Posted by: Ken Brown | July 1, 2009

Faith and Fear

Cliff JumpImage by sameffron

Fear believes, courage doubts. – Robert Green Ingersoll

Is fear the source of faith? Do we believe because we are afraid–of loneliness, ostracism, or perhaps death–and lack the courage to doubt? Quoting this line from Ingersoll, Timothy Mills recently asked how our own beliefs might be grounded in fear. It’s an important question that we would all do well to consider, but I have to challenge the assumed parallel between fear and belief, courage and doubt.

To be sure, belief can be fearful and doubt courageous. Just look to Iran, where those who doubt the results of their election show great courage and conviction, while their government attempts to force belief and acquiescence through fear. But the opposite is true as well: Without faith in one’s fellow protesters–without belief that justice can prevail over tyranny–such courage would be impossible.

When properly understood, belief is much more relational than intellectual. It means trusting in others–your family, neighbors, God–not merely assenting to a set of truths. Such faith is summed up by the psalmist: “Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps 20:7). This is faith as courage, abandoning any fear of death or abandonment. One need only think of Tehran’s nightly cries of Allahu Akbar to see the courage such faith can inspire.

On the other hand, cynicism can be as small-minded as the worst abuses of faith, and doubt itself can spring from fear. Fear doubts that justice will prevail, and stays locked indoors. Fear doubts that the woman loves, and hesitates to propose. Fear doubts that the landing is safe, and refuses to jump from the cliff. Courage faces an army with only a protest sign. Courage weds with no guarantees. Courage leaps without fear. Courage believes that life and love and joy require a leap into the unknown.

Fear doubts, courage believes.


  1. An interesting take, Ken.

    I suspect that Ingersoll was specifically talking about the intellectual rather than the relational aspect of belief. Perhaps a more precise (though less punchy) wording would be “Fear believes unquestioningly; courage believes provisionally.” It is more courageous to admit the possibility of being wrong, and believe anyway, than it is to act as if one’s beliefs are perfect and unassailable.

    But, in the sense that you present, I can equally agree with your formulations of “Fear doubts, courage believes.”

  2. Hey Timothy,
    I suspect you are right, and part of my intent was to ensure that the relational is not obscured by the intellectual (as it too often is–by Christians as well as by non-Christians), but I purposely framed the post with both Ingersoll’s formulation and the reverse to imply that it is not one or the other, but both. Belief and doubt both can be connected with fear and courage, depending on the circumstances, because belief and doubt are necessary counterparts.

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