“A questioner wants the truth. A doubter wants to be told there’s no such thing.” Cormac McCarthy
Watching The Sunset Limited Sunday evening stirred some thoughts in me on the spiritual benefit of doubt. I’ve swung pretty dramatically from opposite poles with my doubts in my life as a Christian. Early on, there weren’t any. Then, as I began to ask questions and think and probe I found that doubts clawed and scratched at the fabric of my belief. They were threatening, awful – doubts were faithless and to be avoided at all costs. So I sought to destroy my doubts with truth (i.e. facts) or try to push them out of mind. But I noticed two things about this method of destroying/denying/ignoring doubts:
1. They didn’t go away. Even with facts that answered doubts I seemed to create new doubts. Or – answers to doubts that seemed to work on closer inspection didn’t.
2. I developed a fearful posture towards reality and truth. I sought to protect and defend ideas and lost the goal of the Christian life: love towards me that transformed my love. Hard to receive when you’re defending; hard to listen when you’re arguing; hard to love when your scared of doubt.
When I lived destroying/denying/ignoring my doubts I became sort of a quasi-fundamentalist. Doubt was the enemy, certainty the ally. The only way to cure the poison of doubt was to inject the vaccine of answers. I became rigid and brittle in my thinking and engagement with other (competing) thoughts, ideas, truth claims, etc. My relationship with doubt stayed this way until I came across this quote from a pastor friend, Rich Vincent. He said:
“Remember, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but a demand to control all things…Willfulness, not doubt, is the opposite of faith…Doubt is faith taking itself seriously.”
– Rich Vincent
“Doubt is faith taking itself seriously…” That is where I’ve been for the last 10 years. But Cormac McCarthy helped give me language to tease out what I’ve been chewing on for awhile now, namely: Not all doubt is created equal.
For the sake of discussion, let’s propose there are (at least) two kinds of doubt: A doubt that questions and a doubt that attacks.
1. A doubt that questions seeks to investigate reality in an open-handed way. This is the doubt I believe Rich is talking about – the kind of questioning that Mary exhibits when she asks the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1.34) This kind of doubt – a questioning, seeking posture of openness – is full of hope and love. It is a surrender of control and self-willfulness so that one can be united with One who is Great Mystery. A heart humbled by truth sees doubt as the doorway to dependence, questions as the path of righteousness and peace.
2. A doubt that attacks seeks confirmation of skepticism and cynicism. Doubt that attacks is perpetually seeing through everything and never arriving at a vision OF something. Deconstruction that never evolves anywhere past itself often leads one to a doubt that attacks. This is the kind of doubt that doubts all things except Doubt itself. When I lived scared to death of doubt (as a quasi-fundamentalist) I had A LOT in common with this mindset. There is a brittleness, a hardness, a rigidity that sets in. Attacking doubt masquerades as honesty but in in fact a codified hardness against all challenging realities. Self – the controlling, self-willful posture that is the antithesis of abiding faith and abundant life – is King.
It’s the difference between honoring doubt and feeding doubt. When we honor doubt we listen to it, stand with Jesus in the midst of it, bring patience and kindness and love to ourselves and our doubts. Honoring doubt isn’t afraid of where it will take us because honest questions uncover the truth and lead to more faith. Feeding doubt never doubts doubt, but seeks to confirm and validate a posture of skepticism and distance. Feeding doubt ultimately ensconces Self as the one in control. Feeding doubt leads to Doubt being the only thing we trust. Honoring doubt allows our questions to be the miracle-grow for an abiding, abundant faith.
What is your relationship with doubt and questions on your Christian journey?
Do you see the same (ironic) similarities between those who war against doubt with truth and those who give themselves over to it (i.e. doubt as attacking)? Why do you think that is?
In what ways is your experience different here? How would you articulate a questioning that leads to faith vs. a doubt that leads to despair?