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In Praise of Doubt

The second book I’ve read recently is  Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic.  Both authors are sociologists; Zijderveld holds an additional doctorate in philosophy.

There are a plethora of great thoughts in the book; however, in this small space, I’ll highlight only a few that triggered something in me.

[And if you grow bored with this post, because you have difficulty with doubt, or you’re simply not interested, at least read David Dark’s article in Relevant Magazine’s July/August 2009 issue, “Insert Soul Here: How Honesty About Your Doubt Can Save Your Life.” Hint: scroll down slightly, once you get there.  I’ve blogged previously about Dark’s book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything here and here.]

I guess Helmut Schelsky, a German sociologist coined the term “permanent reflection,” where “individuals are led to ask constantly who they are and how they should live, and a vast array of therapeutic agencies stand ready to assist them in this formidable task.  On the societal level the educational system, the media, and a multitude of (aptly named) ‘think tanks’ ask the same questions about the entire society: Who are we?  Where are we going?  Where should we be going?  It could be said, without much exaggeration, that modernity suffers from a surfeit of consciousness.  No wonder that so many modern people are nervous and on edge.”

So, I’m wondering, should we not be asking these questions?  I suppose I should be asking myself, “Am I nervous.  Am I on edge?”  I don’t think so.  Other than to wonder if my child will love me some day.

Another thing to ponder, in the area of religion.  [And I’m leading up to the very important discussion of fundamentalism and what makes it so fragile and dangerous.]

How many religious people “have the slightest knowledge of the official doctrines of their respective churches–or, for that matter, any serious interest in such doctrines”?  In every religion there are beliefs that are central, and there are beliefs that are marginal.  What makes them one or the other?

“Take a couple of, say, ten-year-old girls who live across the street from each other, play with each other, and sometimes talk about religion–usually because of some practice of one or the other.  One girl is Catholic, the other Jewish.  Perhaps the Catholic girl has heard that Jews consider themselves to be God’s chosen people.  Perhaps the Jewish girl is troubled by what someone told her–that Catholics think their church is the only one in possession of the full truth.  What stances will they take in these discussions?  Each may well take an exclusivist position–yes, this is what ‘we’ believe, and while you and I can still be friends, these differences will stand.  Alternatively, one or the other girl can be a pluralist: All roads lead to God; in the end Catholics and Jews are in the same boat of not knowing that the ultimate truth will turn out to be, and in the meantime we must be tolerant toward each other.  If they both go the pluralist route, the Catholic girl will give up the notion of the one true church, and the Jewish girl will no longer adhere to the notion of a chosen people.  Most likely, though, the two girls will end up as inclusivists: The Jewish girl will modify her previously held negative view of Jesus, without becoming a Christian; the Catholic girl will allow that truth can be found outside her church, also in Judaism, but she will continue to attend mass, pray the rosary, perhaps show great deference to the pope.  Needless to say, ten-year-old girls are greatly influenced by the adults that are significant for them–their parents, teachers, clergy–as well as by the peer groups in which they move.

“Both on the level of religious intellectuals and on the level of ordinary believers (whether ten-year-olds or adults), the inclusivist position is the most common, as noted above.  Relatively few people convert to a totally different faith from the one they were raised in.  The emotional pull of early socialization in a particular tradition is strong, and it’s usually reinforced by the continuing influence of family and friends.  Thus most people, at least in Western societies, engage in what Robert Wuthnow, an American sociologist of religion, has called “patchwork religion.”  That is, they patch together their individual religious “quilts,” with bits and pieces coming from their original tradition as well as from other traditions.”

To continue that thread, I’d be interested in knowing what someone would believe, if he or she were abandoned at birth and raised alone (I suppose that’s not quite possible with the verb “raised,” indicating some other presence!), with no outside influence?  What’s innate to us; what’s not?

Now, given the number of religious “choices” we have today, we could very easily be overwhelmed.  We discard old superstitions and prejudices.  We redefine ourselves, and it’s exhilarating.  But it comes with a new burden.  “The individual now looks back with nostalgia to the lost absolutes. The liberation that is now sought is a liberation from the burden of relativity, from the many choices of the modern condition.”

To illustrate, the authors tell a joke.  “Imagine a setting in one of the warmer states.  Two friends meet.  One says to the other, ‘You look depressed.  Why are you so down?  Are you still unemployed?’  ‘No,’ says the second friend; ‘since last week I have a new job.’  ‘So what’s the job?’  ‘Well, it’s in this orange grove.  I sit in the shade, under a tree, and the pickers bring me oranges.  I put the big ones in one basket, the little ones in another basket, and the in-between ones in a third basket.  That’s what I do all day.  I sit in the shade under the tree and I put the oranges into these baskets.’  The friend says, ‘I don’t understand.  This sounds to me like a pretty soft job.  Why does it depress you?’  The response: ‘All those decisions!’”

The joke is supposed to illustrate the question raised in the book–that of fanatics.  They, the fanatics, might say in response to someone searching for truth, “Here, surrender to the one true faith that we offer you, and you’ll find yourself at peace with yourself and the world”….“And the message isn’t lying: Fanatics are more at peace, less torn, than those who struggle daily with the challenges of relativity.  This peace, however comes with a price….a ‘false consciousness’…the pretence that what one has in fact chosen is, on the contrary, a necessity imposing itself beyond one’s own choosing….‘I didn’t choose this truth; it chose me; it imposed itself on me, and I can’t resist it.’”

Now we get to fundamentalism, which I will not define for you, I’ll only give an example, which will make it clearer.

Fundamentalism is very different from traditionalism.  The difference can be simply put: Traditionalism means that the tradition is taken for granted, fundamentalism arises when the tradition is taken for granted, fundamentalism arises when the taken-for-grantedness has been challenged or lost outright.

“An episode from the nineteenth century will serve by way of explication: Napoleon III, accompanied by the Empress Eugenie, was on a state visit to England.  Eugenie (whose earlier history was, to put it mildly, not exactly aristocratic) was taken to the opera by Queen Victoria.  Both women were quite young and regal in their demeanor.  Eugenie, the guest, went into the royal box first.  She gracefully acknowledged the applause of the public, gracefully looked behind her to her chair, and then gracefully sat down on it.  Victoria was no less graceful in her demeanor, but with one interesting difference: She didn’t look behind her–she knew that the chair would be there.  A person truly rooted in a tradition takes the “chair” for granted and can sit on it without reflection.  A fundamentalist, on the other hand, no longer assumes that the “chair” will be there; he or she must insist on its being there, and this presupposes both reflection and decision.  It follows that a traditionalist can afford to be relaxed about his or her worldview and quite tolerant toward those who don’t share it–after all, they’re poor slobs who deny the obvious.  For the fundamentalist, these others are a serious threat to hard-won certainty; they must be converted, or segregated, or in the extreme case expelled or ‘liquidated.’”

So, to compare relativization (I skipped the authors’ very detailed definition of relativism, so I’ll give it here: “the process whereby the absolute status of something is weakened or, in the extreme case, obliterated.”) and fundamentalism, we would have to say that “the relativist embraces the dynamic; the fundamentalist rejects it.”  They are two sides of a coin, let’s say.

This means that there are requirements imposed by fundamentalist groups, such as “There must be no significant communication with outsiders” or “There must be no doubt” or in religious instances, “One need not believe in order to pray; one prays in order to believe.

And here’s where we raise the question of doubt.

Sebastian Castellio, who was originally a close friend of John Calvin (of Calvinist fame), but grew weary of Calvin’s increasing fanaticism, wrote a treatise on “The Art of Doubt, Faith, Ignorance and Knowledge” in 1563.  “In it, Castellio tried to answer the multifaceted question, Which Christian doctrines ought to be subjected to doubt, which ought to be believed, which does one not have to know, and which ought one to know?  Though the treatise was wide-ranging, doubt was the issue Castellio was most interested in, in opposition to fanatics like Calvin.

“There are, he argued, many passages in the Old and the New Testaments that are hard to believe and stand open to doubt.  There are, for instance, many contradictions that open the gates of doubt.  Yet–and here Castellio engaged in a remarkably early form of modern hermeneutics–we should deal with our doubt by focusing on the main drift, the spirit of the words in the context of their coherence.  Doubt and uncertainty thus pave the road to knowledge and indubitable truth.  Now, there’s a category of people, he continued, who insist that one should not burden oneself with uncertainty, who assent uncritically to everything scripturally recorded, and who condemn without hesitation anyone who holds a different view.  Moreover, these people not only never doubt, but they can’t allow doubt to arise in the mind of someone else.  If someone continues to doubt, fervent believers don’t hesitate to call him a skeptic, as if someone who doubts anything would claim that nothing can be known or experienced with certainty.  Castellio paraphrased Ecclesiastes 3:2, saying, ‘There is a time of doubt and there is a time of faith; there is a time of knowledge and there is a time of ignorance.’

“The most interesting part of Castellio’s theory is his juxtaposition of ignorance and knowledge on the one hand, and doubt and faith on the other.  He saw ignorance as an unavoidable preparatory stage for knowledge; likewise, he saw doubt as a preparation for faith.  Moreover, and this is a remarkable dialectical step, he saw ignorance and doubt not as the totally different opposites of knowledge and faith, but as intrinsic counterparts.  This, of course, runs counter to the worldview of true believers of every day–not only in the world of religion but in that of rationalism as well.  As to the latter, Castellio seemed to foresee the rise of scientific rationalism as an inherent component of the process of modernization.”

I love it that the authors treat “scientism” as harshly as fundamentalism.  Not many would put the two in the same boat.

Continuing from the last quoted section: “And he [Castellio] certainly foresaw correctly: With the rise of the sciences in the Western world, we have witnessed the birth of what has aptly been called ‘scientism’–the often quite fanatic belief in the omnipotence of the (mainly natural) sciences and their technological applications.  It is a form of rationalism that fanatically fights all forms of alleged ignorance–but that of religion in particular.  While religious faith is defined as irrational ignorance, the rational sciences (including the social sciences, modeled after the natural sciences) are elevated to well-nigh metaphysical heights.”

So what is doubt?

“Doubt is most common and most prominent as a middle ground between religious belief and unbelief on the one hand, and knowledge and ignorance on the other.  These two opposites are, in fact, interrelated, as we just saw: Knowledge can foster unbelief, and ignorance can foster belief or faith….”

Doubt is (drumroll, please)…“a basic uncertainty that isn’t prepared to let itself be crushed by belief or unbelief, knowledge or ignorance.”

So, let’s talk about how doubt plays into faith.  For this, we’ll need to define a few terms, so we’re on the same page.

“The agnostic position is by definition a weak one.  The agnostic doesn’t radically reject what’s believed in religion, as the theist does.  Maybe he even would like to believe as the believer does, but the knowledge he’s gathered by study and experience restrains him.  Asked if he believes in or hopes for a life after death, the agnostic won’t answer as the atheist does: ‘No, of course not; my death is the absolute end of me.’  The agnostic will murmur, ‘Well, I may be in for a surprise.’  Doubt is the hallmark of the agnostic.  The believer might immediately answer that he too is confronted by doubt all the time, adding that that’s why it’s faith and not knowledge that he or she adheres to.  The difference is that the believer is plagues by doubt and searches all the time to be delivered from it, whereas doubt is endemic to the agnostic.  If not a fanatic true believer like Calvin, the believer lives with and in faith that is troubled by doubt.  If not a fanatic atheist like the quoted Darwinist, the agnostic live with and in doubt that is troubled by faith.  It’s a thin line, but an essential divide.”

Have you decided which camp you fit into?  Or at least the one in which you feel most comfortable in now?  [Because I’m hoping you don’t stay in one place too long; that means you’re not learning…]

Last but not least (because I truly cannot type in the whole book for you), I will end on a humorous note (perhaps because I fall into the doubters category):

“Compared to persons wrestling with doubt (often multiple doubts), true believers have a considerable advantage.  Doubters tend to hesitate, to deliberate.  True believers, on the other hand, don’t have to do anything but act.  They have the self-confidence of absolute conviction, and–while they may have to think about this or that tactical direction–they know which strategy is the right one because it’s determined by their absolute conviction.  Put differently: True believers not only work devotedly for whatever their cause is, they have nothing else to do.  Doubters typically have many other things to occupy them–family, job, hobbies, vices.  This is what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he said that the trouble with socialism is that it takes away all your free evenings.”

Have I given you enough to chew on for the weekend?

Might I have given you a little freedom (and permission) to doubt and still retain your faith?

Oh, glory be!

[Post image: Dark Question by svilen001 at stock.xchng]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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