Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Gift of Doubt

"Shrouded in Mystery"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I just came across a sermon posted online in which a pastor told his congregation that, when they experience “doubts” about their beliefs, they should push them aside and “pray for the gift of faith.”  I’m not sure I agree with that pastor. In fact, in my experience, without “doubt” there can be no faith, doubt is the threshold for entering into a deeper faith. In many ways, “doubt” is a gift on a spiritual journey and instead of fearing or rejecting doubts, people of faith might do well to embrace this gift.  

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 and from my point of view, there are way too many people nowadays who are absolutely certain about what they believe or are just as absolutely certain about what they don’t believe. 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. Likewise, when you are so certain that there is no truth you put up a barrier to the experience of transcendence and cut yourself off from the Great Mystery.

I recall an article published a while back in the New York Times by Philosophy Professor, William Irwin, who wisely observed that “God” is never the final, given answer; rather “God” is always an initial question to be explored over and over again by believers as well as non-believers alike. He said:

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 suggested 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:

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 also 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 beautifully expresses what a spiritual quest is all about.  We dive into the ocean of the Mystery 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 we might all do well to “pray for the gift of doubt.”

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