Enlivening and Enriching Doubt
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” These well-known words of Jesus, as reported in Luke’s Gospel (17:18), are often interpreted to mean that our faith should be simple and accepting, even unquestioning—just as we imagine innocent little children believe. Yet, as any parent or teacher knows, children actually ask a lot of questions. When they do, it is often not that they doubt what they’re told, but because they want to understand more fully.
In the context of religious faith, doubt often gets a bad rap. One need only consider that personification of skepticism, “Doubting Thomas,” the apostle who would not believe that Christ had risen from the dead until he personally saw Jesus’s wounds and touched them with his own fingers.
The word “doubt” has long been part of our language. Its Latin root, dubitare, means “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion.” In Old French, doute meant “uncertainty with regard to the truth of something.” Could it be that we have too long focused on doubt’s negative aspects? If instead we considered “doubt” in its questioning guise—as in opening a path to learning—mightn’t it potentially enliven and enrich our journey in faith?
It seems to me that a more questioning posture in our world in general would benefit us in various ways. Take our news sources. We hear so much about “misinformation,” “fake news,” “Big Tech censorship,” and “media bias.” It seems naïve, if not dangerous, not to probe beyond what we’re fed so that we get a more complete picture. Surely our faith is likewise strong enough to bear sincere and honest scrutiny in our quest for knowledge.
These days it seems that certainty in anything at all is scarce, and chances are we questioners have plenty of company. As Father Flynn, the priest whose alleged misdeeds are the play’s fulcrum, declares in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
But daring to question long or rigidly held beliefs, or to express an unpopular opinion, often requires courage. In today’s world, we risk the wrath of the “cancel culture.” In 1615, the astronomer and polymath Galileo Galilei (who was a devout Catholic) paid a high price when he endorsed the Copernican theory that the earth revolved daily around the sun. Galileo’s pronouncements, based on his own scientific work, contradicted the Church’s own position. The Roman Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy and forced him to recant; he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. History, of course, has since proved Galileo correct.
Obviously, Galileo did not find religious faith and intellectual honesty mutually exclusive, a point we all might remember as we deal with our own doubt. As he wrote in a 1615 letter in his own defense, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect intended us to forgo their use.”