Monday, October 8, 2012

Doubt Is a Road Less Travelled

         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.


  1. Thanks for this John, I love your honest voice. If often sparks ideas in me.

    I guess I had two thoughts reading this.

    1. Belief and community. We believe things within communities. Our cultural bias towards "free will" assumptions with respect to held ideas I think are quite bankrupt. We are deeply influenced by each other at levels we don't appreciate and probably don't welcome. We absorb beliefs from each other whether we realize it or not.

    Your observations about the difficulty of doubt really align with this. In your book much of your journey toward down centered around your contact with communities other than the immigrant CRC. Immigrant communities look inward to validate their ideas and the sharing of ideas creates the community and their communal validation. When we look outside it begins to dawn on us that it ain't necessarily so, it deeply impacts not just the content of our assumptions but our felt communal identity. I'm watching the TV series "Breaking Amish" and reflecting as these young people deal exactly with this dynamic in their lives.

    2. I have some doubts actually about the ontology of doubt. I certainly understand a loosening of the grip that assumptions and ideas have on one's consciousness but I think a lot of the way we talk about doubt seems to assume a kind of a measured dilution as a chemical metaphor, or perhaps the transparency slider on some app on your computer desktop. I was 100% opaque but now with doubt I'm 50% transparent...

    I think what we experience as "doubt" is more the battle ground between competing ideas, it's more the boundaries of a country where immigrants are sliding over the border. How successful was the Mexican-American war? How American is Southern CA? We use the word "doubt", but I think it's more like weighing competing ideas or looking for others. There's always content, as Muggeridge observed. pvk

  2. Good thoughts, Paul. Ironic that my job as Editor should have such a profound influence on me via the travels I embarked on. The truth is, once you see the world (and not just tourist destinations) you do begin to realize how tiny and isolated the CRC (or a hundred and one other communities) is from the larger world and its cross-currents. On the ontology of doubt you may be right. However, I wonder if you're putting too much of an intellectual cast on doubt. It definitely has the sense of battle ground of ideas. But there is is also one's own spirit. As Neal Plantinga once said, for some people, faith just doesn't get their feet to dancing. After trying long and hard, I'm owning up to not being much of a dancer. And yet (here is a bit of my Reformed roots speaking) all of life is religion--so I need to figure out what that religion is!
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. I went through four years of study at Calvin Seminary only to find that my doubts and questions had grown. At the end of my education I found that I did not have the certainty I thought I needed to complete my comprehensive exams. I have not left the CRC, but I remain a half-hearted member. I find understanding in your writing, and relief in your honesty. Thanks!

  4. My kids seem to have the imagination to try new and interesting paths through life that I could never have imagined. They travel, work for NGOs, go to interesting schools (sometimes overseas), learn new languages. When I was growing up, we just didn't think those things. My time at seminary was like that. Even though I began my struggle back then, I didn't have the imagination to try something else, turn in a new direction. In fact, that is how it was through most of my career--even as the doubts kept pressing. I'm a bit jealous when I read your story. Wonder what I would have done if I hadn't chosen to be ordained. Hope your career is more interesting and satisfying than church!

  5. John, your comments on how people react to your expressions of doubt are similar to my experience: people immediately try to "fix" me, "it must be ministry burn-out", stuff like that. It is kind of infuriating. I have learned not to let it get to me, but it has forced me into a bit of a hole. In other words, I don't talk about it. I guess I am looking for a "safe place" to talk about it. This seems to be the only one I have found so far.

  6. John,
    Thank you for your book, Not Sure, and for your willingness to let some of us who care continue to walk with you on your path via this blog.
    Your journey significantly resembles mine. I preceded you at CTS by a few years. Then graduated from Fuller when Lew Smedes was still there. I studied Tillich with your father’s nemesis Henry Stob. Pastored in the CRC for a few years. Then dropped out because my wife had enough of the hypocrisy of my preaching in light of what she knew I really believed. (She also had enough of me, but that is another story for another day) It has been 20 years since I last preached in the CRC. But I remained a member.
    I can appreciate your integrity in not wanting to be a leader in a community whose core beliefs you no longer share. You said in May that: “…if I was just another member, sitting in the pews from Sunday to Sunday, I’d probably never leave. I’d be able to keep my intellectual doubts to myself. Non-leaders have much greater latitude to have differing sentiments.”
    Trust me, it is not as easy as it may seem. Like your kids, I have seen too much, like your dad I’ve read too much, like you, I know too much, to comfortably fit in with a California CRC community where, with a few exceptions, the common denominator is ethnicity, moral conservatism, and doctrinal ignorance.
    But things get even worse when a few sincere people look to me to help them enter into a conversation about your book. Is this where I will be outed? Is this where I will have to defend not just you, but also myself against the onslaught of tribal fear and insecurity? Or could this be an opportunity to demonstrate loving kenosis, a chance to create a safe space for others to express their own doubts about anything or everything?
    You seem comfortable to do this on-line, even when assorted “anonymous’s” malign your character and intentions. I admire that. As for my little discussion group, the first meeting is tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.
    Just the other day I read a review of your book by Sabrina Moran. Apparently, she thinks you are stubbornly unwilling to submit your heart, upon which all will be much clearer. She is less precise about exactly what you, or I, are to submit our hearts to. To the truthfulness of a particular revelation? To the preferred status of some peculiar part of humanity? To a particular world and life view held by a minority of mankind? I am more inclined to see my relationship with God as one in which an anthropomorphized “ground of being” as it were “holds the entire universe in the palm of his loving hand”, and all I have to do is, as you put it, receive that gift like a child, rest in it, even while there remains a greater, more complete rest down the road. But I am not sure.
    The one question that occurred to me, as I read her otherwise kind and knowledgeable review, arose out of a comparison of her list of Biblical definitions of faith with your description of the OT Biblical record of the faith of Abraham. I wondered if perhaps you had read John Shelby Spong’s Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, and she has not. Would you answer your part of that question?
    Again, thanks for allowing us to walk along with you on this Path of Descent.
    John Van Donk CTS ex ‘78

  7. John, I have read Spong's book, although it is now some time ago. I can't say that I had it in mind when I was writing, though. I read Moran's review. Quoting great authority, she asserts that when it comes to faith, "Assent precedes understanding." In fact, I think this is, practically speaking, what happens all the time. People join churches all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with understanding, but everything to do with (often) community. They assent when they do not understand. How else can you explain Mormonism's appeal? Or Wiccan appeal? So, while people do it all the time, one might wish they wouldn't! (Of course, many would lump Christianity in with Mormonism or even Wiccan as just "weird." But that is another discussion for another day.)
    Thanks for your interesting post! Best wishes with the book study. Do let me know how it goes.

    1. Yes, I am reminded here of the Believe-Behave-Belong vs Belong-Behave-Believe argument. And I guess Spykman's hermeneutic Circle is also pertinent here, inasmuch as the folks we hang around with color our Bible reading glasses. Thanks!

    2. Our first meeting went very well. It appears that the safe place was needed and possible, as several indicated long-held doubts about any number of dogmas, traditions, and theological perspectives. It seems that this may be less a discussion of your book per se, as some sort of "Doubters Anonymous" group. Others want to join. Time will tell. I'll keep you posted

  8. FYI the mention of Path of Descent in the original manuscript was a hyperlink to Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, which I thought you might appreciate knowing about. JVD


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