When Doubt Bears Fruit

A few years ago, on retreat, a student came to me looking sad.

“I’m struggling with my faith,” she said.

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“With Catholicism,” I said, “or with your belief in God?”

“All of it.”

The student said she could no longer pretend to be okay. She had grown up in a family whose every meal and car ride, all routines from sunup to sundown, presumed the truth of the Catholic faith. For her and her family, Catholicism was the great given, the thing that was simply there, which animated all their hours. 

But as a senior year in high school, that givenness began to dissolve. It wasn’t so easy to believe. The massive ship that had delivered her through adolescence began to rock; it began to crack. But it wasn’t a matter of reattaching a plank, or of waiting until the wind died. The destination itself, and her very presence on the ship, had become suspect.

As we spoke further, she revealed that she had no way to respond, no way to talk about this spiritual gridlock. She had assumed that the Catholics around her – parents and teachers, other parishioners – either didn’t undergo doubt or had overcome it. Faith, she had come to believe, meant the absence of doubt. To be faithful was to be certain.  

My conversation with Sandra was similar to other encounters I’ve had with friends and family, and especially students. They often assume that religious people are born believers, no sooner talking than chanting the Our Father. Already skeptical of organized religion, this assumption leads them to become even more so, convinced that they could never achieve such uncomplicated belief.

On one level, it's puzzling that so many struggle to talk about doubt, because doubt is the starting point for the modern world. The secularist doubts God and objective truth, and therefore reduces religion to an illusion. In this framework, doubt arises and doubt remains because there is nothing permanent. There is nothing foundational that can, quite simply, be known.  

The person of faith also begins with, or must acknowledge, the force of doubt, a point made by two recent popes. In then-Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, he begins by observing that doubt is a kind of ocean on which the believer perfects his faith. In Fides et ratio, Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical letter on faith and reason, the Holy Father wrote that the number and variety of theories about the meaning of life tempt one into a “radical doubt” that can lead to “skepticism, indifference, or various forms of nihilism.”  

If, then, doubt is what surrounds and tempts us, if it is an ocean over which our faith hovers, doubt cannot be something we talk about only in a comfortable, secluded space, or only when swings of fortune exile us into fear. Doubt cannot be treated as something forbidden, something discussed out of earshot of innocent minds. Doubt, whether in particular matters or whether concerning the basic question of God, must be worked through, anticipated, and discussed.  

In what specific ways might we think about doubt, beyond merely recognizing it and shruggin our shoulders? How do we deal with doubt pastorally? I offer a few reflections that have assisted my own colleagues and students. 

One reason to acknowledge our doubt is the simple need to be honest. We deceive everyone, including ourselves, if we aspire to free ourselves from wavering faith. Our beliefs – belief in the Resurrection, in a triune God, in the activity of the Holy Spirit (to take three examples) – cannot be verified in the way that I can verify I own a computer. Christians have persuasive reasons to believe in these things, of course, but it is not in our power to display their inner workings, like the parts of a machine. Wonder will remain. Misgiving and mystery are the natural results of our contingency.   

A crisis of faith can also humble us and prevent fundamentalism. When we come to a tearful impasse like my student, we are invited to look beyond ourselves; we are invited to look at other traditions, other ways of approaching the mystery of life. We are invited, as she was, to seek help, to open ourselves to the thoughts of another. In so doing, we avoid the temptation to try to confine God to human categories. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs:

God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God -- "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable" -- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

Our doubt, therefore, draws us beyond the self, but it also deepens the knowledge of the self. When an experience rattles our faith, we confront ourselves with essential questions:  Who am I? What do I want? With Pilate, we ask, what is truth? In this way (and unlike Pilate's reaction), doubt can lead us to a more developed, more precise awareness of our strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and knowledge.   

Doubt has also made me a better teacher, for in my own moments of crisis, it has closed the distance that separates me from my students. Whether it concerns free will and sin or something more specific (“Why does Jesus curse a fig tree?”), my students find much of Judeo-Christianity bewildering. But a lot of what confuses them no longer troubles me, and sometimes I struggle to understand why they are not, on my timeline, “getting it.” But when events push me to the fundamental question of God’s existence (in other words, when I doubt), I relate to my students. This awareness relaxes me, and invites me to be more patient as I lead my students through their questions.  

Doubt is also a balance for those who, like me, are tempted to intellectualize faith. In a crisis of faith, lack of knowledge is usually not the problem, so acquiring more knowledge really doesn’t help. Usually I cannot read my way back into security. But this, too, can be of value: it teaches me that faith is not a scheme, not an ideology, not a set of formulas that can be memorized. Its incomprehensibility points to its divinity.

Doubt, therefore, need not always strike us as an enemy, as a spiritual cancer. Doubt is like a space beyond the reach of a light. The area gets darker not because of something bad, not because there is nothing in the space, but rather because the light -- in this case, the light of the human intellect -- has reached its limit. It is God's grace, then, our divine light, which takes over.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 4 months ago
Here’s how I approach doubt in the existence of God, I think fruitfully. First of all, since no one has ever seen God, doubting is understandable, even perhaps inevitable. It can seem that God is not only unknown, but is also unknowable, a mysterious being, one of a kind, a “spirit” whatever that is., assuming such a thing does exist. That Jesus gestated, has hands and legs and can weep and sweat makes belief in God easier, but only if you’re sufficiently sure that Jesus is who he claimed to be and did rise from the dead! I address doubt by hanging my hat on what’s called “Revelation” which St. Paul calls “evidence of things not seen.” When one speaks of “evidence” one speaks of something you can sink your teeth into, something that pulsates, something touchable, even smellable! For me Revelation is God’s tongue moving, his voice box, through which we get to know a little, in an incomplete way, who God is. Revelation fosters belief, or Faith, which like a muscle gets stronger through exercise. But the shadow of doubt can always creep in, so my daily prayer is, “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!" I think human beings are essentially incredulous, skeptical, so doubt is a built in consequence, balanced by curiosity which drives us forward. But we yearn to believe, and that's why we do. Another space on the “hat hanger” of life has to do with the precision and predictability of the mechanics of materiality, it’s behavior and even its misbehavior relative to natural disasters, everything follows predetermined directives, nothing haphazardly held together. Interestingly all things hold together by a kind of natural “glue” called laminins, which when microscopically viewed are shaped like a cross! This brings to mind my main “hat hanger” Revelation, Colossians 1:15-17 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created … visible and invisible … in him all things hold together.” The mechanics of materiality tell me of a “mechanical genius” at work that no one has ever seen. No wonder many say things “just happen.” A very unsatisfactory response since common sense dictates that nothing ever “just happens!” But despite evidence that God does exist, the darkness of doubt can coexist side by side with the light of belief, which kicks me back to Revelation my strongest defense against doubt, wherein we learn that for God “Darkness and light are the same.” In short everybody doubts and everybody believes –atheists have their moments of belief, believers have their moments of doubt. No wonder, for as I said earlier no one has ever seen God. Yet I choose to believe and I guess that’s the key, to choose, or not to choose. Finally (in a sense!) someone once said that belief in God is so intrinsic to human nature, that if God does not exist, humankind would have to invent one! Well, not for me, as I want no part of an “invented” God. Prove to me there is no God and I’ll be a happy atheist. In the meantime I’m very satisfied to experience an abundance of belief with some moments, or extended periods of doubt playing God’s favorite game, the game of the God no one has ever seen, “Hide and Seek” he hides while I seek, or I seek while he hides, the ever elusive but exceedingly tantalizing invisible God, ever teasing humanity with his paradoxically liberating yet restricting statement, “I am Who I am!” Is it a matter of "take me as you find me? Its' no skin off my nose if you don't!" God, what are you saying?

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