Sunday, August 02, 2009

Doubt and Faith

My wife and I saw John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" tonight - an excellent movie based on a presumably excellent play. The movie is set in a Catholic school in 1964, where a nun suspects that a priest is having an inappropriate relationship with an alter boy. It's hard to do the movie justice in this simple description - how we grow to initially hate the harsh nun and sympathize with the priest, and then grow to suspect the priest, and finally are left with doubts about the very possibility of certainty in our convictions. When it was over, my wife and I were drawn into an hour of intense conversation about faith and doubt, which I think (judging from this interview at Christianity today) is precisely what the author intended. I don't know that I recall ever seeing a move where I might fundamentally disagree with the premise, and yet am so grateful for the way the issues were raised that I want to recommend it to others.

I mention it here because honesty with my doubts has been a very real theme for this blog. So Shanley's message on one level is something I heartily appreciate. Yet I think there is also something very important missing, leaving what remains potentially insidious. Consider Shanley's article in the LA Times concerning his play:
There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time.
I know exactly what Shanley is talking about. I grew up an evangelical, with a sprinkling here and there of fundamentalism. We most certainly weren’t fundamentalists – by which I mean those who think drinking is a sin, read only the KJV, sing only old hymns, and are afraid of nearly every bit of modern culture as being from the devil. But I was raised in an evangelicalism that assumed a rather rigid inerrancy of the Bible, and thus often (though not always) insisted on things like literal six-day creationism.

There was, in this, a subtle fear. The rock of our faith was the truth of the Bible, and with it came a fear that the picture the Bible painted might not be true. A single inaccuracy, a single contradiction, and the whole thing would collapse like a house of card (or a house built foolishly on the sand). So, for instance, evolution had to be false – otherwise everything we believed in was false.

This fear and anxiety would crop up every time the evolutionary picture was shown in all of its museum or textbook confidence. A similar fear would arise when I would hear about the inner workings of the brain explaining the experience of the soul. There had to be a distinction where the spiritual things broke in and were themselves unexplainable. And so these troubling things needed to be pushed out of mind.

The mind, I think, can sense dissonance and contradiction. When logic is leading to undesired conclusions, the mind can short circuit the process and warn, “don’t go there” pretty much unconsciously. Thus we can quickly be redirected to some foundational argument which we know shows evolution to be false or the spiritual to be irreducible to matter.

I remember hearing in college about there being a genuine contradiction between the New Testament’s account of David and Abiathar vs. the Old Testament one. And I was ready with a retort and rationalization – anything that preserved the inerrancy of scripture. I’ve experienced similar (though less intense) feelings and rationalizations when coming to parts of the Bible that contradicted my own theology. The thoughts needed to be put out of mind, or a quick-fix solution needed to fit right into place.

This sort of half-conscious self-deception, I’m convinced, exists almost everywhere, in almost any context. We must have coherence and consistency, and so uncomfortable things get quickly pushed aside.

So I hope no one can accuse me of being unsympathetic to Shanley. I get it; I really do. But he seems to me to be missing something crucial. He's missing the virtue that makes all this doubt worth the effort. He's missing faith.

It may sound strange to talk of faith and doubt existing in harmony, and even mutual support. To be sure, there exists a "faith" that is exactly the kind of deceptive certainty that Shanley sees enslaving us. The certainty of self-deception is like the alcoholic who refuses to believe he has a real drinking problem, or the pornographer who insists that this is an isolated personal vice that doesn't really affect his marriage. No evidence can break through such certainty, until perhaps the consequences are so severe to force the man to accept the truth. But true faith is more like the confidence of the allied soldiers in the Japanese prison camps whose desperate clinging to the dignity of their country was literally a matter of life and death. There is a faith that sets us free - yes, free even to doubt.

I felt this desire for true faith throughout my upbringing, not least at the alter call. If a man actually wants to encounter God, he doesn’t want to content himself with a mind trick. The classic yielding of a man to the will to God – of surrendering his life’s ambitions, hopes and plans – screams against self-deception. In encountering God, he is encountering reality itself. Here things are not supposed to be comfortable. Illusions are supposed to be shattered. Huge commitments are supposed to be put aside. New doubts in past certainties are to be embraced as God's own loving intervention for the salvation of our souls.

Thus faith, rightly considered, is the solution to fearful self-deception. Faith assumes that God’s truth is greater than us, that all truth is God’s truth, and that we have nothing to fear from knowing truth. In my experience, whenever my cherished beliefs are finally challenged, I have been given something richer in its place.

Here's the irony that Shanley seems to miss. When we are advised to doubt everything, to throw off all certainty whatsoever, we are left only with paralyzing nihilism and despair. We cannot use these doubts to "renew our humanity" when that humanity itself is in question. Rather, it is when we believe, deep in the core of our being, that God is good, that his will for us is good, that there is a fundamental truth, beauty, and goodness to which all things are accountable, that we are finally free to no longer hide from our doubts. Life is full of ambiguity and inconsistency; we may embrace the full measure of our smallness and ignorance. This faith gives real courage to grab hold of these uncertainties and break out of our isolating and deceptive prisons.

Lord, increase our faith! Let all that can be shaken be shaken. Let the chaff be burned away.

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