Not too long ago, a family member told me in hushed sad tones that he was praying for me. I wasn't ill. I wasn't going through a tough time. No. I had simply expressed doubts about a steadfast tenet of Christian faith. Mind you, I had not said I believed my alternate supposition; I had only asked the question. It was a grave mistake, one that required fervent prayer (on the part of my family member) that God "lead me back to the faith." This kind of thing isn't unusual. Another family member has recently told me, point blank, that I can only question so long, because ultimately if I just don't believe with certainty, then I'm not living a life of faith.
In other words, at some point, the questions have to end.
For sake of my argument here, let me explain the difference between questioning and doubt. For some, asking questions is okay; you just can't go the extra step and hesitate to believe. Doubt is a serious offense. Doubt crosses the line into blasphemy and heresy. For me, however, doubt and questioning are synonymous, because if you question, it won't be too long before you're doubting what you've been told. That's just the way it works.
So, I'm going to ask you: What is the expiration date on doubt? How long can one doubt before she's stepped over the line into unfaith? And what if those tough questions are leading her down a different path than she expected? Does she continue to follow her learning, or does she throw up barriers and forbid herself to go further? After all, Jesus did say when showing his wounds to Thomas, "Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." (John 20:29)
What is the role of doubt in faith?
For what it's worth, I can tell you what I believe. I believe that doubt is the one thing that hastens social and spiritual and personal change.
Imagine: Each of us grew up with a subset of beliefs (most likely a mixture of superstitions, urban myths, and religious mandates). The fact that we fit into one spiritual (or non-spiritual) practice does not mean we believe everything that particular subset touts.
Now imagine: If you actually discussed your beliefs with someone else, you begin to see, very rapidly, that he or she doesn't believe the same things as you, at least not in the same way as you. You have a decision to make. You either burrow into your hole and insist on your rightness, or you listen and wonder, "Why does he think that?" and "What can I learn from her?"
Doubt promotes dialogue, which is always a good thing if all parties are willing to listen without proselytizing.
I was part of a book club years ago right after The Da Vinci Code came out. Someone in the group chose the book, and we agreed on it. We wanted to see what the buzz was all about. But as the month wore on, I began to hear agitation and fear in people's voices. This book was evil; it was making wild and false conjectures about Jesus marrying and having a baby. We shouldn't be reading such heresy. Danger! Danger! On the night of discussion, one of my friends actually admitted to buying it, then being convicted and throwing it into the trash.
Needless to say, if you've read the book, you'll know Dan Brown changed a great number of historical facts to benefit his book's plot. There's nothing to be afraid of. Yet. A group of my friends were so flustered and frightened by the book's allegations, they simply went back to being themselves -- blissfully ignorant and fearful of someone else's "erroneous" beliefs. I was flummoxed why none of them wanted to search for the truth.
Let's set aside the elephant in the room for a minute. I'm not talking about the actual research Brown used. I'm not talking about the book's conjectures about Jesus. I'm talking about my friends' resistance to asking a dangerous question.
Worse yet. None of those women were able to say why the book was bad. So, when their friends asked why it was a horrid read, the response was, "It just is. It says Jesus got married to Mary Magdalene and had a baby."
I'll say it again. A healthy dose of doubt contributes to change -- social, spiritual, and personal.
Example. For years, racism was preached from the pulpit, especially from Southern pulpits. Now we know better. Doubt that we were getting it right played a role.
Another example. Equality for women. Even in churches. Wow, it's taken a long time. Again, doubt that we were paying attention to the value in all human life played a role.
What's next? Same-sex marriage? What don't we "know" now, that we'll "know" 50 years from now? If we're believers, how will we reread the Bible for our time? Or can we reread it? Should we be rereading it and molding it to what we want it to say today? Was it written for our time?
I will say one thing. A lack of doubt encourages stagnant thought. If you only hear one thing all your life, how can you know where your thinking has gone awry? If you're surrounding yourself with others who believe exactly as you do, how does that help anyone? Including yourself?
If comfort is your game, then I suppose you've found it.
I, for one, want to be pulled and stretched and tested. I want the discomfort of not knowing, because it's in those tiny unknowing spaces that I feel the most alive (and connected with discovery). It's in those moments I have the best conversations -- with people from all belief systems.
I'd love to see you at the Wild Goose Festival. Would you consider coming -- to add your valuable questions -- dare I say, doubt -- to the mix?
Call me naïve, but I think we can change the world together.
Elissa Elliott is the author of Eve: A Novel, and she blogs at Living the Questions. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and daughter. She will be at the Wild Goose Festival sharing on doubt and writing.