What do you do with doubt?

What do you do with doubt? June 1, 2015


What do you do with doubt?

The answers to that question are as varied as the history of doubt itself.

Some people celebrate the contribution that doubt makes and consider it the hallmark of intellectual maturity.  Halfway through a hefty volume on the history of doubt, Jennifer Hecht cites an old Zen maxim: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”  On that reading of things, doubt is the engine of enlightenment and insight.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who fear the corrosive effects of doubt and equate its existence with spiritual failure.  For people who respond to doubt with fear, celebrating the contribution that doubt makes is impossible.  Not unsurprisingly, they wall it out of their lives, warning of the dire effects.

As Hecht notes, part of the challenge associated with doubt revolves around its varied meanings.  “Like belief,” she notes, “doubt takes a lot of different forms, from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.”

But, of course, the history of doubt is even more complicated than that.  Doubt not only has varied meanings, but the meaning it achieves in one dimension of life or history slips, slides, and bleeds into other parts of life.  The doubt that one practices in the laboratory that drives a scientist to test a hypothesis can be tied (as if it were inevitable) to a principled, life-long doubt about the existence of God.  And doubt of any kind can engender so much fear that the capacity for asking questions about anything is stifled.

As it applies to our faith in God, what do we do with such a complex challenge?

Don’t hide your doubts from God.

Think about it, if God truly is all-seeing and all-knowing, what good would it do to hide your doubts anyway?  That practical consideration aside, all real spiritual growth takes place in God’s presence.  That isn’t just true of life’s positive spiritual moments. It’s true of the difficult challenges as well.  Whether one thinks of the psalms or of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the witness of both Scripture and the Christian tradition is that God not only understands our struggles, God can be trusted in the middle of those struggles.

Don’t live and die by doubt. 

Because God can be trusted in the center of our struggles, we don’t need to live and die over doubt.  For those who do, doubt is a moment to moment referendum on the viability of their faith.  To enshrine doubt is to die intellectually and spiritually.  But for those who know doubt as simply one dimension of lives lived out in God’s presence, doubt is a piece of life’s tapestry: an experience to be examined, an experience from which things can be learned.

Doubt can be the beginning of growth. 

Developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan points out that psychological growth is a product of alternating moments of questioning, that leads to what he calls a “cognitive truce,” which – in turn – lead to new periods of questioning.  By “cognitive truce,” he means that after periods of searching, we consolidate our learning and depend upon it.  Eventually, new lessons or challenges lead to still more growth and another period of consolidation occurs.  The same is true in the spiritual life.  Moments of questioning and searching can lead to deeper understandings of God.  Doubt, then, is like climbing a hillside to anew plateau.  It need not be associated with a spiritual loss or setback and the anticipation of growth can make our experience completely different.

It is possible, then, to doubt and believe at the same time. 

In writing about the their struggles with questions, Abraham Heschel describes the prophets as homo sympathetikos, a Latin phrase meaning “people who long to know what God is doing in the world.”  Far too many of our spiritual struggles are marked by an either-or approach to life.  As a result, we find ourselves living life without a net.  It doesn’t need to be that way.

There are people who ask questions, pride themselves on those questions, and don’t really want answers. There are other people who ask questions who are passionate to understand what their God is doing.  Be a homo sympathetikos.

Don’t camp out on doubt. 

We have become people who characterize ourselves as perpetual cynics – people who can’t and don’t believe in God or in spiritual virtue.  If doubt pre-sages growth and a consolidation of spiritual understanding, then camping out on doubt is as foolish as running from it.  Use it, learn from it, but don’t make it your home.

Spiritual maturity is about making commitments in the face of unanswered and unanswerable questions. 

How could it be otherwise, if we argue that God is God – uncreated, beyond our completely knowing, and always more loving and more gracious than we can imagine?  By all means, climb the mountain slopes of your questions.  Welcome the plateaus and the places to rest.  But make the commitment to climb.

Doubt doesn’t need to be another street.  It’s a place on the path to God.

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