Van Inwagon on Doubt: The Dark Night of the Soul

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I am currently reading through a book called God and the Philosophers, which is a compilation of the Christian (and one Jewish) testimonies of twenty philosophers.  Some of these testimonies focus more on personal experiences, while others draw heavily on arguments and reason to show how these philosophers came to believe in God (in most cases, the Christian God of the Bible).  I have enjoyed reading it because it provides insight into the thoughts of very intelligent men and women who have come to the conclusion that belief in God is highly rational.  One of my favorite segments thus far has been that of Peter Van Inwagon, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame.  He has an impressive intellect, and the rare ability to convey his thoughts to those of us who are less intelligent in a comprehensible way.

One story in particular stood out to me as helpful as I occasionally struggle with doubts about my Christian faith.  Van Inwagon recounts the time shortly after he had become a Christian, when he struggled intensely with doubts about his beliefs.  What was interesting about this ordeal, is that there wasn't really a single claim or argument which made him doubt because he found it convincing.  Rather, each specific argument or claim had a reply that he did find intellectually convincing.  Yet his doubts continued to plague him in spite of this.  He refers to this portion of his life as the "Dark Night of the Soul," and has come up with a deft analogy to explain what he was going through.  Consider this quote:
Perhaps the best way to describe my state of mind would be by an analogy.  You don't believe in ghosts, right?  Well, neither do I.  But how would you like to spend a night alone in a graveyard?  I am subject to night fears, and I can tell you that I shouldn't like it at all.  And yet I am perfectly well aware that fear of ghosts is contrary to science, reason, and religion.  If I were sentenced to spend a night alone in the graveyard, I should know beforehand that no piece of evidence was going to transpire during the night that would do anything to raise the infinitesimal prior probability of the hypothesis that there are ghosts.  I should already know that twigs would snap and the wind moan and that there would be half-seen movements in the darkness.  And I should know that the inevitable occurrences of these things would be of no evidential value whatever.  And yet, after I had been frog-marched into the graveyard, I should feel a thrill of fear every time one of these things happened.  I could reason with myself: "I believe that the dead are in Heaven or Hell, or else that they sleep until the General Resurrection.  And if my religion is an illusion, then some form of materialism is the correct metaphysics, and materialism is incompatible with the existence of ghosts.  And if the church and the materialists are both wrong and there are ghosts, what could be the harm in a ghost?  What could such a poor, wispy thing do to one?"  And what would the value of this very cogent piece of reasoning be?  None at all, at least in respect of allaying my fear of ghosts. 
Possibly, if one were subject to an irrational fear of ghosts, one would eventually lose it if one were forced to spend every night alone in the graveyard.  Something like that seems to have happened to me as regards the irrational fears that underlay what I have called the counterattack.  Eventually, they simply faded away.  I am now unclear about what the time frame of all this was.  I know that the full force of it lasted several years and that it was horrible.  I am sure that I could say nothing that would convey the horror of it to someone who had not had a similar experience, just as someone who was "afraid of ghosts" (without believing their existence) could do nothing to convey to someone who was free from this fear what was so horrible about spending a night alone in a graveyard or an abandoned and isolated house.  The fears, while they lasted, were tireless and persistent.  [...]  Reason is impotent in such situations, since one is already intellectually convinced that there is nothing to fear.  (Fear replies, Ah, but you have reasoned wrong.  "How have I reasoned wrong?" I said; you have reasoned wrong.)  And prayer, whatever its objective benefits, brings no immediate psychological comfort, as it can do in many kinds of affliction; on the psychological level, prayer merely aggravates the fear that there is No One There by making the question whether there is anyone there momentarily inescapable, and letting the fears loose on it. 
Somehow, with God's help, I got through this period.  (I often wonder whether it was some kindergarten version of "the Dark Night of the Soul," but I have never really understood what that phrase means.  I hope it never returns.  I hope that the part of me on which it operated is dead, swallowed up in that death into which we are baptized.  But God has, as is His usual practice, given me no guarantees, and, for all I know, it could start again tomorrow.[1]
Van Inwagon's full testomony is actually available for free online here if you you are interested in reading it.

1. Van Inwagon,1994, pp. 38-39.
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