I’m in church. Mass will shortly be starting. I am praying, reciting the familiar words, thanking God for my life and explaining my problems. But something isn’t right. I feel I am praying to nothing, I feel an emptiness. Perhaps I have had a row with my husband or am angry at the latest homophobic outburst from some influential Christian or shocked at the latest violence afflicting the world or perhaps just having a bad day.
When Mass starts, I go through the rituals, reciting the liturgy, singing the hymns, even taking Communion. all the time infected with an emptiness that is almost physical.
I am sure most people of faith regardless of their religion or denomination will, if they are honest, admit to having experienced such emotions, both within and outwith places of worship. Doubt is not something we should be ashamed of or try to hide: it is not sinful, it is merely the reverse side of the coin of faith. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty.
Paul Tillich in “Systematic Theology” describes doubt as “…an element of faith.” Rabbi Eric H Yoffie agrees, writing in the Huffington Post to describe doubt as a “natural, healthy and ongoing part of being comfortable with God and religious observance. It is also inevitable.”
Bob Dylan expresses it graphically in one of his best religious songs, Every Grain of Sand. He writes: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea, Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.”
The song also refers to “the morals of despair”, “the weeds of yesteryear”, “the memory of decay” and “the bitter dance of loneliness”. Yet the song is ultimately one of hope: all these moments of doubt are put into context when he writes “ I can see the master’s hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand” and later: “Then onward in my journey I come to understand that every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.”
What all three appear to be saying is that we should accept doubt and avoid beating ourselves up because we sometimes question our faith. So, to take our analogy of the coin, how do we flip the coin so the Faith side is face up?
Even the briefest of internet searches brings up pages of advice on restoring and entrenching our faith, many of them from evangelical and fundamentalist sources. Much of this advice strikes me as at best being useless and at worst having the potential to damage people and their relationships with others. Often two ways of overcoming doubt are proposed: read the word of God and pray.
It is difficult to see how reading passages from scripture can help us if we take the Bible literally, as fundamentalists want us to. What is a scientist to make of the creation stories in Genesis? Or a social worker of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own son on God’s instructions? Or a war crimes tribunal of God telling Joshua to order his men to kill every living thing in the city of Jericho? Or a gay man reading in Leviticus that he should be put to death? Elsewhere I have argued that literalist interpretations of the Bible are problematic. In the context of moving on from doubt, such interpretations can be downright dangerous. For example, low self esteem, self harm and even suicide are serious issues for many LGBT people; taking some Biblical texts at face value can only make things worse.
What about prayer? Of course prayer is crucial part of the lives of people of faith. Even during periods of doubt many of us still pray, even if it is little more than reciting the liturgy. I do not dispute that prayer can help us and can have a role in moving us on from doubt. But what many fundamentalists suggest is that all we need to do is pray. If we still retain doubt, it is our own fault because we haven’t prayed hard enough or, as Joyce Meyer puts it, because we are “lazy” Christians.
There is an assumption here that prayer is a discrete activity separate from the rest of our lives. But as a Christian my whole life should be a prayer. Whenever we use our talents to help others, we are praying and we become closer to God, and in the process our doubts can become irrelevant.
Rabbi Yoffie also has something to say on this. He says that in his experience as a Rabbi what his congregation wanted “…was to help them with the concrete aspects of Jewish experience”. He ends by saying:
“They want a place of worship that embraces them, gives their lives meaning and points them in the direction of the sacred. And beyond that, questions of faith will take care of themselves.”