A few years ago, on retreat, a student came to me looking sad.
“I’m struggling with my faith,” she said.
“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.