Faith and doubt. Seeming opposites yet unsettling bedfellows and companions. What is it about faith and doubt that so inextricably link them together? Try as we might to live without the discomfort of doubt and uncertainty, the paths of belief in something concrete always tend to come up short and leave us unfulfilled.
As I pondered these questions, I came across 'The Doubt Essential to Faith' - a talk given by scholar and author Lesley Hazleton at a TEDGlobal conference in 2013. A self proclaimed agnostic of Jewish descent, she undertook an endeavour to write a biography of Islam's holiest prophet, Muhammad.
Muhammad's revelation of doubt
What she found as she investigated Muhammad's life surprised her. What happened on the night Muhammad received the first revelation of what would become the Koran was most interesting. Instead of feeling elation, ecstasy and empowerment from receiving a visitation from Almighty God, Muhammad had only doubt, awe and fear. He felt that he could not trust what had happened, believing that perhaps he had experienced a hallucination or even been possessed by a demon. This led to a period of depression, which in turn drove him to contemplate suicide.
Hazleton points out that conservative Islamic scholars try to deny this shaky start to their faith's history. They insist that Muhammad never doubted in his calling and revelation from God, despite it being mentioned in all the earliest accounts of his life.
What's so imperfect about doubt?
Yet it is in this very doubt and fear that Hazleton finds something in Muhammad that makes him quite relatable. According to her, fear was “the only sane human response” that he could have possibly experienced to such a revelation. While Islamic theologians almost demand a certain perfection from their hero, Hazleton asks the question, “What is so imperfect about doubt?”
In studying and reflecting on Muhammad's experience, Hazleton comes to the conclusion that doubt is essential to faith. Jacob wrestled with an angel, Jesus wrestled in the desert and Muhammad wrestled with his own experience, transforming him as she says, from a modest man into a “radical advocate for social and economic justice”.
Abolish doubt and you get...?
She goes on to say, “Abolish all doubt and what you have left is not faith, but absolute heartless conviction. You are certain that you possess the truth, inevitably offered with an implied upper case T. This certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right. In short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.”
Pointing to Muslim extremists, and earlier Christian crusaders, Hazleton refers to their use of the word “Infidel” or “faithless” to describe unbelievers. The irony is not lost on her as she says, “Their absolutism is in fact the opposite of faith. In effect, they are the infidels. Like fundamentalists of all religious stripes, they have no questions, only answers. They found the perfect antidote to thought and the ideal refuge from the hard demands of real faith.”
These absolutists, as she calls them, know everything there is to know. They have all the answers and quickly shut down any questions or difference in interpretation using labels of 'infidel' or 'heresy'. Hazleton declares that this is not faith at all, only fanaticism and points out that militant extremists of all faiths are not actually adhering to the ideals of their religion at all.
“Real faith has no easy answers,” she says, “it involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. Faith goes hand in hand with doubt, in a never ending conversation with it and sometimes in conscious defiance of it.”
How do we deal with doubt?
Throwback to my years of working with young people in church and para-church ministry, and this was a bit of a kick in the guts. I recalled the number of times I had been involved in ministries and messages that encouraged kids to let go of (read: suppress) their doubts and stay strong in their faith. How many times had I acted like I knew all the answers, or even felt further along in my spiritual journey because I thought I knew more than someone else? How many debates have I had over theology, insisting that someone else accept my unwavering point of view? How many times have I myself been labelled as 'unchristian' or had my own theology labelled as heresy because I dared to look at things in scripture from a different denominational perspective?
Afraid of doubt
Why is it that we in the Church try to shut down questions that arise in our young people? We too often give dismissive, pat answers and expect everyone to toe the line and “not rock the boat”. It seems that all of us have the potential to do this, rather than enter into the ongoing struggle of wrestling with issues and ideas.
We seem to be afraid of doubt, and struggle with questions of faith. We fear that any signs that people exhibit to this effect mean they have lost their faith, lost their salvation even. But is this the case? Perhaps we have lost faith in God to draw people and even use doubt to reveal Himself to them. Franciscan father Richard Rohr says, “We come to God much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”
Perhaps we could instead trust that the God revealed through Jesus Christ surpasses all human understanding and allow more room for questions and conversation as we seek to grow in the increasing revelation of his love for us.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft