Faith Lives in Honest Doubt ()Guest Minister, March 6, 2011
Part of the Misc. series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
The Rev. Judy Welles©
I’m one of those dinosaurs who grew up before there was much to watch on television, so my brothers and I used to play games a lot — “Sardines” or “Capture the Flag” on summer nights with the other neighborhood kids, board games and card games when we were staying indoors. A favorite card game of mine was “I Doubt It,” because it was the only game I knew of where everyone was encouraged to cheat and tell lies. Cheating was one of the acceptable ways to win the game. And doubting what someone else said, catching them in the act of cheating, was the other way you could win the game.
This is the first experience I can remember where it was not only acceptable to cheat, but expected and encouraged as good policy to assert my doubts. However, as I look back on my Unitarian childhood from the perspective of deeper understanding, I see that doubt actually played a significant role in my religious education as a child.
My religious background was one which made generous allowances for doubt as a legitimate approach to understanding and belief. In my church life, I was exposed to a model of thinking which kept cynicism in check while encouraging the kind of critical thinking — an unwillingness to suspend disbelief — that might bring me to an acceptable expression of my faith. I’ve always been extremely grateful for my upbringing in the Unitarian church which gave me permission to doubt while acknowledging my rightful place as a doubter in religious community.
The encouragement of doubt is still a valid and valued element of the religious education experience we offer to our children. In fact, this is a significant part of the ongoing disagreement between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Boy Scouts of America. Part of the Boy Scout oath asks the Scout to swear to do his duty to God and his country; another part states that “a Scout is reverent toward God.” Both of these phrases imply a belief in God, which you really can’t automatically assume about a UU boy (or many other boys that age either). One of the reasons that we haven’t been able to come to a meeting of the minds with the Boy Scouts, whose top leadership is heavily dominated by Mormons and Christian fundamentalists, is our insistence that our youth can doubt the existence of God and still be good UU kids with strong ethics and a valid spiritual understanding of their relationship to the world and whatever lies beyond it. It’s a fundamental part of our religion and our religious teachings to allow plenty of space for wondering, questioning, and doubt — and at no time in life is this more important than in adolescence.
Of course, the encouragement of doubt is not limited to our kids. It’s probably why many of you are here as well. In the congregation I serve back in Pennsylvania, my husband and I often hear that people left the churches of their childhood because, as kids, they asked too many questions which either went unanswered, were answered unsatisfactorily, or they were told in no uncertain terms that such questions were not permissible.
Others tell us about more recent experiences as adults in church, where they realized that asking questions or challenging the teachings simply wasn’t acceptable. The choices they were given in these churches were to keep their doubts to themselves or to leave. Fortunately they found the Unitarian Universalists and learned that there is a church which encourages you to cherish your doubts, to ask the hard questions and keep on asking them, and to refine and change the questions as your faith develops or changes.
Because this is the heart of the matter: doubt and faith go hand in hand. They live in the same apartment building. Their mothers are cousins. Or, in the words of Paul Tillich, “doubt is always present as an element in the structure of faith.”
So let’s go back to the Tillich essay and unpack it a bit, to try to get at what this twentieth century theologian had to say about the matter of faith and doubt. You may recall his claim at the beginning that faith is the state of ultimate concern. It is not a statement of factual belief, but rather a state of being in which one acknowledges what is of ultimate concern to oneself. This could be faith in God, or in the nation, or faith in any number of intangible but powerful entities. Whatever it is, faith promises total fulfillment and demands total surrender.
He says that an act of faith is an act of a finite being — that is, a human being whose lifespan is finite, who knows that he or she will die — who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. So it’s a matter of a relationship, the relationship between the person and what that person experiences as the ultimate. “The infinite passion,” he writes, “is the passion for the infinite.” The human heart seeks the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest. In the infinite it sees its own fulfillment.
Yet because the experience of faith is received by a finite being — a person with all his or her human limitations — there will always be an element of uncertainty in faith. That’s because there is this imbalance between the finite and the infinite: the finite person is grasped by the infinite, and the infinite works beyond the limitations of the finite, so the outcome can never be known by the finite person. That’s where the uncertainty comes from, that inability to know for absolutely sure what the outcome will be. So we have uncertainty even in the midst of our faith. Being aware of the uncertainty, we are also aware that there is risk involved, and we face that uncertainty, that risk, with courage. In this case, courage means affirming oneself in spite of all that we know about our own finitude, our own limitations.
The aspect of faith which allows us to accept uncertainty is courage. So we must embrace our doubts, explore them with honesty and integrity and a dash of courage. One of our responsibilities to one another in religious community is encouragement — which, of course, literally means giving courage to one another. Affirming one another in our individual searches is stated expressly as one of the underlying principles of Unitarian Universalism: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
When you have faith in something, you put the whole meaning of your life into it, you base all your actions on it. This is what Tillich means by ultimate concern. When you have faith, you have posited the meaning of your life in that faith. If you are wrong then the very meaning of your life is threatened. But you cannot be sure your faith stance is the true meaning of your life. You doubt it. Your faith can overcome that doubt, you continue to vest your faith, but doubt always remains.
As an example, I may believe that God exists. But if I haven’t vested my faith in God, it really doesn’t matter whether or not God exists. Without vesting my faith, it would be like believing that this pulpit exists, and then someone waking me up from a dream and seeing that the pulpit is not in front of me, even though I had believed it was when I was dreaming. No big deal; it really doesn’t matter. I wake up from the dream and life goes on. Belief in God can be like this. But if faith in God were my ultimate concern, if I based my life and all my actions on faith in God — and then I found out it was all a fraud, the meaning of my very life would be threatened.
There is nothing that can be done about this existential doubt. Everything we have invested our lives in, everything we put value in, everything we think worthwhile could be a huge hoax. And yet people do manage to have faith, to have ultimate concerns, to vest their lives with meaning despite their doubts. People of faith understand that anything solid casts a shadow. They always have. So let’s turn to one source of stories about people’s religious experiences to see how this theory can be applied to real life, or at least to people who might have lived and had something like this happen to them.
One of these stories is from the Biblical Gospel of Mark. It tells of a desperate father who brings his epileptic son to Jesus to be cured. The father pleads with Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus says to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” And immediately the father of the child cries out “I believe; help my unbelief!”
This is a classic statement of faith as Tillich has described it. The father does believe; he is a faith-filled follower of Jesus who believes his teachings, believes in the God that Jesus describes, and believes that Jesus can cast out the evil spirit from his son. “I believe!” he cries out immediately, when told that it is his own faith that will cure his son. But wait… what if his belief isn’t strong enough? What if he doesn’t believe quite enough, what if those nagging existential doubts that he constantly lives with are right? “Help my unbelief!” he pleads with Jesus. “Let my faith be stronger than my doubt. Give me courage.” Surely we all can identify with this desperate father who wants to believe, and who does believe, but who struggles with doubt in the face of such suffering by his son. Who wouldn’t doubt, seeing someone he loved so terribly afflicted? It’s such a human story.
Another story that fits here is the story of Thomas — Doubting Thomas — that is told in the Gospel of John. Thomas was one of the twelve disciples, but in John’s version of the story Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them in a locked room on the evening of the day that Mary Magdalene found the stone rolled away from the tomb. The disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” However, he didn’t disappear, he didn’t sink into cynicism or despair. He remained faithful to his quest for knowledge and understanding, and he returned the following week to the same house where the disciples met again. This time Jesus appeared and stood among them, and said to Thomas “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas did so, crying out “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas is certainly not indifferent when it comes to religious questions. He is one of the inner circle, the Twelve, the small group of Jews who have followed Jesus and listened to him and tried to live the life he showed them. Thomas took all of this very seriously. He has dedicated his life to a worthwhile cause; he is trying to walk the talk. He has given his heart to something, he has found that ultimate concern that has gripped him and changed his life. How could he not be devastated when the one whom he followed and gave his heart to was brutally murdered by the Romans? It’s no wonder he didn’t show up right away that evening when the other disciples met to grieve together.
Why tell the story this way? Why on a Sunday? Why a week later? Why in the community of believers? Because this story was written 70 to 90 years after the events took place, and Thomas’s experience mirrors that of the early Christians for whom the story was written. They were the people who met each week, who wanted to experience the fact of the resurrection in their lives, but knew that they had only each other to go on because they hadn’t seen the events for themselves. Those are the ones, after all, who the author was addressing when he put the words into Jesus’ mouth “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Doubting Thomas might be the patron saint for Unitarian Universalists if we had such a thing, and this is why: He was not satisfied with other people’s accounts. He wanted to know by experience. He wanted his religion to be his own. He wanted to touch the truth for himself, and until then, maybe even in spite of himself, he said he would not believe. In this way Thomas approached religion critically. He was not simply an unbeliever who turned away from possibility; he was a searcher who valued his doubts until his own experience overcame them. He remained in religious community, he came to worship and brought his doubts with him and allowed the community to encourage him until he found something that he truly could believe for himself.
Now doubt can be a problem both for liberals and for fundamentalists, but for different reasons. There are many aspects to fundamentalism which help to describe it and to describe how fundamentalists think. One of these is that fundamentalists tend to be absolutists; they adhere strictly to a dualistic world view which divides the world clearly and cleanly into Good versus Evil, God’s world versus Satan’s, and so forth. In the world of the fundamentalists, there is no room for doubt, because doubt lingers somewhere in between the polarities, nagging and questioning. (One Christian source I read referred to doubt as “the ants in the pants of faith.”) The fundamentalists don’t want to acknowledge the possibility that what they have given their lives to might be a huge hoax. If you see the world as a polarity of right and wrong, with nothing in between, then there is no place on a continuum for doubt.
Liberals, on the other hand, often find themselves embracing both ends of a paradox. One of the definitions of a liberal is that it’s someone who can hold two conflicting views at the same time. And liberals often find themselves reluctant to give over their lives to anything which will make such ultimate demands on them. We aren’t so uncomfortable with doubt — doubt is familiar territory for many of us — but faith? Have faith in something of ultimate concern? Allow myself to be grasped by something infinite, something on which I will base all of my actions, something in which I will vest the very meaning of my life? Allow myself to be changed? That’s really big.
And this is a place where I think sometimes that we are not served well by our liberalism, because it can make it too easy for us not to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into living a faithful, a faith-filled life. We say that each of us must work out for ourselves what our beliefs are, what our faith stance is. No one here is going to tell you what to believe; you have to come to that understanding for yourself, based on your life experience, your understanding of the way life works, your exemplars, your ethics, and your interpretation of the stories you hear about other people’s faith, like the ones I’ve just told you.
It’s a very appealing construct for people who value independence and critical thinking, but let’s face it — it’s also appealing to people who just might be a little theologically lazy. Because there isn’t any test, there’s no recitation of a creed or memorization of a catechism, there’s no higher authority than our own conscience to force us into coming up with a statement of faith. No one here is going to coerce anyone else to identify our ultimate concern or explain how it promises absolute fulfillment to us or determines the basis of our actions in the world.
But if it works — if people really do grapple with questions of faith like the father who despairs over his son’s illness, if they do keep coming back into the community of seekers until they can finally touch their faith with their own hands — then they will have something. Then they will have developed the courage and the wisdom to cope with whatever existential doubt accompanies their faith. Their faith will be strong despite their doubts. No, their faith will be strong because of their doubts.
This is the promise that we make here. We offer courage — encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We give each other plenty of space in which to entertain our doubts, to let them camp out in our living room and ask their unrelenting questions. Remember, faith lives in this building, too. We won’t tell you what to put your faith in, but we hope that you will put it in something much bigger than your finite self. You don’t have to believe in God or in miraculous healing or the resurrection or Jesus; you don’t even have to believe in Paul Tillich! But please find something ultimate that will grasp you and change you, that offers you fulfillment if you will shape your life after it.
You can do this. I know you can. But…will you?
It’s up to you.
 Mark 9: 22-24
 John 20: 24-29
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