Saturday, April 2, 2016

Embracing Doubt

- At the Desert Retreat House -

While most people have probably heard the phrase, “Doubting Thomas,” many may be unfamiliar with its origins in the Christian Gospels. As the story goes, the Apostle Thomas initially had some serious doubts about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and hence throughout history Thomas has been labelled as a “doubter,” a word that often carries a rather negative connotation when it comes to matters of faith.

When I was growing up as a child I was taught that I should try not to be a “Doubting Thomas;” rather I should just “believe” what I was taught about “God.”  I remember often singing a hymn in which we all prayed that God would “take the dark of doubt away.”  

Now, many years later I have a whole different take on the value of doubt when it comes to the spiritual life. In fact, I now believe that we all need to give each other “permission” to doubt. In fact, we need to “encourage” one another to “embrace doubt” on any spiritual path.

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 because when you are certain of the truth you are no longer living in the realm of mystery and surprises, and “God” is a Great Mystery always filled with surprises.

In an article published in the New York Times a few days ago, Philosophy Professor, William Irwin, wisely suggests that “God” is never an answer; rather “God” is always a question to be explored by believers as well as non-believers alike. He says:

People who claim certainty about God worry me,
both those who believe and those who do not believe.
Those who are certain really never listen to the other side of conversations
and are all too ready to impose their views.
It is impossible to be certain about God.

Professor Irwin suggests that, in all “God” conversations, atheists, agnostics, humanists and people of various faith traditions should try to be less strident and rigid, always willing to embrace and encourage doubt when it comes to what it is that they believe or what they don’t believe. Irwin suggests:

When it comes to God,
rather than seeking the surety of an answer,
we would all do well to collectively celebrate
 the uncertainty of the question.

I am reminded of something the poet, Rainer Maria 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 beautifully expresses what a spiritual quest is all about.  We dive into the ocean of mystery who we call “God” and together we learn to explore the questions that arise unresolved in our hearts.  “We try to love the questions.”

It seems to me that maybe “Doubting Thomas” is a model to be embraced rather than a figure to disdain.

Saint John of the Cross once put it this way:

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

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