Saturday, August 15, 2015

Permission to Doubt

"Mystical Beauty" 
- At the Desert Retreat House -

When Sunday comes around many Christians who go to church will find themselves gathered together reciting some form or other of an ancient Christian Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed: centuries-old statements of beliefs about God, about Jesus, the forgiveness of sin, what happens to us when we die - everything you ever need to know about the Christian faith in two or three convenient paragraphs.

A few years back I remember a parishioner of mine coming to my office with tears in her eyes, confessing that she only “pretends” to say the “Creed” every Sunday in church because she has too many doubts about the faith the “creed” professes - she only “mouths” the words so that others won’t notice her failure to recite it. She told me that she feels so embarrassed and guilty to be so filled with so many doubts while the others around her seem to be so certain and sure in their willingness to profess their beliefs.

I told her that she would probably be surprised to know that many if not most of her fellow parishioners have just as many doubts as she does; they just recite the creed because it is expected of them to do so at that point in the service. I told her that her questions and doubts were perhaps a gift, a threshold for her to cross in order to move into greater truth and deeper wisdom in her life of faith.

Last evening my wife and I had dinner with another former parishioner who offered me one of the finest compliments about my ministry that I have ever received in my life. He told me that the greatest gift I gave to the people of the parish I served was that I “gave them permission to doubt.”

In fact, I not only gave people “permission” to doubt but I “encouraged” them to doubt. I encouraged them to ask the questions that any journey of faith inevitably provokes- the truth is that without doubt there is no faith.

The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed;

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
It is a necessary element of faith.

I actually take this a step further. For me, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. In fact certainty is the enemy of any deeper wisdom and greater truth.

On any spiritual path we dive into an ocean of mystery as we experience a sense of the transcendent, a holy, untamed and even unknowable Presence.  Anyone who is so sure and certain about this mystery probably doesn’t quite grasp the fact that mystical experiences can never be contained or pinned down with “doubtless” assurances.

And so, as I see it, faith necessarily provokes doubt and raises deeper questions. When you doubt, you neither deny nor do you affirm with certainty, you simply say, “I have questions about it all.” And as far as I am concerned, the more questions the better because questions pave the path to deeper faith.

As I thought about our dinner conversation last night it seems to me that the greatest compliment any of us might give to another traveler on the path to wisdom is: “you give me permission to doubt, you encourage my questions.”

I am reminded of something the poet, Rainer Marie Rilke once told a young student who came to him seeking advice:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves.

For me, this one little line so beautifully expresses what a journey of faith is all about.  We dive into the ocean of mystery and together we learn to explore the questions that arise unresolved in our hearts - we try to love the questions.

Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic who is one of my personal favorite spiritual guides, once put it this way:

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

I say “Amen” to that!


  1. Thank you for this. Doubt being something to embrace. And with that we can then feel more able to explore our own truths and experiences with curiosity and a kind of childlike wonder. With doubt as our companion, we are never reaching an end point when we know it all. Absolutely marvellous. Thanks so much, Sheridan xx

  2. Really neat post by Rev Paul Kowalewski on faith and the necessity of doubt. So wish I'd had this teaching as a young man...

    1. Thanks Steve..many people feel the way you do.