The Sacredness of Doubt

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio

Both of my parents were converts to the LDS Church, but my father was a zealous convert. On the way to school or church or the supermarket, he quizzed my brother, sister, and I on the fundamentals of Mormonism, for which there were right and wrong answers. My dad would ask “What is the priesthood?” and we would answer “the power of God.” My dad would ask “What is faith?” and we would answer “a belief in things we can’t see but we know are true.” I didn’t really know about doubt. We never talked about it.

As I grew up, it seemed like my faith community was telling me that the goal of faith was knowing, that believing was a precursor to spiritual knowledge. When people gave their testimonies, they often claimed that they knew spiritual things “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” If I believed in something, like God or Jesus or the Book of Mormon, that was fine, but it was better to claim that I knew it.  By saying that I knew something to was true, I felt a kind of strength in that thing. The goal seemed to be to strengthen belief by becoming rigid in my beliefs, as this would protect me from doubt, which seemed to be an undoing of faith.

I had various spiritual experiences in my youth and my community taught me how to interpret them. When I prayed to God to help find a misplaced My Little Pony, and then I found the pony, that meant that God was real and loved me. When I read the Book of Mormon and felt good when I prayed about it, it meant that the Book of Mormon was divinely inspired and gave a historical record of God’s people in the Americas. I was taught to make leaps of faith based on good feelings and claiming spiritual knowledge felt powerful, so I kept doing it.

I have always been a believer and a people pleaser, and so I made leaps of faith and worked to solidify my belief into knowledge so that it would never change. It was like my budding faith was like playdough, and if I let it dry out and didn’t to re-shape my faith, then it would harden and maybe even over the course of time it would turn into stone. It seemed to me like that was the goal: faith that was as hard and as immovable as a rock. 

Part of that faith was that if I did good things and tried to be a good person, God would reward me. In my mind, I was just amassing a really big pile of divine treats. Maybe I would get them in heaven or maybe they would materialize as blessings in this life, but I wanted those treats.

Another thing that I wanted was for my mom to get better. My mother was diagnosed with a serious mental illness when I was about five. She spent most of my childhood living in a mental health facility and I missed her terribly. I just wanted my mom at home. I prayed that she would get better every morning and every night and when we blessed the food as a family at every meal. Over the course of about eight years, there were thousands of prayers said by me and my family members for my mother’s health. At church, I heard many stories from lesson manuals indicating that if I wanted something good, and asked God for that good thing, and tried to be obedient to God, I would be granted that thing.

And one day, I was told that my mother was now healthy and that she was coming home to live with us. My prayers had been answered and we were relieved. It felt like a miracle.

She came home, but she was not better. Her mental health challenges created a lot of tension in my home. Ultimately that tension grew to be too much and one day, after five years of trying to make living at home work, something happened and my mother was in the hospital. Her life was in jeopardy. All of my training in God and faith told me that because of my prayers, because of my attempts to be a good person, God would reward me by not allowing my mother die. That my faith meant there would be a different outcome. That I could cash in my divine treat stash and God would intervene.

And then she died. My childhood faith was shattered. The rigidness, the brittleness of that faith did not serve me well in the aftermath of her death, and the stress of my situation caused that faith to break. Apparently God just did not work in the way that I had been lead to believe. There was no stash of divine treats to cash in during a moment of need. I still believed in God, but I came to realize that many things I believed were not real. My believing or claiming to know something didn’t make it real. The rigidness and ferventness of my faith didn’t make things things real. I didn’t get to control God through my faith. That wasn’t how things worked and that wasn’t God’s role in my life. I had been told that believing was good and that more belief, more “knowing” was better. Believing and knowing, on their own, had not served me well. 

I believed in many things that were not true, but I had not cultivated a doubt that would reveal those beliefs as false. I grew a faith that was too willing to take big leaps of belief, but not the doubt to question whether those leaps were a good idea, would serve me well.

I now imagine that like old Loony Toons cartoons, there is an angel and a devil on each shoulder, but instead of being an angel or a devil, there is my believing self, and my doubting self. Instead of one being good and the other bad, they are both necessary, and can exist in an ongoing tension that benefits me. I have come to understand that for me, it is important to cultivate doubt while growing in faith. Where my faith once looked like strong believing and knowing and amassing certainty, my new faith looks like seeking and doubt gives me the questions to move forward with faith.

I now see doubt has having many avatars:

Doubt is the Questioner.

Doubt is the Clarifier of Faith.

Doubt is the Idea Tester.

Doubt is the Balancer of Faith.

Doubt keeps my faith malleable and allows me to adapt my faith to my life experiences.

Doubt keeps my faith flexible and helps me change the shape of my faith as my understanding of God grows and changes.

Doubt helps me to seek faith in the places where my faith can grow and develop.

When my believing self is ready to take leaps of faith, my doubting self asks if the belief I am about to jump into is worth the time and effort of my commitment.

Doubt shows me that I do not have to believe something just because someone else believes it, or someone says I should.

Doubt teaches me that my faith does not need to be rigid to be valuable.

Doubt shows me that I can’t be certain about much, but that belief is enough.

Doubt shows me that I don’t need divine treats in a big pile in heaven, but that God’s presence in my life is enough.

And because I have cultivated doubt, I can trust in my faith in God.

Doubt is Sacred

Doubt is
The fourth theological virtue
Paul never named
(After faith, hope, and charity)
Doubt is
That pusher of
Spiritual journeys
That pothole in the road
Where my foot catches
And I find myself
Nose-deep in
The mud of belief
Surprised at the messiness of faith
Surprised at the mutability of faith
Surprised that up close
I can see
What is
What isn’t
Clearer than before
But with new questions
Whose answers I must now chase,
A tricky
Holy hermit
Of a faith teacher.

An early version of this talk was given at Forward with Community, an online congregation for Latter-day Seekers sponsored by Community of Christ, on October 15, 2018.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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4 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    Beautiful, Nancy. Thank you for the powerful message.

  2. Ziff says:

    Wow, Nancy, I love this post so much! Your experience of growing up and being taught a brittle faith, as you explain it so well, is heartbreaking. I love your conclusions, though, about your believing self and your doubting self, and how they both have a role to play.

  3. Caroline says:

    I can’t even tell you how much I love this, Nancy. I’ll be returning to it over and over again.

  4. Em says:

    Nancy, I love this. I’m trying to write a talk about doubt and turned to the wisest women I know. Thank you for putting this down where I could find it. I hope you’ll forgive me borrowing heavily.

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