Friday, September 26, 2014

A Spirituality of Doubt

"Desert Shadows"

The Most Rev. Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury - the worldwide leader of 80 million Anglicans. The other day he gave a sermon in which he admitted that at times, he has doubts about his faith, and these seemingly harmless remarks set off a round of strident response that echoed around the globe. 

One London paper said this was the "doubt of the century." The social media lit up with tweets and comments offered by stalwart Christian believers everywhere who declared that they were "highly offended" that such a prominent worldwide religious leader would dare to admit that he has doubts about his faith. Prominent atheists everywhere also chimed in, declaring, "Victory, even someone like the Archbishop of Canterbury isn't all that certain about God." 

Personally, I have never paid that much attention to what Archbishop Welby said or did, but the other day, he climbed way up to the top of my list of respected religious leaders. 

As I see it, faith has little or nothing to do with certainty. In fact if you are "certain" about something you don't need faith. A spiritual journey of any kind is always a journey into the mystery of limitless transcendence - a mystery that cannot be contained within the rigid and "certain" limitations of unquestionable doctrine. A spiritual path is paved with shadows and questions -  without doubt there is no faith.

I am reminded of something the renowned theologian St. Augustine once said back in the 4th century:

In talking about God, if you claim to understand what you are talking about,
then what you have 'understood' is not God.

After reading the story about the Archbishop of Canterbury's "doubt of the century" sermon, I thought of someone else who became much more respectable to me after she declared the doubts she experienced on her spiritual journey.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta was often hailed as a "living saint." She was renowned for her holiness and highly respected by people throughout the world for her work with the poor, the sick and the outcast. 

After her death, Mother Teresa's memoirs were published and she admitted that even though she was a celebrated religious hero, for most of her life she was tormented by doubts and walked more in the darkness than in the light.  In one of her journal entries she wrote:

There is darkness and uncertainty within me, sometimes it feels like everything is dead.
It has been like this from the time I started "the work."

The spiritual path of one of the most renowned "believers" of our own modern era was a path of uncertainty. And yet, it was her doubt and uncertainty, her lack of answers that ultimately opened Mother Teresa to the transcendent, to the "Great Mystery of God," wherein she found the strength to live a life of exemplary abundance and generous compassion. In the end, it was her doubt that saved her, and her doubt that made her strong.

St. John of the Cross, the celebrated 16th century mystic and monk, described the spiritual path as a way that is walked in the mysterious "darkness of night" more than in the clear and certain light of day. He once said:

There is never more danger in stumbling 
than when we are sure we know where we are going.


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