Empowering Doubt

When John Patrick Shanley adapted his play Doubt for the big screen he added just a single line: “I have such doubts” – it is the final line of the film. From an artistic standpoint, it does the film a disservice – but it is something I wish we all said more.

Recently I gave a talk where I (along with those in attendance) were looking at empowering doubt. More than just accepting that we have doubts, or acknowledging them as something to be worked through, we have been seeking to empower doubt as an essential attribute of life and faith. Something that not only strengthens an individual’s faith, but makes it deeply personal.

This was all sparked when I came across a post online that read: “faith and doubt make poor roommates.  They will never be roommates. Where faith is there is no doubt and vice verse.”

I, and whoever wrote this, are the ones who’d make poor roommates. If this were the case and we follow its ‘logic’ then anytime you experience a doubt (any time you are uncertain of a belief, or hesitate before embracing an assertion) you apparently don’t have faith. Does that mean in a moment of doubt you’re not a follower of Jesus? A mildly concerning assumption to say the least.

Doubt, I’d contend, is highly useful preceding faith, nearly essential when producing faith, and a welcome persistence during faith.

When it comes to preceding faith, doubt trumps apathy, it also trumps blanket acceptance. I said in the talk that 'I’d rather you doubt everything I say than not care about it.‘ Going one further I said, ‘I’d rather you doubt everything than believe it unquestionably.’

Peter Rollins talks of the audiences' role as one of resisting that which we is saying.  

Doubt involves engagement. Doubt is a process whereby you take something and hold it up to the light, ask questions and seek the truth. And if we believe Jesus to be truth incarnate, then we believe not only he can take this kind of scrutiny, but that the more rigorous the scrutiny the more he is revealed. Further, this process of doubt shakes all our pre-conceived, loosely held notions – it shakes our engagement in a self-focused, individualistic society. It shakes our acceptance of long accepted injustices. And it shakes our docile following of whatever belief system we inherited. This is why it becomes essential in producing faith. 1 Thess 5:21 “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”

If you’ve taken a belief system or worldview and put it through the ringer of doubt, only to come out the other side with a truth, with a belief: how much broader is your grasp of that truth going to be - how much firmer is that belief going to feel - how much more personal is that faith - than if it had just been accepted as if a graduation present from one generation to the next, with no second look, no further investigation?

This does not imply that there is a 'coming out the other side' moment regarding the faith/doubt relationship. Doubt remains as long as there is faith. Essentially it remains until the day Paul speaks of, where even faith and hope pass away, leaving only love. So we may as well empower doubt. At most it produces a stronger faith, at the least it does something positive with all that inner turmoil.

Finally, I think of Abraham – the father of faith. Reading through the life of Abraham as recorded in Genesis it won’t take long to see that ol' Papa Faith experiences a litany of doubts and questions. But you know what you’ll never find? God holding that against him.

Abraham doubts God in the presence of God, yet God does not say – ‘hey, cut that out, you can’t have that and also follow me, go over to that corner, out of my presence until you’ve worked through that.’ No, Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness (that phrase is recorded amidst his doubt) – he kept following God; that was the key – doubts and all, he kept following; it even made him lean into God more, seeking more of God, more assurance, more empowering – which is why I can make such an assertion as to say doubt is a welcome persistence along the road of faith. 

To quote August: Osage County - (another play which became a movie) "Life is very long".

You are going to have moments of doubt, you are going to have days where you just don't (or can't) believe - I've had plenty. The key for me has been to keep living, keep living a faithful life even if I'm not full of faith (apologies). I attempt to keep living a life that loves, that hopes, that serves, that acts for justice, and resists inequality -- actions have a way of helping us work through all that's going on upstairs... and so who knows, the faith may come back full again, or it may come back different, or as something all together new. But that will be exciting because it has been explored, and all the while... you'll have still been doing some good.

All this is why I’m trying to empower doubt.