Doubt as an enemy of faith

I searched for “doubt is” in the BYU General Conference Corpus, and this is what I came up with:

Doubt is:

  • a negative emotion related to fear (2009)
  • not a principle of the gospel (2009)
  • perhaps the beginning of his apostacy [sic] from the Church (1876)
  • removed by obedience to the doctrines of the Church (1943)
  • set at rest by the revelations (1953)
  • sometimes the very opposite of faith (1925)
  • spiritual poison that stunts eternal growth (1979)
  • swallowed up in knowledge and certainty (1924)
  • the spirit of the evil one (1873)
  • where doubt is, there faith has no power (1995)

Across the General Conference pulpit, for more than 100 years, doubt has been marginalized. As John Dehlin reminded us recently, doubt has often been connected with personal unrighteousness or some kind of desire to sin on the part of the doubter. As the snippets from conference talks above make clear, doubt and faith are often pitted against each other. We have to overcome our doubts (ideally, supplanting them with a ‘sure knowledge’ or even ‘certainty’) in order to truly exercise faith.

That is all pretty discouraging… I’ve written a lot about doubt, and I feel like my doubts are sincere–the product of honest searching and trying to reconcile my own limited experience with the things that I am taught and have learned at Church.

Problems with vilifying doubt and doubters

The overwhelmingly negative messages we receive about doubt from the institution had the effect of exacerbating the ‘crisis’ part of my faith transition. At first, I was afraid to entertain any doubt, so I ‘shelved’ a lot of issues. This probably had the effect of making the inevitable confrontation with doubt much more difficult and frightening than it might have been otherwise.

Further, the compartmentalizing of religious propositions that didn’t fit the world as I experienced it bifurcated my life into religious and secular spheres. There was the fantasy world of religion where miracles happen and divine manifestations are commonplace (which seemed entirely foreign to me), and the ‘real world’ where the normal laws of nature apply and doing ‘church stuff’ was a chore. I felt alienated and alone among a people that professed to live in a different world that seemed inaccessible to me.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but so much institutional vilification of doubt has the effect of silencing any dissenting voices (the spiral of silence). Mormons are given models of testimony (“I know X, Y, and Z”), and while it is a powerful glue for those for whom it works, it also builds tall walls against those for whom it doesn’t.

All of this is not to say that doubt is an unalloyed good. We can become consumed by doubt. T.S. Eliot says it best in his masterful reflection on doubt, Ash Wednesday:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us (emphasis mine)

To the extent that doubt paralyzes us — locks us into ‘too much’ internal discussion and explanation — and prevents us from rebuilding ‘something upon which to rejoice,’ it is a negative force. But it is not necessarily so.

Doubt is what led Joseph to the grove. Doubt motivated the rescinding of the temple/priesthood ban. The Gospels tell us that Jesus doubted: All things are possible to thee — remove this cup — why hast thou forsaken me? Doubt leads us to reevaluate and grow.

Certainty as an enemy of faith

As I’ve reflected on this topic, I’ve come to feel that certainty is at least as big a threat to faith as doubt might be.

Dieter Uchtdorf put this well when he said,

How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?

To the extent that certainty closes off questioning, it should be abandoned.

If I were to die tomorrow and find myself in some kind of afterlife, I would be surprised. But I would be shocked to discover if any of it was even approximately close to what I believe about it now.

Scientists have an expression, “All models are wrong, but some are useful (and some are more useful than others).” This is surely true of our knowledge of the divine. We can do our best to formulate a mental model of divinity and the eternal realms, but it will always be only a model.

I love the way that Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet, says this (quoted in Phyllis Barber’s beautiful 2001 Sunstone article):

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly Laughing–

The question, ‘how are you doing?’ — even when asked sincerely and not just out of habit or social obligation — can only be answered with a ‘brilliant lie.’ Given hours or days or weeks, we could not hope to really convey everything that is happening internally at any given moment. How much more so with something infinite and so far outside our experience?

Faith as something different altogether

I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions. Faith, as Joseph taught, is a principle of action. It is a confidence that helps us to move forward.

Perhaps I am alone in making the mistake of seeing faith as requiring cramming my model of the world into something that can conform to the Sunday School curriculum (any observations to the contrary be damned). One of the reasons that faith was so difficult for me was that I had my definitions all mixed up. As another blogger has helpfully pointed out, the secular and sacred meanings of terms like belief have become muddled in our post-enlightenment world.

With this new perspective, faith is on a separate plain from things like doubt, skepticism, certainty, and knowledge. Actually, the manual does a pretty good job in its discussion of faith. There is no mention of doubt, and it sticks to an action oriented definition.

An unrepentant doubter

And so I remain a doubter, but a doubter that is trying to exercise faith. Realizing that the two — faith and doubt — can (and must) coexist has made all the difference for me.


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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

One response to “Faith”

  1. Kent says :

    Very much enjoyed your article. The inability of the church to acknowledge the reality and force of doubt will continue to cause the more intellectual members to question the value of their membership. Many more shelves will continue to collapse, then perhaps the church will begin to shift its “black-and-white” doctrinal positions towards a spectrum-based perspective to accomodate the variety of views across its membership.

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