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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Doubt

In the aftermath of a week of thunderstorms and fog I spent an hour sitting out in the sunshine the other day talking with a good friend who had moved some years ago to another part of the country. Our conversations, generally via email these days, unfailingly lead me to reflect more deeply on a subject that has been marinating for some time, but lacking counterpoint lie fallow. Among the many things I treasure about my friend are his thoughtful, measured insights.


I miss those talks. They seldom have a defined destination but are the product of two minds that have spent a good deal of time reading and reflecting on a wide range of subjects, driven as much by curiosity as practical purpose. Where we begin is rarely where we will end up—rambling has its own rewards. I imagine these dialogs have some distant kinship with conversations that have occupied the thoughts of men and women in every age, those who wonder and those who question.


On this occasion our volley led us down a familiar path, the subject of faith. My friend was raised in a family that inclines toward a more fundamentalist bent, while my own roots were anything but religious and only began in my college years. After several courses in comparative religion, eastern philosophy, and related subjects I found myself attending the Episcopal chapel. Later in life, in search of kindred spirits I wandered into the Presbyterian church and have gone back and forth between the two over the years drawn by inspiring pastors rather than the slight differences in worship or the details of religious practice. I mention this as background because my friend and I have very similar views on faith despite our different roots. And those similarities extend as well to a deeper respect for faith outside the Judeo-Christian framework.

At one point our conversation wandered onto the subject of doubt—a topic I suspect with which many of us have had a good deal of experience. My friend offered that doubt was not considered a virtue among his kin but added that it was the starting point for his own faith journey, a tool to disassemble and reconstruct his beliefs on a sturdier foundation. In turn, I confessed that I am mistrustful of those who have not claimed doubt in their lives and regard it as a mark of apostasy.


For me, doubt is crucial to faith and whenever I run across anyone who dismisses it, either through blind acceptance or willing denial I am reminded of that passage in 1st Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”


Doubt, you see, is about maturity, not in years but in faith. Those who parrot scripture as a talisman against evil, or accept an apocalyptic religious view are sadly frozen in spiritual adolescence. Scripture for me is a point of departure for understanding my relationship with the universe, not a dogmatic manual containing apocalyptic prescriptions. Even for Atheists, though, doubt is an ever-present backdrop that spurs existential exploration.


For those who remain unchallenged by doubt, who seek simplistic solutions and place their faith neither in a realized god nor mankind do not see, darkly or otherwise. Whether they come to their beliefs out of upbringing, cultural pressure, fear or, often a mixture of all three, real understanding can only arise from self-evident truth. We must experience it, not play it as a part. Faith must be lived, and life is messy, difficult to comprehend, sometimes cruel and unjust. Doubt alone offers us the humility to despair and seek the truth in us. We cannot find God out there—but only within, we can only know as we are known.


Doubt makes us uneasy, discomforted by the possibility that the world cannot be made safe by magic, by prescriptive behavior or by corporate worship of a divinity most of us have never experienced. Feel-good theater that passes for faith is as bankrupt of meaning as fire, brimstone and Satan under the bed pronouncements that cast evil and good as elemental forces contending for possession of our souls rather than our deeply flawed human struggle. Faith is not a Punch and Judy show, it is measured and hard won, tested again and again, strengthened by the trial. We must understand, not as a child, but as men and women, not darkly but face to face.

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