“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.” —Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
I belong to a small group community at Sligo SDA Church which has been meeting in one form or another for close to 40 years, as best we can determine. This version, with its present members, has been meeting together every week for well over two decades. Our name, Believers and Doubters, sometimes startles visitors until they realize that we are committed to keeping those two poles together in some kind of balance. The balance we achieve from week to week is a result of the respect and care we have for one another through all the vicissitudes of life.
One of the benefits of the group for each of us, something that we have belatedly come to consciously acknowledge, is our candor with each other about our struggles with faith. Within that circle that gathers each week we can look for honesty from each other. We can say what is on our hearts without fear of condemnation. We can also exercise the right to speak from our experience in order to suggest to each other what we’ve found that helps us trust in God. We have seen our children grow up, we’ve weathered divorces and celebrated marriages, suffered through cancer treatments, operations, and loss of loved ones and jobs. Some of our number have passed on; our numbers fluctuate from week to week as one or another of us travel or serve in other capacities at Sligo and other churches. It is both a safe haven and a spiritual laboratory where we can experiment with ideas as we study, pray, and vigorously discuss together. And many Sabbaths we have bread, fresh from the oven of one of our members, and coffee, ground to perfection and brewed onsite by our resident expert, and served in little porcelain cups.
Our method of study is to work our way through books that we select, spending as long as we wish on them. Since we rarely rush through a book, and since our discussions digress freely and cheerfully away from the main topic, we tell visitors that they don’t need to have read the book to enter into the discussion — and we’ll probably be on the same book when they return in a week or a month’s time.
The possibility that we can be both believers and doubters simultaneously is liberating. We’ve recognized that as much as we doubt we also believe, and that our belief is never wholly undermined by our doubt. We see doubt as the handmaiden of faith, and while we may not always conclude matters from week to week, we know that we have time. In the midst of doubt we live in hope.
As a practical matter of faith it matters how we regard our faith, and doubt is not a trivial matter when it comes to faith.
We regard doubt not as corrosive to faith but as a means of exploration on the way to faith. What do we gain in using doubt as a method in theology? The possibilities of imagination, the freedom to explore and inhabit Scripture, the need to expand our limits on how we think about God. To doubt our own platitudes, even to doubt our own unbelief and doubts, is a good thing. Some days we are not authentically doubtful; some days we are just tired, slow, and cranky.
I think we’ve discovered that there are two ways we can throttle hope and shut down enlivening discussion. One is through cynicism, the worm in the apple of a faith-filled community. All of us have experiences in which the church let us down, perhaps even burned us, because like all institutions the church cannot live up to its own ideals. But cynicism, as someone has said, is dumping your toxic hopelessness into the lives of other people. Maya Angelou reminds us that “A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” A healthy doubt is something we take ownership of, admit it freely, and don’t let it out of our sight.
The other way we can snuff out hope and imagination is through dogmatism. If cynicism is the certainty that there is no meaning, then dogmatism is the certainty that meaning doesn’t matter. Dogmatism, especially in theological matters, is a “might makes right” argument for religious authoritarianism. By reducing faith to uniformity of assent dogmatism closes off the possibility of new life, “present truth,” and new understanding springing up.
The more we Believers and Doubters experience together our uncertainty, doubt, and contingency in spiritual faith, the more emotively real the connection seems between Jesus and ourselves. This is both puzzling and reassuring. Like Parker Palmer and Thomas Merton, two guides we have walked with, our lives are lived in the belly of a paradox: the deeper we live into the resurrection of Christ the lighter and clearer our faith becomes. I imagine that faith to be stripped down to the core, as supple and as innocent as it can be despite my six decades of it being dragged through the mud, drenched in despair, desiccated in rationalism, and twisted and stretched between personal faith and corporate conformity. Now it is light enough for me to leap.
In the spirit of the epigram at the beginning of this essay, and in gratitude to the author, Christian Wiman, of the book we are presently immersed in, My Bright Abyss, I will close with his quote:
“Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments.”
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.
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