Bill Tammeus. The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Skylight Paths, Nashville, TN, 2016. 146 pp. $16.99
By Anne M. Windholz
A key moment in any would-be chaplain’s training is the pain of a patient, family, or staff member who is questioning not just whether God cares, but whether God exists at all. Among clinicians, such a question is typically categorized as an indicator of spiritual distress or worse: a dangerous failure of faith or even a sign of damnation. Certainly many patients look at it this way. After all, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe” (John 20:29), not “I’ve often wondered that myself.” The apostle Thomas wins no brownie points for skepticism. Not surprisingly then, patients who are not frightened by their questions (and hence, often angry), speak of their uncertainties in apologetic tones. What they anticipate from a chaplain is judgment.
They are often surprised, therefore, when the response they receive is: “Good question!”
Bill Tammeus in The Value of Doubt celebrates all our questions about, for, and to God. He offers a thoughtful, articulate, and engaging exploration of the ambiguities that people from varied faith traditions confront, at one time or another, in their relationship with the Divine. Trained in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition and a regular commentator at National Catholic Reporter, Tammeus takes on rule-based religious dogmatism with vigor. Without diminishing the physical pain of wrestling with God’s absence, God’s incomprehensibility, and God’s silence (he calls theodicy “the open wound of religion”), he presents compelling arguments for the growth in relationship and faith that doubt can spur. Too facilely labeled spiritual distress, what we are often witnessing is spiritual maturing.
For chaplains seeking to serve populations in crisis, Tammeus’ slender book provides a treasury of short essays followed by questions for individual contemplation or group discussion. Arguing throughout that we live by metaphor, allegory, and myth, he rejects fundamentalist fact in favor of the truth of story. He dismisses “blind faith” as parallel to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace,” embracing instead concepts that are the bedrock of chaplaincy: companioning, not fixing, as God’s primary role in our lives; reframing questions about a world of cruelty in terms of how goodness comes to be in such a place; ritual understood as providing, with its “disciplines and boundaries,” the “freedom” and “context” for belief; and presence, not only in the “thin places” of the earth where divinity breaks through, but “among the wounded [who] are all around us, waiting for us to mediate God’s healing.”
Attuned to the issues of our time and place, Tammeus offers thoughts on racism, interfaith dialogue, civil discourse, and secularism. He shares his personal delight in music and words: writer Annie Dillard and poet Christian Wiman share page time with theological powerhouses like Jϋrgen Moltmann, John Philip Newell, and Pope Francis. Far from being mired in the agony of spiritual distress, The Value of Doubt is ultimately about joy. The joy we have in our work. The joy we have in daring to ask the sticky questions that bring us into Mystery. And the joy of realizing that just as the questions never end, neither does the love.
Anne M. Windholz, MDiv, Ph.D., BCC, is staff chaplain at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL, and also serves at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.