Faith and Doubt
I was raised in certainty. Doubt, ambiguity and paradox were not allowed. It was all as it was. Black or white. In or out. Saved or lost. For or against. Angel or devil. Even your feelings were simple. Or at least they were supposed to be. And if your feelings weren’t simple, if you had the temerity to question anything you were told, such as the creation of the world in six days, or the mind-blowing enormity of a dead man walking from his tomb then it was your fault. You were failing. You weren’t resting on the promises by believing and trusting. You were in need of deliverance and of serious prayer. To doubt was to sin and to sin was to incur the wrath of a loving God who would see you burn in hell for asking questions.
Not that I ever did.
Small children believe what you tell them. They don’t have the capacity to decide for themselves unless the choice is between an apple or a banana. They can’t think things through or counter an argument. When I responded to the call at age five to give my heart to Jesus as an insurance against eternal damnation, I couldn’t protest, ‘I don’t like this interpretation of the Atonement. Give me another one!’
But I know now that you don’t have to believe everything you are told. You are your own person with ideas and opinions. You can make up your own mind.
This need to be certain caused a profound uneasiness in me that I just had to ignore if I was going to feel saved. So I didn’t question anything. I was good. I went to church every week, not that I had any choice. It was a given that the family went to church and as I couldn’t exactly leave home when I was in junior school, I was there on the second row twice each Sunday. I tapped out submissions on my dad’s typewriter for the children’s section of a hardcore Christian magazine, a zippy little periodical with snappy headlines such as ‘How to live without worry!’ and ‘Time to awake!’ I collected Sunday School stickers for regular attendance and stuck them in my book so I would get a prize at the end of the year. I always had a full score which was hardly surprising as I didn’t have anywhere else to go on Sundays.
Anne Lamott says, ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty’. Certainty in my book goes along with well-meaning disciples asking earnestly if you are saved and clapping vigorously in the choruses. Not forgetting the extempore prayers which the pastor ekes out for at least half an hour covering all bases from Covid-19 to Sister Brenda’s ingrowing toe-nail. There is never an invitation to question. Never an invitation to doubt.
There is a part of me that still doesn’t have anywhere else to go on Sundays. Like Doubting Thomas, I long for the reassurance of an arm around my shoulders, a comforting hug, my hand in his side. Because deep down where the sun doesn’t shine, there is something in me that believes. That feels more than a flicker of light and life and hope. It’s almost as though I lived a life of two halves – the top half with its carapace of fury, of disparagement, of dismissal; the soft underneath of yearning, of vulnerability, of reaching out to trust.
This is the part that dons cassock and surplice and sings. This is the part that drowns in the most exquisite words and harmonies and instead of encountering oblivion, finds itself more alive than it has ever felt before. This is where my stone is rolled away, where I emerge from the tomb, blinking in the sunlight to encounter resurrection, my road to Emmaus when I realise who was there all the time.
This is a bigger God who embraces doubt. One who understands the hollowness and desolation. One who knows that the anguish of separation can almost annihilate and no amount of cosy chat about prepared mansions will change anything. One who doesn’t provide answers but allows me to find my own. And never rejects anyone for believing something different.
Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh famously lost his faith. Bryan Appleyard in his blog post after interviewing him says that, ‘He is now agnostic, which, for him is acceptance of ignorance and uncertainty as the inevitable basis of the human condition. He simply laughs at the idea that the human mind can ever be capable of grasping ultimate reality. But mostly he weeps…’
I want to believe in a God who would rather see me weep with doubt than skip with a certainty which doesn’t hold. This certainty has nothing to offer at its centre, no safe space, nobody between its sureness and the cliff edge. This doubt is not a comfortable place to be either, but believing in the love of someone out of sheer terror also isn’t comfortable. Who wants a God like that?
A trusted priest-friend of mine tells me that there is a verse in Mark 11:22 where Jesus tells his disciples to ‘have faith in God.’ This, she says has been interpreted widely down the centuries as something that we have to do, whereas the original Greek reads more as an invitation for us to hold onto the faithfulness of God. It is something God does. We just hold on. And through all those years when I didn’t feel anything, any connection, any sense of belonging, any relationship because I simply could not subscribe to the version of God I was fed, I think now that I was holding on to someone, somewhere, somehow, in the darkness.
So I give thanks for St Thomas who needed proof to believe. I don’t have proof, but I do believe in a very different way to my younger searching self. And I do have faith that I may encounter a much more expansive, loving, generous and spacious God than the one who stalked my childhood.
And that is enough faith for me.