It’s the story of Thomas. Have you head it before? Doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t. Please keep reading, because I would love to discuss with you the active and essential role of doubt in our lives [feel free to comment!]. I will present to you the thought that doubt is not something to fear. That doubt faces death, suffering, pain, uncertainty. And honest doubt leads to curiosity and beautiful questions, and transformative discoveries. And doubt can even lead to a living faith.
When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.
Let me introduce you to Peter Rollins.
I had the opportunity to see him at World Café Live in Philly a couple of weeks ago. One of his books, Insurrection: to Believe Is Human, to Doubt Divine, takes a close look at the role of doubt in our daily lives, and how obsession with life after death causes great anxiety and much trouble in the world. Rollins presents an alternative theological vision—one that nurtures a faith that is not concerned with the question of life after death but rather the possibility of life before death.
Rollins is more concerned with how we act than how we believe. He writes about our Facebook Selves. Essentially, the selves that are based on what we believe. We often think that our beliefs are who we are, but Rollins argues that our true selves can be discovered not in what we think, but in how we act. And that this should prompt us to ask questions about ourselves, like:
- How do I spend my time?
- What would other people say are the most important things in my life?
Such questions, of course, can provoke some uncomfortable answers.
So let’s continue our conversation about doubt and faith with a look at the difference between anxiety and fear.
Anxiety, surely a complicated subject in psychoanalysis, is broadly connected to the idea of loss. Fear, however, is directed at some thing in the world, while anxiety expresses a feeling experienced when you lose something or fear losing it.
Doubt, then, can threaten those of us with anxiety, because doubt shows us that our present worldview doesn’t give us answers; we start to wonder if any system of belief could give us answers. What we do often then, when doubt is present, is to come up with ways to erase or at least lessen the doubt, by assigning rules to life, therefore making meaning that shields us from the destabilization.
An example: a religious person becomes obsessed with apologetics [i.e. the systematic defense of a religious doctrine like proving of the existence of God or the bodily resurrection of Jesus]. See the many, many preachers and churches that coerce you to sign “faith statements” or espouse to “core values.”
A person who becomes obsessed with apologetics will rehearse arguments, gather evidence and memorize their “elevator speech” to prove their religious point. Cognitively what is happening is that this person is trying to combat the doubt they have by constructing a wall of certainty that they can build again and again when things get uncertain or anxious.
It doesn’t have to be religious. We do this in many areas of life. Have you tried recently to talk to a family member colleague, or friends about the current state of the U.S. government? Chances are, if that person voted for the administration in office today, and you didn’t–there will be a lot of back-and-forth truth claims with evidence-called-fake-news and plenty of elevator speeches thrown in for good measure. Why? Because we suck nowadays at embracing doubt. We don’t want to even consider the possibility that things are not black and white, that we don’t have all the answers, and that insistence on certainty can lead us to totalitarianism and isolation.
But what if we don’t have to combat doubt?
What if we could embrace it?
Friends, we all face personal, religious, political, and other anxieties. In other words, to doubt is human, or as Peter Rollins would say, to believe is human, to doubt, divine.
What do you think?