Monday, March 7, 2011

Doubt, My Friend

The Unitarian Universalist (UU) pastor preached several truths about doubt that I would have rejected 20 years ago - “Doubt is a friend to faith…Anything solid casts a shadow [of doubt]…Doubt is a testing of truth.”

I had been desperate to believe all that the Bible instructed, but for many years, I was assailed with the most painful doubts, even doubting God’s love for me. However, now I can look back and say with all honesty, “It was good for me to be afflicted [with doubt, especially], so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71). Faith without doubt can breed complacency and superficiality. With doubt, it forced me into deeper meditations of the Scriptures, and consequently to a greater understanding and certainty about my faith.

Doubt and uncertainty are like pain. Pain instructs us to remove our hands from the hot burner, preventing further injury. Likewise, doubt has its object. It prods us to dig deeper to resolve contradictions and to derive a faith that not only resonates with our heart, but also with external reality. Ironically as pain is a friend of health, doubt is potentially a friend to true faith and understanding.

However, I soon found that the UU pastor was taking her sermon on doubt in a different direction. While pain finds its purpose in directing corrective action, doubt demands reexamination in hope of achieving a more rational resolution. However, for the UU pastor, the possibility of a rational resolution was not an option on the table. It reminded me of many who proclaimed the virtues of seeking but then disdained the possibility of finding! Those who claimed that they had found an objective truth or meaning in life were either dismissed as “close-minded” or were patronizingly informed, “I’m glad you found something that works for you.” Instead, doubt is a virtue only insofar as there is a possibility of a resolution or answer.

The UU pastor then jumped upon the opposite of the ideal she had been preaching – the Christian fundamentalists. “They have no room for doubt…They don’t even want to acknowledge the possibility of doubt…Many forbid any form of questioning.”

In contrast to this, she affirmed that the Universalists “cherish doubt.” However, this UU pastor was unable to explain what purpose it served, rather than simply as a reflection their honesty. Nevertheless, she did promote the concept of faith, citing the late theologian Paul Tillich’s definition: “Faith is a state of ultimate concern.” However, she didn’t explain what values or truths this ultimate concern should contain, other than some undefined set of ethics upon which life should rest. Instead, she boasted that UUs grant people the freedom to come to their own conclusions.

Nevertheless, content and dogma are always a part of a sermon, even if not identified as such. The UU pastor asserted that, “We have to believe in ourselves to find our own meaning…Therefore Unitarians have to affirm and encourage each other.” Evidently, she wasn’t doubtful about everything. She dogmatically proclaimed that we can do it. However, her dogmatism was very man-centered as opposed to God-centered: “Our own conscience is the highest authority.”

Meanwhile, she wouldn’t let go of the fundamentalists. While they couldn’t do without certainty and rigidity, the UU was willing to hold conflicting ideas. In other words, the UU is thoughtful, intelligent and broad-minded.

During the coffee-hour, I walked up to a table devoted to promoting the human rights of various groups of marginalized peoples. I tried to be gentle: “May I ask you a provocative question?”

She smiled and answered, “Of course.”

“Do you also work against the marginalization of Christian fundamentalists?” She immediately saw the contradiction between the liberal abhorrence of fundamentalists and the embrace of just about everyone else.

“Well, we don’t promote one religion over another. That’s just not our role.”
Sensing the inadequacy of her response, she added, “Well, they try to legislate morality and force science out of the classrooms.”

“Couldn’t we bring up negative generalizations about the groups that you sponsor?”
I continued. She then bolted, stating she had some other chores to attend to. It was also time for me to leave.


I must admit that doubts had been threatening to me. The main reason for this was a misunderstanding of James’ teaching on the subject:

• James 1:5-8: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

From this, it seemed apparent that doubt was a curse, not a blessing or a friend. If we doubted, we were deemed “double-minded” and “should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.” This was terrifying and threatened to cut me off from all hope.

OK, there were many Biblical examples of people who doubted and yet received. There was doubting Thomas and the man who begged Jesus to help his unbelief. However, my favorite example were the Israelites. When they were hemmed in by the see and heard the Egyptian chariots angrily approaching, they condemned Moses for ever having brought them out of Egypt against their objections. Nevertheless, they were between a rock and a hard place and took the only reasonable option open to them – passing to safety through the Red Sea.

Not only did they receive deliverance from their God, they also received His commendation:

• Hebrews 11:29: By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

“Faith?” They more than doubted; they were almost in rebellion against God, and yet they were blessed. God had wondrously seen their faith! However, I couldn’t reconcile this with James’ criticism against doubt until much later.

James wasn’t inveighing against the passive, reluctant doubt of someone who genuinely wanted God, but against the proactive, willful doubt of someone who is “double-minded.” This term is used only one other time in Scripture:

• James 4:8-10: Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James was directing his censure against the “double-minded,” those who were “sinners” and needed to repent of their two-faced, hypocritical ways. They were arrogant in using God for their own purposes and had to “humble” themselves, “grieve, mourn and wail” and repent of their sins.

This understanding bears out the fact that God is compassionate to the weak, broken, and even those who are poor in spirit and faith.

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