May 31, 2009


From time to time people tell me about their worry over doubting God or some truth of the faith. I become concerned for them, not because they may be doubting, but because such anxiety easily gets in the way of using the experience of doubt well. I tend to offer these sorts of reflections to those who say they are struggling with doubt:

First of all, the human mind is a creation of God. Therefore, there can be no fear of being led away from God by the right and thoughtful use of the mind God has given us. Indeed, the mind is mysterious, spiritual, and sublime and can be thus overwhelming in its incomprehensibility, but this is only part of its imitation of the God to whom it is similar. In other words, we shouldn't be afraid to think. Opening up our minds to the Mystery may wrench some of what we thought were our beliefs, but this is not doubt or danger.

Second, we need to recognize that the truths of faith, though often expressed in simple language, are often quite subtle in their meaning, and are complex combinations of metaphorical, symbolic, sacramental, and narrative expressions. In the Creed we make utterances like, "I believe in God," or "begotten, not made." These are deceptively simple in language, but demand for their understanding at least a partial grasp of many difficult concepts, e.g. eternity, divinity, etc.

Far too often I find that people have not been helped to own a faith that goes beyond a simple intellectual assent to claims that they aren't sure how to understand. I once knew a religious sister in the prime of life who would omit the line, "is seated at the right hand of Father" when praying the Creed, because she found it unbelievable that "heaven was a place with chairs." How bad I felt for her that she had never come to the realization that the language (compare iconography here) is a window into eternity and not a discourse on furniture!*

Most of the time, in my experience, people who think they are struggling with doubt are actually being invited into a deeper relationship with the truths of the faith. They are experiencing God's invitation to give up the role of spectator--those who worship God and his Mysteries as something beautiful and praiseworthy, but without relationship to themselves--and to accept that the Truths of faith are mysteries that we are to step into with our lives.

*Here I have to mention, parenthetically, the error that is commonly made by the world when someone arrives at this spiritual moment. The world suggests the civil theology of 'many paths to one spiritual something-or-other' in which all religious language is more or less inadequate, but all of it points to something, perhaps spiritual, perhaps ultimate, that we call "God." Conveniently, this pseudo-doctrine leads to no demand on anyone and no dogmatic claims, except for the "dictatorship of relativism" in which no one is allowed to say that anything might be wrong or unacceptable.

No. Language is important, not because someone says so, but because we believe in the Incarnation. Christianity is and will always be a kind of 'scandal of particularity' because it proclaims that God is perfectly revealed in the very particular human life of Jesus of Nazareth. By his Resurrection into the Eucharistized community that we call his Body, the mystery of the Incarnation is extended through time. This is why the particular language of the successors of the apostles gathered in ecumenical council is privileged as an unfolding of our understanding of divine revelation.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

We wouldn't be human if we didn't doubt. And as you say, doubt can lead to deeper understanding. It took me a very long time to just accept that there will be things I don't understand - which doesn't take away from the truth. Faith is often belief in things that don't make rational sense, but are quite true.