I was working on a team planning team an interfaith service some years ago and we were talking about incorporating the various symbols of our religions in it somehow. The usual ones made their appearance. Then the minister of the congregational church in town
looked at me and said, “and for you, a question mark…” I swear I detected slight smirk on his face. Of course we chuckled good-naturedly.
It was – and perhaps still is – expected that we Unitarian Universalists doubt and question everything we encounter, religiously speaking. Back in the middle the last century Unitarian Universalist minister Robert T. Weston wrote these words that almost became a kind of creed in that era:
“Cherish your doubts,
for doubt is the attendant of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge;
it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned
binds us to error, for there is incompleteness an imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth;
it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no one fear for the truth,
that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is the testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid;
it is not shaken by the testing.”
This kind of typifies our Unitarian Universalist reputation of questioning everything. To my ears now, it sounds almost tyrannical. This questioning, a treasured tenet of our movement, morphed into a seeming lack of conviction. It’s been said of us UU’s that we don’t believe anything – distrust, suspicion, unbridled skepticism abounds. While these attributes are important aspects of our intellectual life, they can also be off-putting in community, limiting how we might connect with others. They can make for a rocky way in the world, with little to guide our steps but uncertainty.
Our embrace of doubt is nothing new under the sun. We Unitarians and Universalist weren’t the first and we won’t be the last group of believers to have doubt as a core component of our faith. In her book “Doubt: a History”, Jennifer Hecht highlights the history of great doubters like Socrates and Jesus, Confucius and Thomas Jefferson.
This questioning and suspicion of belief has been part of religion around the world throughout history, as well being part of great secular traditions.
“Like belief,” she writes in the introduction, “doubt takes a lot of different forms, from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.” (Doubt: a History by Jennifer Hecht; p ix)
Like many of you, I was led here, to this religious tradition, by doubt. Some, if not many, of us left other traditions and communities where doubt was discouraged, where questions were suspect and wondering about all kinds of stuff or speculating about possibilities beyond the creeds, and the beliefs, the professions of faith and the core teachings were not welcomed. I know that there are folks – here and elsewhere – who parted ways from a faith community – and perhaps even their family and friends – wearing that cloak of doubt. The habit of doubting does not go away.
If you’re a person with what might be called a “self-differentiated, healthy ego”, you will even have a realistic sense of self-doubt.We will question ourselves and wonder about the meaning of our lives and if we are on the right path. Doubt doesn’t stop when you are settled into your grown-up life or when you give up on your old religion once and for all… doubt is still here even when you’ve come upon the right place and the right community – when you’re home.
Doubt stills serves us in whatever new religious theologies or philosophies or attitudes we adopt. And that is how it should be.But I want to say for me this is a lot harder than before. It was kind of easy then to blithely give up on the unprovable things, when I thought I knew about the world and had expectations of human improvement,onward and upward. Doubt was cheap… an easy shrug if the shoulders.
But now we live in a world where doubt is strewn everywhere and it is hampering our ability to perceive truth, to have faith, to take action to assert our beliefs or claim our identities. And it is sometimes overwhelming and confusing.
There are days when I want a faith I can cling to when things get shaky.
Doubt will not bring me comfort when the news is all bad, when I am surrounded by uncertainty and unpredictability, when things feel unreliable and our situation is precarious.
Questioning everything will leave me uprooted and tossed about in the wild winds of chaos. If I give into that extreme form of doubting everything, which is a kind of disbelief,
I end up with a sort of nihilistic theology. Yet, as Hecht suggests, doubt often serves to recreate, enliven and even strengthen faith. There is, I think, in a mature belief system, a balance of faith or trust and doubt. We – I – cannot go on doubting and questioning everything…for one thing, it’s exhausting. But what, for a long-time religious liberal Unitarian Universalist, other option is there?
Another Unitarian Universalist minister Michael Schuler, drafted a slightly different take on “cherish your doubts”. He moves us from an attitude of constant testing and images of acids eating away ideas to uncover the truth, to something that we might find more tune to where we are now.It begins the same:
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth.
but then moves in a slightly different direction:
Question your convictions,
for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind
and its natural wisdom.
Suspect all certitudes,
for the world whirls on—nothing abides.
Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt, inquiry and suspicion, let a corner be reserved for trust.
For without trust there is no space
for communities to gather
or for friendships to be forged.
Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect—and reconnect—with each other. To me this says that to doubt is not simply creating a list of things I don’t believe. Rather we adopt a practice of humility as a reality-check for faith. Welcome and embrace trust.
When your beliefs are shaken, when our lives become unmoored by from all that we cherished or held to, do not despair. Do not let doubt wear away your rootedness. Trust. Maybe suspicions still lurk – maybe my faith in a human being’s ability to change will not always be lived out, but trust enough that I’ll be staying in relationship with my fellow human beings, keep faith with the community.
Allow yourself to be shaken… let doubt stir your faith, your commitments to action and strength… as the narrator says in the film “Life of Pi”, “You cannot know the strength of your faith until it has been tested.”
To doubt we may need to have faith… a faith that is resilient, supple, strong, courageous enough to go hand-in-hand with doubt and questions. That faith can be shaken, as it has been in these past months. It can be stirred, as our minds and hearts reckon with the world as we find it and the world we wish to see.
Let yourself be shaken – for here you can find that corner of trust that Schuler spoke of… that place where we reconnect with our best selves, with one another.
Let yourself to be stirred. Hand-in-hand, faith and doubt encourage us to do the work we have to do, the tasks we are given.
Courage gives us heart enough to hold that doubt and faith, to look at what we need to see, to let ourselves feel what we need to feel. This faith is not a static, dogma-bound theological system. It is a glowing coal at our center…it is a faith that says we are an active, responsive part of our communities, empowering us so that we are able to creatively affect “whatever piece of the world or community we are given…this faith allows us to believe that our presence -our presence just as we are, not some idealized version of ourselves – our very real, honest presence makes a difference, every day.
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzburg suggests that a “bright faith” can help us navigate in an unsettled world. Unitarian Universalist minister Patrick O’Neill interpreted her ideas with these words:
“Bright faith makes a claim for the great transcendent mystery of life, for each person having a place in this life, a place reserved for us from all eternity.”
How you interpret that doesn’t matter so much – you could be a theist and accept life as some kind of divine plan. Or come at this from a strictly scientific perspective and declare life is “the product of bio-chemical cosmic accident”… there is no divine plan or order to this.
O’Neill continues his definition by reminding us that “bright faith does not ask a blind leap into the abyss of ignorance, ordered by some outside authority.” Instead, this bright faith is “a small, brave, informed, inspired step across the cracks in our certainty, over the potholes of cynicism, and around the puddles of despair.”
So the faith I hold to and practice now, and the doubt I cherish and carry with me, are in that leap, that careful step across those cracks and crevices caused by my questions, by suspicion, confusion and uncertainties. A brave, perhaps small, maybe hesitant step… skirting those puddles of despair that I could easily drown in.
I am not sure how this idea of “bright faith” instead of blind faith resonates for you. But I see in it’s expectation of openness to questions, of encouragement to journey onward, as an excellent partner for doubt. As human beings we have the ability to make the world a better place… to be part of ongoing creation, of healing the world. Bringing together whatever healing energy we can muster to make the world more whole, healthy and peaceful. Too idealistic, you say? Do we doubt the verity of such a faith?
Perhaps, given the human propensity for evil or just plain laziness. Yet – there is hope. We can look to the evolution of human beings and how over thousands and thousands of years we have managed to overcome our barbaric leanings – well, some of them, anyway.
People have worked and sacrificed and even died to bring about a greater good for others – ending slavery, overthrowing dictatorships, resisting demagoguery and continuing to embrace the diversity of the human community. It’s always eight steps forward and seven back…but little by little my faith in our human possibility is renewed.
Yet these days my conviction is a little shaky. Events keep challenging my beliefs on this score. And this doubt can lead to despair…the conditions and occurrences in our world call such beliefs and hopes into question. It humbles us… we check our hubris. So maybe we can’t save the world.We may not be able to right all wrongs, end poverty, feed all the hungry, create equality, abolish racism once and for all…We are not that savior…
Yet… yet… thus shaken, doubts nearly overtaking faith, I am still here.
Stirred – beliefs and trust evolving to find a better way – the doubts serve me well.
bright faith, not blind faith. Is that something we can live with? Perhaps it is more something we cannot live without… This is the faith that helps us rise each day. And god and/or the fates willing, keep on day after day, no matter the weather both without and within.
Bright faith is doing the work we have to do, the tasks we are given. It is love – loving our families – the family we have created and the families we have chosen in our bonds of friendship and commitment. To hold such a “bright faith” is to know yourself to be -and accept that you are – a contributor and co-conspirator with the Spirit of Life and Love.
Such a faith secures us in this world… because we know all too well [most of the time] that we are not personally in control of everything that happens; that we cannot fathom senseless tragedy; we have our limits and we are mortal.
For such a strong and bright faith – a faith not unwavering but grounded and rooted, one that is supportive and nourishing – such a faith requires doubt.Yes, we will be shaken and stirred, and moved to be whole
So I’ll close with this prayer by Universalist minister Clinton Lee Scott:
Let me keep the doors of my mind open
for the possible knock of some vagrant truth.
Let me swing wide the shuttered windows of my heart
that perchance some winged messenger of love
light upon my sill.
© October 2017 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak
from Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century by Paul Rasor.
Many people come to liberal congregations to free themselves from what they often describe as the suffocating conformity of doctrine in other traditions. Yet once there, they sometimes find that the absence of a prescriptive belief system leaves them feeling adrift in the religious sea. … they want to be able to respond with joy and conviction to the perennial question, “What do you liberals believe, anyway?” And they want to be able to do this without resorting to the tired liberal litany of things they don’t believe in.
Religious liberalism often involved a willingness to affirm faith without certainty. This is not the same thing as faith without conviction. It does mean that religious liberals tend to hold faith claims with a certain tentativeness.
This is partly a result of a liberal mind-set that is always testing and second-guessing itself. It also reflects the liberal commitment to open-ended inquiry and the realization that truth is not given once for all time. This same tendency can produce personal belief systems or theologies articulated in generalized ideals, perhaps sincerely felt, but often without a deep grounding or much specific content.
Liberal theology is not for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. The liberal religious tradition is an invitation, not a mandate. It invites us to live with ambiguity
without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; to take commitment seriously but not blindly; and to be engaged in the culture without succumbing to the culture’s values.