Doubt as a Christian Virtue

Radical doubt underlies my experience of being Christian. At any moment – for any length of time – I am willing to let the whole practice and tradition go, to see it all as unhelpful, confused, discriminatory, superficial, distracting, unnecessary, illogical . . .

It is like an enormous wave overtaking this aspect of my experience, decimating it and strewing the pieces for miles across the landscape.

The work is to let this wave of doubt come and go of its own volition without resisting it, without trying to turn it into something that it’s not. And then, in the ruins, in whatever remains, reconstruct anew the fundamental relationship: self/other, self/Christ, self/God, self/world, et cetera.

It is not easy.

Given my structure as Homo Sapiens, my inclination is to solve problems and resist what appears to cause them. When uncertainty arises, the inclination is to do whatever possible to convert it to certainty. Doubt is the sand on which no stable residence can be constructed.

This feels rational and self-loving. After all, it is a natural aspect of being human. I am not disappointed in myself for being unwilling to live in doubt.

Yet on the other hand, doubt, too, is natural. It, too, arises as a fundament of my structure and nature. Clearly it is sometimes merited – how else do we learn? Become more loving, helpful, patient, instructive? Thus, I want to notice doubt. I want to give attention to it.

Letting doubt just happen – letting it arise naturally in my living without rushing in to change it – is what I mean by “noticing” doubt. By “giving attention”, I mean simply letting doubt have its own space by being in responsive dialogue with it. What does it feel like? What does it want? It clearly wants my attention. But why? How?

Who and what am I when I doubt?

I do not seek doubt, and yet at times it is there. I cannot kill or otherwise end it, for it always returns. While I have the capacity to respond to doubt, I am not its author. I am not its master. Like temptation, like surrender, it is given.

Of course, if doubt is natural, then it arises in concordance with Christ, the light in which all things have their existence. In the lawful order of God, that which appears is what is given and, as such, is the material in which it is also given to work out holiness and grace, and to end – if possible, to whatever degree possible – our alienation from God and Love.

Thus, rather than resistance and disdain, doubt deserves welcome and acceptance. In a sense, this suggests that Christ is that which – in addition to welcoming Christ – is that which doubts Christ. Christ inheres in doubt as well as certainty.

Thus, when I sit quietly and doubt Christ, I sit with Christ. In my nonresistance to doubt, I affirm Christ and Christ affirms me, even if – perhaps especially if – I do not experience the relief and joy such affirmation would seem to propose.

So Christ does not come and go according to my experience of doubt or of certainty; Christ is present in and as both.

This is another way of saying that Christ is beyond – transcends, perhaps (is other than) – the dichotomy of “I feel good/I feel bad.”

I am not suggesting that if we are unhappy we should double down on our unhappiness. It’s okay to come in from the rain. It’s okay to take an aspirin. It’s okay to call bullshit on somebody who’s full of shit (temporarily or otherwise). I simply observe that doubt is not antithetical to living Christianly.

When I no longer resist doubt but accept it as “also Christ,” as “Christ which does not come or go,” then an opening appears. Life widens. Doubt exposes a chasm, an abyss, one we are already toppling through in darkness. It reveals that as constituted – in our very living right now – we cannot find our way, cannot assert who “we” even are, or what “our way” might even be.

And yet, in this emptiness – in this void – we discover agape, the unconditional, impersonal, all-inclusive love which shifts our living from the narrow confines of self (that can be lost, found, and lost again) to the radiant wellspring of the collective, the whole related unto us, in which my joy and your joy are one joy, one love.

It is knowing this one love that enables us to live from it – as it – and thus embody the good news that death is conquered and only happiness and peace need attend our living. Doubt is not a failure of faith, nor a glitch in our well-being but the essence of our humanness, which forever relates us through Christ to Love itself.

6 thoughts on “Doubt as a Christian Virtue”

  1. In this world of duality doubt is what gives faith its contours. I am not sure I am expressing this well, Sean, but if we did not doubt, we would not need to lean on, trust or seek ways to strengthen our faith.

    We would Know.

    And then both doubt and faith would be rendered unnecessary.

    Anyway, my brain is somewhat clotted this morning from a restless night and this is a one-hand clapping train of thought, so I won’t try to take it any further.

    But it feels true. . .

    Cheryl

    1. Yes. The mountain and the valley are not two separate objects; the one is how the other is brought forth, and neither proceeds or sublimates or dominates the other. To the extent we perceive a value-based order, it’s just a function of how we are directing our attention. Sometimes we need to concentrate on the valley (because we’re picnicking there, say), and sometimes on the mountain (because we’re hiking there) and so it’s reasonable to give attention in a narrow way. It’s just the nature of living attentively.

      But it’s also possible to widen attention a little and see how the appearing distinctions are not dispositive and do not delineate actual objects but simply bring forth a world that is appropriate to our structure and its ongoing processual coherence. Self and world are one dance, one movement, one stillness.

      So yes, the suggestion I am making is that doubt – and its opposite faith – are just one movement and, because it pleases me and resonates for me, I am calling that one movement “Christ.” Or, more aptly, “Christ as the light in which all things, including Christ, are seen.”

      But that’s just Sean being the wordy blowhard he so often is. It could as easily be “coherence” or “Beauty” or “Balance.” And one could just as easily keep their mouth shut . . . 🙂

      Is it possible to reach some state of absolute knowledge? One that renders all distinctions (doubt/faith, black/white, one/many) null? That is a spiritual dream and ideal, certainly. ACIM posits that as an outcome of our practice.

      But how do we know the absolute even exists? It would have to be other than that-which-is-not-absolute, which would make it relative, rather than absolute. Only paradox greets us! On that view, our very structure renders the absolute impossible, save as a concept (which can only exist in contradistinction from other concepts).

      Here is how Ernst von Glasersfeld puts it:

      . . . if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and present everywhere at the same time, then He is different from all the things we encounter in the world we live in; and since our concepts are derived from living experience, we cannot capture the character of the divine in those concepts.

      I think often these days of the 9th century Irish monk John Scottus Eriugena, who said that “Man, like God, can know with absolute certainty that he is, but cannot circumscribe his nature so as to be able to say what he is.”

      If we move away from absolutes, question our desire for them, if we just lean into the distinctions we naturally create, not resisting or faking or grasping, then there is a softening – a melting, even – that allows for greater intimacy with attention and the relationships that attention instantiates. Where I think we end up then is not some theistic union or pure nondualistic beingness but rather in love itself, which does not value distinctions at all save as yet another opportunity to embrace – that is, to be – itself all over again . . .

      And: you are clear enough for me 🙂

      Love,
      Sean

      1. I want to add something to this.

        Part of what I am wondering – extending what von Glasersfeld and others say – is that “ultimates” or “absolutes” as such may be an error. They may not actually exist. And “God” as such reflects such an absolute.

        This God-as-ultimate/absolute (very much prevalent in ACIM) is a hallmark of patriarchal / capitalist / masculine / consumer culture, itself a consequence of Abrahamic monotheism. Five thousand years ago a handful of shepherds homogenized their local deities into a single male father – very much the ideal for them! The shepherd that perfectly guards his flock against any and all forms of evil, violence, danger, etc . . .

        An interesting question is: what would the alternative be? Rather than feminize God – or de-gender God – what if we step away from absolutes and ultimates, linear thinking and cause-and-effect, top-down, zero-sum altogether – and simply become comfortable with, settle in with paradox, taking and giving care without condition or qualification, messiness rather than purity and so forth?

        That is, what if we re-imagined our patriarchal God as a community of parents who share the responsibility of building and sustaining community? This is what mothers and grandmothers have always understood – that it takes a village, that it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s helpful to volunteer without being asked, that life is circular and seasonal, that love given is love received . . .

        What if the new spirituality looked like what the mothers, daughters and sisters of those shepherds lived? Rather than the male fantasy of a super-male? I think what those women might have envisioned would look like love – not a ruler, not a monarchy, nothing conditional. Just love – the ordinary selfless love that is and has always been our fundament, despite our wars and pogroms and other violent confusions and distractions.

        The One God would not be God or Goddess but simply Many, endlessly attending as Love, because there are not “my” children but “our” children. And Christ would not be an honorific denoting one special male but attention, our shared experience of attention, the light in which all that brings forth love in through and as us has its life.

        Or so I think on a lazy summer afternoon 🙂

        1. I won’t belabor the point but just came across this fragment from Gilbert Simondon. I think it speaks to a new sense of self and world that obviates our need for parent Gods – Dads or Moms – in favor of a community of equals, whose spirituality – whose holiness – is predicated on service with and for one another. Love is easy!

          The living being resolves problems, not only by adapting itself, that is to say by modifying its relation to the milieu (as a machine would do), but by modifying itself, by inventing new internal structures, by introducing itself completely into the axiomatic of vital problems.

          Ed Cohen, from whose essay “Self, Not-Self, Not Not-Self But Not Self, or
          The Knotty Paradoxes of ‘Autoimmunity’: A Genealogical Rumination” this quote comes from, writes that Simondon saw “the ‘permanent activity of individuation’ . . . as an ongoing resolution of tensions that spur the living system to forge new connections across multiple scales of being (e.g., subatomic, molecular, cellular, anatomical, psychic, collective, spiritual, and transindividual).

          More academic than is probably helpful for me, but still. A sense of the self as a communal problem-solving venture . . .

  2. Thanks, your doubt angle complements, is adding to, the confidence (lol) I have in it and its sisters, dukha and unmanageability (AA step 1). Or most recently from my non dual communities, “don’t know mind”. Like AA’s Big Book infers, not accepting/attending this primal experience/feeling produces the “world” (inside and out), all the forms of avoiding (managing!) the primal. AA says it as, “all we need take perfectly is step 1”. That after our prodigal son wandering, we still need only turn our first moves of uncomfortablity over to being the space that cares for it – not jump to *knowing* that there’s a journey that needs to end (and knowing there’s a value to knowing, like you exposed in an earlier blog!)

    May our male fantasies of a super-male spirituality be gently released by coming to doubt its fix-it (“higher”!) power. And by so admitting be able to notice the male can still – has ever been – playing in the embracing arms of love.

    1. I love the avatar!

      Yes . . . the bottom that is not the end but the beginning, the powerlessness that is creative, graceful, nurturing . . .

      For many years I thought about the prodigal son in terms of both the wandering son and the son who stays behind, the one growing fearful and regretful, the other bitter . . . but in the past few years, with my own Dad gone and my kids growing older, and somewhat under the influence of Henri Nouwen, I think more of the father, the parent, bound to let go and love and forgive without knowing the outcome, only the pure intention/attention . . .

      I love your prayer at the end, letting go of our spiritual fantasies and opening our arms to realize we are held – are lifted and spun and gathered dear – on the spiritual dance floor, beneath the radiant mirror ball of Jesus and the Buddha- ever partnered with Love 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.