What is the Role of Doubt in Faith, Part 2?

Continuing Thursday’s good start on reasons to doubt, we’ll offer up two more good reasons.  On Thursday, we introduced the first two reasons.  One, that it sets us upon an unpredictable journey, and two, that it means we always have more to learn.

The third thing doubt does is promote dialogue. If you can find a safe place for questioning, and people who are open-minded, the discussions are remarkably forward-thinking.  Real change comes from changed minds and changed behavior.

Several years ago, I was in a yearlong writing program with 11 other writers.  About a third of us were writing memoirs, a third were writing poetry, and a third were writing fiction.  I was most struck by a fellow memoir writer who seemed to be the kindest, most spiritual of the lot.  He was a working priest, writing his memoir about a gay relationship he’d had during his Vatican training.  As you can imagine, the memoir was full of memories and angst.  It was the first time I had to address my feelings about homosexuality.  I grew up believing it was wrong, but had never done the research.  I had always been uncomfortable with the rhetoric in Christian circles, but hadn’t known what to do about it.

After that year, I had transformed my opinion of homosexuality.  Open dialogue (and research) did it for me.

The fourth thing doubt does, if you’re having these discussions and unearthing new information, is it hastens social, spiritual, and personal change.

Not long ago, racial discrimination was being preached from the pulpit.  Women were excluded from church services (among other things).  What’s next?  What are we going to “figure out” the Bible says next?

When I wrote Eve, I had to take very real archaeological and historical evidence and meld it with a story I had held in my heart as gospel truth.  If non-Biblical and Biblical scholars believe that the list of generations in the Bible places Adam and Eve at 4000 B.C., and archaeological evidence shows civilizations long before that, I have to take that into consideration.  If common belief (at least in my tradition) has been that the earth was perfect before Adam and Eve did the unthinkable, then why is it that God, when giving them consequences for their behavior, tells Eve her pain in childbirth would increase.  Might she have had children before?  Might she have experienced pain before?

There’s an earlier creation account that reads similarly to the one in the Bible.  There are two main differences.  The Hebrew scribes made it monotheistic, and they gave it a moral.  I’ll include a portion of it for you, so you can compare.  This is from “The Creation of the World by Marduk,” Marduk being a god.

20. He formed mankind.

21. The goddess Aruru together with him…created the seed of mankind.

22. The beasts of the field and living creatures in the field he formed.

23. He created the Tigris and the Euphrates, and he set them in their place;

24. Their names he declared in goodly fashion.

25. The grass, the rush of the marsh, the reed, and the forest he created,

26. The green herb of the field he created,

27. The lands, the marshes, and the swamps;

28. The wild cow and her young, the wild calf; the ewe and her young, the lamb of the fold;

29. Plantations and forests;

30. The he-goat and the mountain-goat … him.

31. The Lord Marduk laid in a dam by the side of the sea,

32. [He …] a swamp, he made a marsh.

It reads similarly to the first account in Genesis, no?  We have to make a decision then.  Does this negate the truthfulness of the rest of Scripture, or is it just a moral story meant to teach a lesson?  Don’t breathe too easily just yet, because if you’re a card-carrying Christian, then you’ll know that one of the basic premises of the Christian faith is when Paul says, in the New Testament, that through one man sin entered the world.  He means Adam. Paul believes the story to be true.  What do we do with that?

Again, by asking these questions, we’re forcing ourselves to think differently, to think intelligently about something a lot of people just accept at face value.

My proposal is this.  We are all, by definition, agnostics, because none of us knows for sure what happened way back when.  We can surmise.  We can make educated guesses.  We can blather on and on about what we believe, but the bottom line is that we don’t know…for sure.

Now can we live in that possible discomfort?  Can we live rightly (there’s the faith part) without knowing for sure?  I think, if there is a God, he/she/it would want thinking, grappling, engaged people.

And lest you think that people who don’t believe get away with not doubting, I would like to suggest that they too also wonder about the validity of their thoughts.

Paul Claudel has a wonderful quote in his play “The Satin Slipper”:

“Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life either. . . . Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole . . . [He too] remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be. . . . Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.”  (emphasis mine)

Do you agree that it’s all right to doubt?  Is there a certain point where it becomes wrong to you?  Or do you find it invigorating, as I do?

[Post image: Candle lights by casiaplace on stock.xchng]


  1. Sylvia
    Jul 09, 2011

    Hi Elissa, I have really enjoyed reading your post on doubt. My heart and my mind are filled with doubt and unbelief. I love your quote by Paul Claudel. It is so true for me. I guess I will keep searching.and try to keep an open mind and heart for any answers to my many questions. Maybe one day we will just “know”. Love to you and your family.

    • Elissa
      Jul 09, 2011

      Yes, I think that’s what Rilke meant (see the quote on the right-hand side of my blog posts?) when he said we have to live the questions and maybe someday find ourselves experiencing the answers. Maybe.

      I’m with you, dear heart.

  2. Don Rogers
    Jul 09, 2011

    You pretty well know my story. You know how doubt has played a major role in taking me out of a conservative, fundamentalist lifestyle (of 59 years) to the position I am today. I am asking more questions than ever, doubting more “unquestionable” things, and loving every minute of the journey I have been given. It is invigorating to doubt. It is life affirming to doubt. It, as you said, is our nature. Thank you Elissa for this!

    • Elissa
      Jul 09, 2011

      Thanks, Don! I’m glad I’ve found a partner in crime. Ha, ha. You know what I mean.

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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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