I’m a pastor who has changed denominations. And what I’ve learned along the way is that while certainty is easy, doubt is difficult.
Certainty is easy because certainty is a child of the status quo. When you go along to get along you don’t have to entertain doubts. When we believe what everyone else in our community believes we are on the path of least resistance. There are no arguments, no conflicts over values, no disagreements about priorities. Such certainty has the added benefit of not requiring self-examination.
But certainty is not merely a child of the status quo. It is also the psychic space all humans crave. No one wants to be put in “fight or flight” mode; being sure is much more relaxing. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” argues, in fact, that the brain will even make up “just so” stories to confirm biases and that it often makes quick intuitive judgments based on far too little evidence. To make matters worse, the slower, rational, deeply informed part of the brain that is supposed to keep odd beliefs and intuitions in check is usually far too slow and lazy to do so. Brains usually handle difficult or mysterious ideas by ignoring their inner complexities. No wonder Malcolm Muggeridge, a famous BBC host, once said: “The trouble with people who stop believing in God is not that they become atheists; it is rather that they believe anything."
Doubt, on the other hand, is difficult. Doubt is restless. Doubt dwells on the complexities of life, gnaws at them, and is unsettled until they reveal themselves. Doubt takes issue with the status quo, and so doubt often leads down paths less travelled. It’s lonely. When I began to doubt the things I had been taught growing up, very few people were willing to completely open themselves up to my struggle—though I thank God for the few good friends who did. But I quickly realized that when I spoke of my doubts, most people reacted by minimizing my doubts while suggesting that the issues I had with my tradition were actually not as deep as I myself thought they were.
Eventually and inevitably, I found that I couldn’t keep up doctrinal appearances without feeling hypocritical. This led to anguish and anxiety. At what point does one submit to one’s doubts? At what point do you actually say, “I can’t go along to get along anymore.” At what point does one go public, and in doing so, part paths with a community one loves?
I couldn’t dismiss my doubts. I tried to bury them. I tried to address them. I prayed about them. Along the way I remembered how my brother, who died of ALS after a short and intense struggle, used to say to me, “every morning, when I wake up, I have this terrible moment when I realize it isn’t all just a bad dream. I’m really dying of ALS.” Well, doubt isn’t nearly as tragic as ALS, but I’ve often woken up to the disappointing realization that I’m still wracked by doubt.
I do not mean to suggest that every certainty is misguided or every doubt is worth embracing. Nor am I suggesting that the certainties of conservative or evangelical Christianity ought to be doubted. I’m sure some—like Malcolm Muggeridge himself, or more famously, C.S. Lewis—have travelled the path of doubt the other way. My journey is my own.
But as I go on, I cannot shake doubt. So rather than fight it, I have decided to try to make the best of it. And as I do so, I’m encouraged by Canadian Margret Avison’s poem, “The Swimmer’s Moment.” In it Avison describes swimmers who refuse to contest “the black pit” of the whirlpool. These swimmers, says Avison, will also never find, "The mysterious, and more ample, further waters." That’s the trouble with choosing certainty over doubt.
Avison goes on to write, however, that a few swimmers “who dare the knowledge” plunge into the rapids and actually win “the silver reaches of the estuary.”
That’s what I’m shooting the rapids of doubt for. I’m not sure I’ll make that far shore. Avison points out that many don’t. But I’d love to set my heart at rest, some day. And in the meantime, for all its difficulties, the road less travelled also turns out to be a fascinating, illuminating adventure.