Faith and Doubt: Freedom and Growth

There is a disturbing and dangerous trend among modern Christians (it appears in other faith groups as well, but I can only speak for my own religion) that pits faith and doubt against each other. It is far too common among some Christians to have a set of belief statements to which you must agree (without question) to be considered “in” or “saved.” And it isn’t just the ultra conservative denominations where this sort of thing crops up, it happens across the spectrum and I am here to assure you that your doubts and questions do not make you bad at faith.

The end result of demonizing doubt is not, in fact, more faith or protecting “Orthodoxy,” but a withering of actual faith and destruction of healthy community. As a clergy person I spend a lot of time talking to people about their faith. And right from the start I noticed that most people were afraid to admit questions or doubts to clergy. They assumed that my own faith was like a brick wall, every piece in place; solid and immoveable.

When I shared my own doubts, questions, and downright “I don’t knows” the floodgates opened. Without exception the most mature, dedicated Christians were filled with questions and doubts; but were afraid to admit to it.

What is Faith, Really?

Years ago I read a book by a woman who had converted from Buddhism to Christianity (Roman Catholicism specifically). (The book: Zen for Christians by Kim Boykin is a great read.) In it she shared a story during her conversion process. As she prepared for baptism (the Christian rite of initiation) she was paired with a nun as her spiritual director and guide. One day, overwhelmed she called the sister and told her she needed to call the whole thing off, she couldn’t be baptized.

The sister (probably used to these last minute worries) asked calmly what the issue seemed to be. Kim responded that she couldn’t say she absolutely and literally believed the whole Nicene Creed, so clearly she wasn’t a Christian. The nun breathed a sigh of relief and said something like this: my dear, I doubt the Pope believes every line of that creed every day of his life! That’s why it says: we believe. Faith isn’t about unchanging, or unquestioning belief. It is about a community that carries one another. When you don’t believe, I carry you, and when I don’t believe you carry me.

It is a lovely story, but the nun (whose name has long since been lost to my poor memory) could have just as easily asked: what do you mean believe?

Nuance, belief, and cults

One of the biggest warning signs you’ve become involved with a cult is an insistence that every member believe exactly the same things, without question or deviation. Cults and nuance do not mix. But faith thrives on nuance. A single belief statement can be interpreted many different ways by different people. They do this because of culture, history, education, or experience.

You could ask ten people if they “believe in the resurrection” and every one of them could say yes, but they all might mean something slightly different. And that, my friends, is OK. The truth is we cannot know most of what constitutes the spiritual life. We simply have no way to measure, test, or prove any of it.

And that means we must rely on history, tradition, experience, and a great deal of grace. It means that my belief is not more valid than your belief, and that our beliefs can grow and change as we grow and change. Change is normal, it is the natural state of all things (living or dead).

Freedom in Doubt

There is a certain freedom in doubt. Think about it, if doubt isn’t allowed we must be on our guard at all times. We become tight and fearful and reactive, because any glimmer of doubt or change implies the end of our faith. When we realize that doubt is a normal and healthy part of life we can let go our death grip on our beliefs and relax a little (or a lot).

I didn’t come up with this concept, but: the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is absolute certainty. As a priest I hear often from people who are worried about their faith, worried because they have doubts, questions, or because today they can’t say “yes I believe that” to everything.

I would be more worried if you believed everything your religion taught all the time (that’s brainwashing, and it’s an indication of a cult.) I would be concerned if your beliefs have not changed over your lifetime. When I was a child I blindly accepted the “common wisdom” around me that men were priests and women washed the altar linens.

God had a field day with that one, let me tell you. And so my beliefs changed as my world grew larger, more colorful, and (I believe) more Godly. Eventually that little girl who didn’t “believe” in women’s ordination was (you guessed it) ordained.

Change and growth

When I was a child I believed in the tooth fairy, and that my parents knew everything (later I thought they knew nothing). You probably have a host of beliefs from your childhood you no longer hold to be true. You’ve learned that people are finite and flawed, even as they are beautiful and wonderful. You’ve learned what a metaphor means, and a symbol.

But for some reason our religious beliefs often stay stuck in our childhood. As children we hear the stories of Noah and his ark and we accept them as “real” in the same way we accept our parent’s infallibility and Santa Claus. (This is a normal part of brain development.) We are also told stories about polar bears that talk, and unicorns. And as we grow older, for some reason, we can understand that unicorns and Santa Claus might not be factual but that their stories are no less wonderful. But Noah we’re supposed to continue to believe actually fit two of every animal on the planet into his little wooden boat.

Unshackling the Divine, and ourselves

I once heard Phyllis Tickle tell a story about faith. It went like this:

Phyllis was at a conference and between session she overheard a group of people furiously debating the virgin birth. (Whether or not Jesus was actually conceived without human sperm involved.)

And this scholar listened to these church people passionately debating for and against the literalness of that story and then in a break in the flow a young man spoke up. “You know, I don’t know if the virgin birth actually happened,” he mused, “but it seems to me that the story is so beautiful it must be true.”

Now. Neither that young man, nor Ms. Tickle were arguing that Mary literally conceived Jesus without a human father involved. (Neither are they saying that she didn’t.) That was beside his point, and I think Phyllis Tickle would have argued it doesn’t matter. What that young man had hit on was something more important. He had hit on the difference between fact and truth.

It would be hard to prove my love for my spouse as a fact. You can’t measure it, weigh it, or in any way quantify it. And yet it is emphatically true (he is awesome and adorable).

It is the tragedy of we post Enlightenment human beings that we have falsely conflated fact and truth. We have forgotten that there are deep abiding truths of human experience that don’t need facts to be expressed.

Tying Gods Hands

Unshackling faith from certainty goes beyond our modern obsession with facts. Theology is a diverse field, but early in my studies I was struck by theologians who cautioned that we (as human thinkers) must not constrain God. By that I mean, when we make theological statements we are saying things about God, what God is like or what God does or does not do.

And that is necessary if we as humans are going to wrestle with God and our relationship with God. However, we inevitably run into issues when we say that God cannot do something or must do something. And in theology there is a test, a boundary if you will that tells us our beliefs should never seek to constrain God (as that is both impossible and ridiculous.)

When we insist on certainty we tie God’s hands. We set boundaries around what can be possible as if we could fence in God. Faith and doubt dancing together acknowledge our inability to fully understand God, or our world, and give us the freedom to change and grow as our understanding does.

Making Community, not Enemies

Doubt builds community. Don’t believe me? Spend much time at all with a group of people who are entirely certain and ask them about who used to be present. You are likely to find that as beliefs changed, or questions arose, members of their community drifted away, were pushed out, or fractured into disparate groups.

Monty Python’s “splitters” joke from the Life of Brian is an all too familiar truth in our world. We start with good intentions and a common purpose, but any difference or disagreement at all makes the group split, and split, and split again into more and more niche versions of itself. The result is an echo chamber that can tolerate no difference.

Doubt on the other hand makes clear that we don’t know, not for certain. And when I am willing to admit I don’t know I can stay in community with other uncertain people. Uncertainty is part of a practice of humility. Pride insists we be right, all the time. Humility looks our humanity in the face, sees that we are flawed and limited, and admits that probably we’re wrong about at least some things.

And the ability to be wrong (without shame or fear, as a given) makes community possible. It allows us to be vulnerable with one another and vulnerability is absolutely essential for community.

Faith and doubt for a healthier you

I would not want to be without my faith, or my doubt. My faith holds up for me the moments where I brushed up against God on the days when the Divine feels absent and I seem to be alone. And my doubt makes space for me to grow, to see and experience new things and become the person God has been hoping I will be along along.

I (and you) need both. My faith would not be so strong, so healthy, so alive if it were not for the myriad of questions and doubts I have spent time with over the years. So please, do not be afraid of your doubts, do not run from your questions. The Divine who made us in Her own image made us creatures of growth and change. They gave us intellect capable of making dizzying leaps and incredible strides. Use it. Use all the gifts that you have been given as you wrestle with the universe, with your own self, with God.

Don’t sell yourself, or God short, live your faith and your doubt. Anything else is too small for your beautiful soul.

I am tired of can’t and
shouldn’t and impossible.
Throw them away, ball them up
like so much rubbish
and never look back.

Dream, and forget about why
such things cannot be, but
make your dreams bigger
than you, bigger than impossibility.

Put on God’s bifocals and
let the world become delightfully
fuzzy, and full of possibility.
When you are not so sure
of things, they can become


Image of mountains with the caption: Discover the surprise link; Faith and Doubt

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