The Necessity of Doubt

By Father Robert Royer

“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” So utters the father of a demon-possessed epileptic son when confronted with the presence and the power of Christ (Mk 9:24). Notice how this father encapsulates, in this one sentence, something that we are all, in some fashion, accustomed to: the simultaneity of faith and doubt. As individuals we are accustomed to the realities of faith and doubt. We are aware, from our own lives, how doubt and faith are in a constant dance with each other, how they play off of each other and how each needs the other to exist and to grow. It is a paradox of reality that this is the case.

The New Testament and the pastoral legacy of Christian history do not shy away from this paradox. The letter to the Hebrews is a highly structured writing offering encouragement to people not to lose faith, to give into doubt, to apostasy.

Perhaps the most helpful thing to do, before we do anything else, is to understand what it is we are talking about.  First, faith is not credulity; it does not, as Karen Armstrong says, believe 20 impossible things before breakfast.  Also,it does not, as the Sunday school class answered when asked what faith is by their teacher, believe something we know to be false. As Brian McGrath Davis reminds us:

“Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”).[1]

“I Believe…”

This is a fine definition of faith. So what, then, is doubt? Most of us are intimately aware of doubt as a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction. We are used to different kinds of doubt. In a scientific paradigm, doubt is essential tool for arriving at the veracity of a hypothesis; it can assist in leading to greater surety. In a personal sense, doubt is often accompanied by fear, anxiety or metal distress because it challenges the assumptions we have about reality and how we understand that reality. (It is perhaps worth an entire reflection itself as to how the rise of a secularized scientism has actually contributed, needlessly, to some of our personal anxieties, not the least in reference to the “knowability” of the Divine.)

So what place, what function, can doubt serve the Christian? I believe that the doubt that causes the disturbance in our inmost selves, paradoxically, is intimately connected with the presence of love. Love is attachment, love is investment, love is a giving of one’s self body, mind, spirit, flesh and bone totally to another; whether that “another” is someone, something, an ideal, etc. But all of these things are the product of our interaction with the beloved.  Like it or not it is our mind, our reflection and interaction with the image we create within ourselves that makes something “real” for us.  This beloved, this construct, is the thing in which we place our faith.

When something happens to cause us to re-evaluate this “reality”, this construct of ours, it often causes us great internal anxiety because we recognize that the idea of our “beloved” needs to change. This is extremely distressing when we speak of doubt in reference to God, because our ideas, our internal constructs and formulations about God are a “reality” for us that matter dearly.

Nevertheless we are changing beings. Our lives change, our outlooks change, our values change and our priorities change. Because we are alive we are constantly adapting and changing. But because we are simultaneously in relationships with others who are also changing the dynamic of interpersonal relationship and knowability is a daunting undertaking because this means that my constructs and my “faith” in the thing that I “know” has to develop, change and grow. If it doesn’t, if I do not alter my perception to accord with the new reality, with a new revelation of who the person in front of me is, than I don’t know that person truly. Rather, I know them as they were, as I was, as I understood them to be at a given time.

We experience this adaptation constantly in our understandings of each other. Take any relationship. How will my construct – my internal picture of another – correspond to the dynamism of “knowing” a living being? I have been married for almost 17 years and my wife is the same person and yet radically different that the one whom I married 17 years ago. I have no doubt she would say the same about me. My mental image, my internal icon of her has had to be refined when needed, changed when called for. The dynamism of living persons in relationship, the difficulties of life, having children, moving, etc., has afforded me many opportunities to reflect anew upon the great depth of who she continues to reveal herself to be to me. That sort opportunity has the potential to be scary and painful (so the cliché, “Did I ever even really know that person?”) or profound in learning the depth of my beloved.

Usually these changes happen slowly in relationships, but even so, they are accompanied by feelings of anxiety. I would posit that the anxiety, the struggle that is manifested in these instances is a form of doubt. We are not used to framing it in such a way, but I think it corresponds with reality.

Thus, doubt can function as a reorientation. When doubt happens in our relation to God, It can be God’s way, his process of bringing us into a more realistic understanding of Who He Is. In every liturgy we name God as “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible” and yet we operate as people who forget the reality of those words. The ideas that we have about God, those that we receive from others, that we take for granted are always in danger of shifting and changing, but this is a needful and appropriate response as we get older, as we are challenged with new realities, and new situations in our lives. Doubt can function as a corrective to our unintended hubris that it is God we are slowly coming to know, or trying to know, and not our own ideas about God that we are trying to maintain.

Doubt is necessary, whether in continually developing interpersonal relationships, or in terms of our relation to God. Without doubt we remain in childlike naïveté, with castles built on sand. But life will bring storms and those sands will shift. Do we say there is no God because reality no longer corresponds to that simplistic construct? Or do we allow reality to deepen our awareness of God’s reality? As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing says, “you must step…stoutly but deftly, with a devout…struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”[2]

[1] Brian McGrath Davis, “Religion is Not About Belief: Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God,”  Religion Dispatches Nov 3, 2009.

[2] The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Penguin Classics. 2001. Translated by A. C. Spearing