BELIEVING IN DOUBT
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I casually threw out a line which I will confess I hoped would be provocative, and it was. I was aske= d what I meant by it and this sermon is my response. It was, "In our Unitarian Universalist faith we doubt what we can and believe what we must." I knew that would be a provocative statement, and yet, logically, = it should not be. It is the very ground of the special process of Unitarian Universalism. It is in our process that we are essentially different from= most other religions, rather than in our beliefs, and this is the basis f= or it. Someone recently quoted an Episcopalian as saying to her, "We Episcopalians accept doubt, but you Unitarians encourage it." We do more than encourage it. We institutionalize it.
The reason, I believe, that the statement I made jolted some of us a bit,= is that we are taught from an early age not to question the religious answers that we are given and to feel guilty and even sinful when we do.
Believe and you will be saved, doubt and you are taking the first steps o= n the slippery slope to damnation. A new acquaintance was asking me about m= y religious sensibility not long ago, and as we parted he cautioned me worriedly about the dangers of the questioning path that he saw me to be on. "Continue with that line of questioning," he said, "and you may lose your faith. I've seen it happen." Well, I have, too, of course, but I see= that as a step forward rather than a problem. "My faith," I told him, "is= broadened and deepened rather than endangered by doubt." I don't think he= understood - I even doubt that he can - but that is what makes me a Unitarian Universalist.
I have never understood the pride that some have in their unquestioning belief, nor the guilt that others feel when doubts invade their minds. I understand intellectually, naturally, that it is an outgrowth of early childhood training, but it seems so counter-intuitive, so downright unnatural, that its continuance is a recurring shock to me. I just don't know how people do it. I am sometimes urged by evangelists of various stripes to accept some form of Pascal's wager. That is that if there is a= possibility that we are saved by belief and damned by unbelief, then it only makes sense to believe. If you are right, then you are saved, and if= you're wrong it will make no difference anyway. That argument sounds eminently reasonable, but it has two insuperable flaws. One is that it is= impossible to believe on demand. If your mind requires evidence, and the evidence offered is unconvincing, then you can't turn on belief like turning on a tap. The other is that it is a position that seems to me to lack integrity. To believe something simply for the sake of a reward or i= n fear of a punishment, even if you can do it, doesn't say a whole lot for the quality of your belief, or the disinterestedness of your acceptance o= f it. I can, however, easily understand the self-interest which could lead = to the acceptance of the wager. Even if salvation itself is not in question,= there is, I suppose, a kind of peace in giving up the quest. What I canno= t understand is the pride some have in shutting off the gifts of the mind, the guilt they feel in using them, in saying as the centurion said to Jesus, "I believe. Forgive mine unbelief." To me the emotions should be reversed. The pride should be in the ability to doubt and question, the guilt lie in giving up the quest.
In the material world of fact it has long been understood that the advancement of human knowledge cannot proceed without the use of doubt as= a tool. Unless someone had doubted, had noticed anomalies, had questioned unquestioned assumptions, we would still fear falling off the edge of our= flat earth. We could not have imagined the wonder of a universe so huge that our whole earth is an infinitesimal speck in it. We could never have= discovered the bacteria and viruses that killed so many before their cure= s were found. We could never hope for a future where cancer and AIDS will b= e cured, where food and shelter will be available for all the inhabitants o= f this small planet, where each living thing will be able to fulfill its destiny unharmed by unknowns that kill and maim. Without the restlessness= of doubt we must remain always as we are today.
Neither is it only in the world of material fact that doubt has found its= useful place. The most compelling towers of philosophical thought also us= e doubt as a tool. Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens= , and the process he used for such corruption was to teach them to question= and to doubt. The most famous doubter of our world was Henri Descartes whose "Cogito, ergo sum" was his ground of knowledge after he had doubted= all else that he could. He knew that in the search for truth the first necessity was to doubt all that one can and believe only what one must. Only then could he begin to build the structure of philosophy that influenced the enlightenment. It is only in the realm of religion that we= are exhorted to abandon our critical faculty and believe without evidence= for our belief.
Though "doubt is a valorous and necessary faith," however, it is only the= first half of the equation. Our search is not to continue searching, but = to seek what we must believe after doubting what we can. To question is not the answer. Descartes found that he must believe in his own existence. We= , too, will find that there are things we must believe, though they may differ from one individual to another. Perhaps we must believe that the evidence shows that the universe was created by a purposeful will. Perhap= s we must believe that there is no supernatural reality and all the complexities of the world can finally be explained by science. Whatever i= t is, it is what we must believe, guaranteed to us by the testing of our doubt.
The question is how we decide what those things are for each of us. Although the historical facts of the mythological stories of religion, an= d the theological notions such as a real heaven and hell are open to the sa= me rules of evidence as any other truth-claim and the same testing of doubt,= there are matters not of fact but of value, matters indeed that are the building blocks of religion, which are not subject to proof in the same sense as such questions as when the universe was born and how humanity evolved. Questions of love and justice, beauty and goodness, sin and virtue, are not the same kinds of questions as those which can be answere= d by scientific investigation. Answers to the questions of why we exist or for what rather than how we came to be or how we can continue, questions = of meaning and what makes life meaningful are indeed matters of faith rather= than of fact. We believe them, however, because we must, because we are convinced of their truth, however that conviction may come, rather than because it is in our self-interest to do so, or because we are told that they are true.
Even in these questions of faith doubt is a necessary tool. Religion is n= ot just a matter of ideals but of bringing those ideals into our real lives,= making those lives meaningful by our loyalty and courage in following the= truths in which we find we must believe. In the complexities of living, t= he rules of evidence and the virtues of doubt come into play again. We may believe in the concept of justice, not as a fact of the universe but a value to be lived, but how can it be applied in ways that make the world more just? How can we recognize it? How can we extend it? How can we live= it? Is it justice to maintain a trade embargo which brings suffering on t= he innocent to weaken and perhaps bring down a tyrant who also makes those people suffer? Perhaps it is, but the rules of evidence and the tool of doubt must be used in deciding that. We must believe in the love that passes understanding, but how do we practice that love in a world where evil still abounds and people are not always lovable, where we, indeed, a= re not always loving? It is doubt that keeps us questing onwards for the right, the inevitable answers. We can choose that virtue of doubt, while belief is compelled from us. As long as we doubt we are free to grow and change. We believe, therefore, only what we must. =
Even those beliefs that we find we must hold still remain subject to doubt's testing. Although we believe we must not close our eyes and ears = to conflicting evidence. We must remain open to doubt, to being proven mistaken. Truth, after all, is more important than our most dearly held beliefs. There is a dividend from that which is that by doubt we are kept= from the sin of self-righteousness. If we hold the value of doubt above that of belief we will never fall into the trap of believing that we are unquestionably right. We will never feel justified in imposing our belief= s on others. We will never think that those who disagree, or see matters fr= om a different point of view, are wrong beyond hope of amendment. We will be= humble in our own beliefs and respectful of those of others.
It is one of the reasons that we need our communities of faith. We need t= o be supported in our doubts as much as in our beliefs. We need other consciences against which to measure those things we hold as truth. We ne= ed other people to challenge our verities and show us other ways to believe.=
We need others to help us keep our doubts alive within us.
Free religion is necessarily established on the basis of doubt. The freed= om of conscience would not be necessary did we not doubt the matters general= ly accepted as truth in the communities in which we live. But doubt also maintains the integrity of that freedom. Without it freedom becomes licen= se to think and do what you wish. With it it becomes a free and responsible search for truth. Doubt requires that we seek out all available evidence,= whether or not it conflicts with the verities we hold. It requires that t= he evidence be carefully tested against the claims of experience and common sense. It requires that the beliefs of others be taken into account, and that no matter how convinced we are of the truth of our beliefs, they mus= t remain open enough for dissent to prove their falsity if they are false.
Because of the respect doubt owes to the beliefs of others (in case they may be right and we wrong) and because of the different beliefs that are compelled from us, there is sometimes a misunderstanding that freedom of conscience and free religion are about affirmation of diverse religious ideals. However, that is the natural consequence of the faith of doubt, n= ot the goal to be achieved. That goal is the truth and meaning that we seek = - truth and meaning established and deepened by the doubt which tests it. Instead free religion is about the integrity of belief - an integrity onl= y to be discovered in the refiner's fire of doubt.
When evangelists offer us Pascal's wager, they often say that we are justified by faith, and they are quite right, but the faith which justifi= es us is not that of blind attachment to some authority which tells us what = is true with no other evidence, but faith which acknowledges the truth which= we are compelled to believe by doubt, and established as true from the sa= me source. The guilt which we sometimes feel when we doubt, the embarrassmen= t which sometimes comes to us when we must confess that what we don't belie= ve is much clearer to us than what we do, is unjustified. Instead our feelin= g should be pride that we have sought the way of integrity, have cherished doubt as a necessary tool in our search for truth, and have this gift to give: the understanding that the way of thinking about the material world= which has revealed unnumbered truths may not be jettisoned in thinking about religious faith. The search for truth requires doubt. So does its finding. We can feel no pride in our doubtful beliefs, each one of which = is demanded from us by our own understanding. If the evidence and indication= s are consistent, we cannot withhold belief. Our doubt, however, is our gre= at pride and our great gift. The integrity of the mind and spirit, impossibl= e without the cherishing of our doubts, is our process and our hope, and th= e goal is no less than truth and meaning.