclude a dominance of what those things can mean. It excludes, using the language of Beirut and Derrida, “forcing [total truth] back to Earth;” it excludes a “fundamental immobility and reassuring certitude” about our convictions. But, more beautifully and constructively, it invites the God of all creation to speak in ways and through agents that we may have formally excluded. I am not naive to think that doubt is not dangerous, but I am also not naive enough to think that certainty is not equally dangerous. So I am left believing in the dangerous and beautiful gift of doubt.