Friday, February 20, 2009

Doubt vs. Faith

A few weeks ago, during a quiet communion service, I listened to a homily on doubt and faith. The Deacon purported that doubt and faith were opposites, that if we have a true faith, we will never doubt. I wanted to argue with him. (That happens to me in this little chapel sometimes... it's small, intimate, and without the formality of "church," and I have to remind myself that it's a homily, not a discussion). I believe that the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt. If I am really certain, then there is no need for faith. If my faith is really true, it can withstand doubts and questions. Doubt does not weaken my faith, it strengthens it.

I didn't give his homily much more thought until this week. The four facilitators and two deacons met to discuss the first few weeks of the Bible study. During our meeting, two of the facilitators made comments suggesting that they were not encouraging the sort of discussion, questioning, and deeper thought that I was seeing in my sessions. (For example, we had a discussion last Monday about the creation stories in Genesis... how much is "fact," how much is "fiction," and in what ways do the fictions take away from or build up the facts).

The Deacon running the program, the same Deacon who gave the homily a few weeks ago, made a point of saying that we didn't want anyone leaving the Bible study questioning their faith. I'm not sure that I agree. I've spent a reasonable amount of time with this program, and I think it is, overall, a good one. But there are places where the program differs from the Catechism. Nothing schismatic or dogmatic, but just a general stretching of a definition here and there to make the overall theme of the program more easily accessible. I don't believe that questioning the premise of this program, or the tenets of the Catholic faith, calls the strength of my faith into question. I can hold the Creed deep in my heart, and still ask what each piece of it means... how it applies in my life... is it really true.

When I was 14 years old, and in eighth grade, I asked my Catholic school teacher, a former nun, how we knew that God existed. I was a quiet, studious, adult-pleasing child. I was never in trouble, and didn't make a habit of questioning authority. (Something I've outgrown in recent years... thankfully). I had attended this small school for 9 years, and was known to be a good and obedient child. My question was sincere, and I asked it expecting the same sort of intelligent and sincere response I had always received in school.

My teacher responded by scolding me. How dare I ask that question? What was I trying to do, questioning God's existence? I could just sit inside during recess and think about my misbehavior.

I was hurt, shamed. I was not used to being scolded in front of the class. But even more than that, I was confused. My question had been sincere. I had expected a real answer. If God is real, surely she... my teacher, a God-loving woman and former nun, should be able to help me understand.

I thought a lot about her response over the next few weeks and years. The only thing that made sense to my adolescent mind was that I had figured out the "secret." Her response reminded me of the response my parents had one December, when I approached them with suspicions that some elements of our family's celebration were, in fact, completely fictional. They affirmed my revelation, and then threatened me with a very sad Christmas morning if I ever shared that knowledge with my younger sisters. "They are entitled to enjoy the magic for a while longer. You better not ruin it for them."

My teacher's response was eerily similar. Her anger made no sense... unless I'd stumbled onto the "big secret." Could it be that God really didn't exist? That he was just some fiction created by adults so that kids could enjoy the "magic" of childhood? And I wasn't supposed to figure it out just yet, but I did... and what if everyone else figured it out, now that I'd asked the question? How dare I ruin it for everyone else?

I never really stopped believing in God, but I did stop trusting adults to provide me with real answers. When I walked away from my faith in college, I know that the seeds of doubt instilled by my eighth grade teacher played some (small) part.

When I came home to my faith a few years ago, I spent a lot of time in prayer, trying to figure out why and how I had left the Catholic Church. I kept coming back to that day in eighth grade. All of the doubts about the validity of the Church, the Creed, the Trinity and God collided with that memory. If a sincere question from a teenager can take down God, he mustn't be much of a God. I became really angry with this teacher. It took me a while to find peace and finally forgive her. But, in the process, I promised myself that my children will always be allowed to ask sincere questions, and I will always try to answer them honestly and sincerely.

So, as I sat at that meeting the other day, and heard fear that the Bible Study would cause people to question their faith, little red flags went up in my mind. I've spent a lot of time questioning my faith and the validity of the Church in the past few years. Every single time, my love and my awe for God has deepened. This Deacon has stated repeatedly that he hopes this Bible study will awaken a love for Sacred Scripture -- and for God -- in our parish.

If we approach the sessions fearful and discouraging of questions, how can the program serve to do anything other than introduce fear, doubt and distrust? If we believe, in the deepest parts of our hearts, that the faith we hold so dear is true, then surely we can handle any questions that may come up.

Personally, I'd be worried if people didn't ask questions.


  1. The opposite of faith is not-faith, and not-faith is different from doubt. Besides, faith is a theological virtue infused by God. I can choose to allow doubt to take control and snuff out that gift, but I can also allow it to spur me to growth. Either way, it is my choice as to how I will respond to grace.

  2. I agree with you (Jen) fully. I don't think you can have faith without doubt. It's doubt that makes me more confident about my faith. Every year I have readings that contradict or cause me to question, and in spite of these doubts I can still believe. These doubts do not and have not gone away, but I've been able to incorporate the doubts in what defines my faith.