“I have doubts. I have such doubts.” Those are the closing words of Doubt, a 2008 Academy Award-winning film starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those anguished words of doubt were spoken by Sister Aloysius, principal of a New York City parish school.
She spoke the words after accusing a priest of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student at her school. However, by the end of the movie, one suspects Sister Aloysius’s doubts went far deeper than her unproved accusations against the priest. In all likelihood, they also included doubts about her religious vocation, the Roman Catholic church and faith itself.
“I have doubts,” said Sister Aloysius, “I have such doubts.”
Sister Aloysius isn’t alone in her doubts. In recent decades, tens of millions of Americans have left their churches and other places of worship, and that trend shows no sign of abating. Instead, it’s almost certain to accelerate. Although motivations for departing organized religion are numerous, doubts about God, institutional religion and traditional beliefs are a major contributor.
Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find the early followers of Jesus struggling with doubt about the resurrection of Christ. Per the risen Lord’s command, the disciples gathered on a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus. The text says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17, emphasis added).
As one who has doubted much of my adult life, I’d like to briefly review six lessons I’ve learned about religious doubt.
Doubt is unavoidable. Every major character in the Bible struggled with doubt — including Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Thomas and Peter.
“Every major character in the Bible struggled with doubt.”
That’s also been true throughout Christian history. Most leading figures of the church, including Martin Luther and John Wesley, had moments of faith crisis. Mother Teresa, perhaps the greatest saint of modern times, felt God’s absence for decades. In a letter she wrote, “The silence (of God) is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
Nobody who believes in God escapes doubt. Instead, like the father with a sick child in Mark 9:24, we often cry out, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
Doubt is acceptable. It’s important to affirm that doubt is not the enemy of faith but part of faith. Tennyson was right when he said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.”
Even Jesus experienced doubt. While dying on the Cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his thoughtful and helpful book, Faith after Doubt, Brian McLaren, himself a doubter, said, “Let’s give one another permission to doubt.”
Doubt is necessary. The fact is, Christians need to doubt many popular beliefs.
For example, we need to doubt biblical literalism, including the idea that God condones slavery, commands genocide, oppresses women, created the world 10,000 years ago, and considers homosexuality an abomination (according to Scripture it’s also an abomination to mix fabrics and eat pork).
We need to doubt that God eternally torments people in the flames of hell for having erroneous beliefs about Jesus. We need to doubt that non-Christian believers have no hope in this life or the next. We need to doubt that America is God’s preferred nation and is capable of no wrong and that God has a preferred political party. And we need to doubt the idea that everything that happens in the world is God’s will, as if God actually wants children to get leukemia, teenagers to die in automobile accidents or global pandemics to terrorize the world.
Doubt is painful. Although doubt is common, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“If doubt is felt deeply and lingers long, it can prove overwhelmingly painful.”
If doubt is felt deeply and lingers long, it can prove overwhelmingly painful, bringing distress, disorientation and trauma. That’s especially true for people who get paid to believe.
One Sunday morning as I drove to church, I found myself singing an old Paul Simon tune called “Kathy’s Song.” In one of the verses, Paul Simon speaks about doubting everything he once held as true. As I sang the old familiar lyrics, I realized I felt exactly the same way and had for a long time, and I began to weep. Not long after that experience, I took early retirement from vocational ministry. For serious believers, doubt hurts like hell.
Doubt is survivable. Near the end of the classic film The Shawshank Redemption, the lead character, Andy Dufresne, escapes prison through a sewer line. In voice-over narration his best friend Red comments, “Andy Dufresne, the man who crawled through 500 yards of shit and came out clean the other end.”
Grappling with religious doubt can feel like crawling through a mile-long sewer pipe. But if we navigate it well, we, like Andy, can come out clean on the other end.
I cannot give you a precise prescription for traversing doubt. We all have to navigate our own journey. For example, some doubters renew their faith, others redefine it, and a few discard it. Some doubters stay in church, others take a sabbatical, and a growing number leave and never return.
For most doubters, talking with trusted friends is therapeutic. Reading about other people’s journey also can help. For me, surviving doubt meant writing reams of journal pages. But one way or another, you and I can survive — and even thrive — as we journey through doubt.
Doubt is beneficial. In my conversations with doubters, I often speak about “the benefit of the doubt.” If we let it, doubt can lead to profound insight and growth.
As already noted, it can help us discard toxic beliefs. Doubt also can help us develop a more mature and healthy faith. After doubting and discarding nonessential beliefs, we can move beyond a faith of doctrinal propositions — doctrines Jesus didn’t talk about or care about. The Golden Rule, the Great Commandment, the Sermon on the Mount and the parables have nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs. Neither do the Ten Commandments, the prophets’ call for justice or Paul’s bottom-line conclusion that “the greatest of these is love.”
“Instead of calling people to affirm creedal beliefs, Jesus calls us to live a life of love.”
Instead of calling people to affirm creedal beliefs, Jesus calls us to live a life of love. Period. Therefore, in the end, doubt’s greatest gift is that it leads us away from a faith focused on beliefs and shifts us toward a faith focused on behavior.
About two years ago, while creating the “Doubter’s Parish” website, I finally found relief from my decades-long struggle with religious angst. I’m not exactly sure how it happened. But a switch flipped, turning off the endless agony of doubts. Soon afterward I came upon a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that means a lot to me. He once said, “I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
After years of groping through the seemingly endless maze of doubt, I feel like I finally have crawled through the complexity of faith and found simplicity on the other side. I now realize I never will understand the mysteries of God, nor do I need to. Instead, I only need to follow the call of Jesus to live a life of love. It’s as simple as that. And it is enough.
Martin Thielen, a retired minister and writer, is the creator and author of www.DoubtersParish.com. Before transferring from the Southern Baptist Convention to the United Methodist Church, he served as the editor of Proclaimmagazine at the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway).