Doubt: an Element of Faith (October 14, 2012)

Sherman Hesselgrave, Homilist

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17      Mark 10.17-31

Doubt: an Element of Faith

Thanks to Keith Nunn for proposing ‘Doubt’ as the theme for today.  Doubt permeates pretty much every aspect of our lives, yet we don’t reflect on it that often.  We have doubts about the competence of our political leaders.
We have doubts about our food safety.
We have doubts about the future of the human race, the environment, the economy, the criminal justice system, and we can read all about these doubts on the front pages of the daily papers or listen to people talking about them on the radio or television.
It is in this sacred space, though, that we’re more likely than any other place we frequent, to reflect on the doubts related to faith.  We have even written it into our most recent mission statement:

The Church of the Holy Trinity is a community of people who express Christian faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. We foster lay leadership, include the doubter and marginalized, and challenge oppression wherever it may be found. (2010)

This is a safe place to talk about faith and doubt.

First, we need to acknowledge the Christian Church’s influence on how we have regarded doubt in Western civilization.

I realized after I had accepted the assignment for today, that my Ordination to the Priesthood took place on the Feast of Thomas the Apostle — And of course, the Gospel appointed for that day: John 20 where we encounter “doubting” Thomas (“Do not be unbelieving —‘apistos’—but believing—‘pistos’.”)  What a bum rap.  To be given a nickname based on a distorted translation.

The power of Jesus’ mistranslated words to Thomas—”Do not doubt but believe”—sent a ripple down through the centuries that made it easy for the Church to preach that doubting is bad, not something you want to be caught doing.  And that is a real problem.  It is also a problem that is not easy to fix; the tradition has been so deeply imprinted with a negative stereotype of doubt, that it takes conscious effort to redress the wrong.

Though classical philosophers had staked claims all along the spectrum of skepticism, it wasn’t until post-Enlightenment  philosophers and theologians put an oar in the water that the conversation about faith and doubt started to get interesting, in my opinion.

From the methodological doubt of Descartes, in which he “sought to doubt the truth of all his beliefs in order to determine which beliefs he could be certain were true,” [Note 1] to the observations of the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who famously remarked:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.”

That is also the story of Job.
Job, who is held up as the archetypal case study of theodicy, the question that asks Why do bad things happen to good people?  Job, recognized by all as a faithful, righteous man, lost all his wealth, his children, and his own health.  Even his own friends try to plant seeds of doubt in Job’s conscience; surely he must have some undisclosed or unacknowledged flaw that has caused God to treat him this way.  Either that, or God is not the loving, just, and omnipotent being God is advertised to be.  Through it all, Job refuses to let go of his heart’s reasoning, and curse God.  Yes, he rues the day he was born, but none of the suffering or loss he experienced could shake loose his conviction that God was God.

Once we disengage from the notion that doubting is some kind of characterological defect, we notice others who also learned this.  Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, wrote:

“[Y]our doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

Rilke expands upon the Cartesian notion of methodological doubt; a doubt that leads us to deeper truths.

The rich man in the gospel story today who claimed to have kept all the commandments from his childhood, yet had doubts about inheriting eternal life.  Doubts that prompted him to ask Jesus what more had he to do in order to remove these doubts.  The answer, which was tailor-made for him and his situation, was to give up the things of this world which held such an attractional power over him–his possessions.  Perhaps because he lived in a time—not unlike our own—where accruing many possessions is taken to be a sign of success, of having “arrived,” he was unable to see how that compromised a radical trust in God to give him each day his daily bread.  We are left wondering how the story ends; but we all have our hunches.  What do you see happening in the next chapters of this man’s life?

Kierkegaard, another post-Enlightenment theologian-philosopher, who shared very publicly his doubts about the institutional church of his time and place, wrote that:

“Every mental act is composed of doubt and belief,
but it is belief that is the positive, it is belief
that sustains thought and holds the world together.”

What deeper beliefs do our doubts lead us to?  Bertrand Russell’s father was an out-of-the-closet atheist, and Russell’s own skepiticism persuaded him to follow in those steps.  Some may have wondered if the lector’s concluding acclamation following the Russell reading today was a mistake—”Hear what the Spirit says to the churches. / Thanks be to God.”  No, it was intentional.  There are numerous examples in our sacred story where God’s will is effected through non-believers.  One of the prime examples is Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia who liberated the exiled Jews from captivity in Babylon.  He was even called an “anointed of God”—a ‘messiah’, in Hebrew.

But back to that question of where do our doubts lead us?  Yann Martel, the prize-winning Canadian author of Life of Pi, has written:

“Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

I imagine I am not alone in knowing what it feels like to get caught in the spin-cycle of doubt, where one’s doubts are not productive, clarifying doubts, but immobilizing and petrifying doubts.

But then we remember that we are always free to choose what we will believe; we get to decide for ourselves where we will put our trust.  Deep within, we know that faith is meaningless without doubt, or as Frederick Buechner’s colourfully puts it: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.” [Note 2]

And so, to end where we began, recalling Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Thomas in the upper room with his disciples, a story that has given so many a bum steer, we need to remember the corrective lens that theologian Paul Tillich applies in his Dynamics of Faith: doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. [Note 3]

To be people of faith, we need our doubts to keep our faith honest.

May God bless our doubting and our believing, and lead us deeper to the truth that is in store for us.


[Note 1]  Wikipedia, s.v. “Cartesian doubt,”  accessed October 14, 2012

[Note 2]  Wishful Thinking, p. 20

[Note 3]  Dynamics of Faith, p. 22