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Reflections on My Growing and Sustained Religious Doubt

Reflections on My Growing and Sustained Religious Doubt November 17, 2014

Editor’s Note: A recently retired Episcopal priest explores her early and growing doubts about her faith and how those doubts diminished instead of strengthened her faith. 

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small_14890444486By Caroline Fairless

My confirmation in the Episcopal Church as a 7th Grader coincided with my first communion and my last day of voluntary Sunday attendance – a hiatus which would last for twenty-five years. I would like to attribute that to an extended period of what was often referred to as “the doubting faithful,” but it wasn’t. On my confirmation day, two things happened.

The man tan lotion I had lathered onto my very fair skin, in order to be as tan as my friends returning from exotic ski vacations, had turned me pumpkin orange. Worse, I had forgotten to wash it off my hands, so my hands looked a little like stale Halloween candy corn, tri-colored in wide and irregular swatches. I decided to wear a pair of white gloves.

The second thing: the bishop who was doing the confirming came to our house for breakfast, perhaps because he’d heard that the infamous chipped beef on toast – my mother’s piece de resistance – was laced with sherry. He arrived in a cassock, looking very impressive. He went upstairs to wash his hands. Those of us waiting at the dining room table heard a series of angry squawks mixed with the cries of a human in terror. Down the front stairs, cassock flying behind him, came our bishop, with Burt the rescued turkey chasing him out the door , stopping only when the bishop’s driver gunned the engine of the Crown Vic and peeled out of the driveway.

It was not a particularly auspicious entrance rite, and when I finally came to the communion rail, white gloves on my hands, the bishop – perhaps in retribution – made me remove my gloves before I could receive the body and blood of Christ. My mother snickered. My shame was complete. My exit from the church, however, had nothing whatsoever to do with doubt. I am not sure it’s possible to doubt an unexamined faith.

Twenty-five years later – I think the Trickster had a hand in this – I found myself in a group of four first-year seminarians, arrogant as only seminarians can be, who had decided to form our own small community. We called it preach and pray, and we met on Tuesdays after lunch. On one of those Tuesdays, Ernesto shocked the rest of us by announcing that he’d been invited to preach at a real church, on a real Sunday. Not just any Sunday, but Trinity Sunday, and he asked just one question, “Is the Trinity real?”

The other two members of our group seemed to take his question as a matter of faith. I, who didn’t know enough to doubt anything, took it as a betrayal. What kind of a question was that? What did he mean by real? To ask the question was to raise the specter of a God who didn’t even exist. It was outrageous!

I hadn’t yet learned that doubt was practically a theological requirement. In the words of the popular pastor and prolific author Tim Keller:

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

Here’s the problem: Keller assumes that the doubter will return to the fold , having relinquished doubts which should “only be discarded after long reflection.” He assumes that all doubt will in fact be discarded. His presumption is that the doubter will not only return, but do so in a new relationship with God and the Church, in a more thoughtful, more substantial and more committed way.

My compassion lies with those of us who don’t return. I sometimes wonder if I am an anomaly in this conversation, but I still yearn for a place in it. I hold this creation with sacred wonder, curiosity, mindfulness, gratitude, an understanding of its systemic nature and a willingness to serve all of it. I do that without ascribing divine agency. I don’t need divine agency (God) to know this world as holy ground. That makes me neither a believer nor an atheist, nor an agnostic. Nor am I pagan, in that I am not a creation worshiper. Perhaps animist comes closest. But why name me at all? What is that about?

Where do we go – the nameless? I wonder.

Just as bio-diversity is essential, life-giving, and healing among the earth community (which, as we ought to understand by now, includes humans) is it not possible that our spiritual diversity might be not only essential but urgent in these times of fear, cynicism and often despair? How might we – the ones who refuse the religious labeling – make our voice and agency count in the direction of the healing of our planet.

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caroline-resized2-300x200Bio:  Caroline Fairless was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1989, and served in several congregations during her career.  She also founded and served as co-director of The Center for Children at Worship, a non-profit organization that provides strategies for multigenerational worship.  She is the author of several books, including The Space between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet and Confessions of a Fake Priest.   She blogs at www.restoringthewaters.com.


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