- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Today I am thinking about the word “faithfulness.” I consider myself to be a “person of faith," and a follower of Jesus. After all, I am an ordained priest. But today I am asking myself what exactly does it mean to be “faithful?”
For many “traditional” Christians, to be faithful means ascribing to the list of beliefs that are articulated in one of the ancient Christian Creeds like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed - centuries-old statements about the nature of God, about Jesus, about what happens to us when we die. For some others, being a faithful Christian means putting all your trust in Jesus as the one true way to salvation.
In a similar fashion, a faithful Jew might claim that being faithful means accepting what the Torah teaches as the true way and a faithful Muslim might make the same claim about the prophet Muhammad and the Koran.
And yet, the more I think about it, being faithful has little or nothing to do with accepting or ascribing to the “true way.” In fact, as I see it, faithfulness is more about doubt than certitude.
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 told me that she only “mouths” the words so that others won't notice her failure to recite it. She also told me that when she is in church, she always feels embarrassed and guilty about having so many doubts while the others around her seem to be so certain and sure in their profession of beliefs.
In response, I told her that she would probably be quite 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 also said 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.
Over the years I have come to believe that faithful people on any sort of spiritual journey should not only be given “permission” to doubt - they should be “encouraged” to doubt, to ask the questions that any journey of faith inevitably provokes. In a very real sense, 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.
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 faithfulness.
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.
It seems to me that this is good advice for any faithful person.
I am currently in the process of writing a book about “faithfulness and doubt,” and I encourage anyone who reads my blog to respond to posts like this and give me some feedback about my ideas. If you give me your permission you may even find yourself quoted in the book.