“I have my certainty,” a Catholic school principal says in the 2008 film Doubt, defending her campaign against a priest she believes is molesting a student. Based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, Doubt is set in the Bronx in 1964, decades before the Roman Catholic Church would be rocked by revelations of child sex abuse by priests. It is a measure of the film’s brilliance that we never know whether the principal, Sister Aloysius, is the hero or the villain of the piece. Is she a brave woman battling a patriarchal church and an old-boy network of abusers and enablers? Or is she a blue-nosed martinet, punishing Father Flynn for working toward a more welcoming church?
Either way, she was ahead of her time. More and more of us these days have our certainty: personal, religious, political. I have mine, God knows; chances are you do, too. Certainty is an emotion for our times. It is economical. Cocktail-napkin concise. Time-saving, even: tailor-made for short attention spans and 140-character missives. Best of all, it can be dressed up as one’s personal truth to render it bulletproof. Note that Sister Aloysius doesn’t say “I feel certain,” but “I have my certainty.” Or, as we would say today, “I have my truth.” What is doubt, on the other hand, but a mealy-mouthed pulling of one’s punches, a time-sucking luxury like nuance and long-form writing? So 20th century!
Unshakable and not reliant on facts, certainty in the 21st century looks a lot like something else, especially in its more bizarre and destructive forms. Call it “unreasonable doubt.” Often framed as healthy skepticism, it presents as an inability to trust anyone and anything outside of one’s immediate experience, belief system and “community,” though that community is more apt to be virtual than actual. The broadly shared assumptions that fueled our success as a nation, and that gave us the social capital to face our challenges, however imperfectly and incompletely, have given way to millions of individual “truths,” none more credible or deserving than any other. Nor is this cynicism confined to our country. “How do you know what’s really happening in Ukraine—what’s real and what’s fake?” I have heard first- and second-hand from two young people, one in Europe, the other in the U.S., using almost identical words. “Everybody lies,” added the one in Europe.
We’d all do well to remember the adage about truth in wartime. But the comments I heard from different sides of the globe represent a corrosive type of unbelief. Strange as it is to say, I believe the antidote to toxic suspicion is more doubt, not less, albeit doubt of a certain kind. Call it “reasonable doubt.” As Episcopalians, we have a certain comfort level with this idea, given that reason is one leg, along with scripture and tradition, of the famous three-legged stool that grounds our faith. And what is reason if not the application of our God-given intellect and discernment, i.e., our capacity for doubt? What is our capacity for doubt if not an acceptance of the limits of our own understanding—the humility to be open to continued growth?
That said, openness to other viewpoints can feel both dangerous and enabling these days. Watching unreason tear apart our schools, libraries, emergency rooms and Thanksgiving tables, the temptation to disengage is overwhelming, lest we be sucked into the breach rather than become repairers of it. For me at least, there is a strong element of self-preservation in this: I don’t want to be bitten by the same bug, to have my anxieties hijacked for bad ends or my shaky hold on hope made more so. I don’t want to be gaslit, to question my own sanity as I meet a wall of unyielding resistance to facts in someone I otherwise respect. And I understand the allure of certainty too well. I know my immunity to it isn’t so much natural as carefully acquired and in need of regular boosting.
How do we boost our antibodies to unreasonable doubt, which is really a kind of despair? I only know what works for me: spending time with those who are wiser than I am. A phone conversation with my 96-year-old friend Joe often does the trick. So does hanging out with little kids. The wisdom of dogs is always a sure thing, as is the healing power of nature. There is Tolstoy and Dickens, Margaret Renkl and Anne Lamott. There is my little house of worship: still the simple, whitewashed room it was when it educated the sons and daughters of small farmers from about 1810 to 1919. I often think of those children as I pass the rows of hooks in the narthex where they once hung their coats.
Then I plunge into the pre-service chaos that is my parish today, letting the ringing laughter and shared sorrows of my fellow parishioners wash over me. The coffeemaker is just stirring to life in its corner. Its labors always seem to reach a crescendo at the same point in the service—The Gospel According to Mr. Coffee, my husband calls it. I shut my eyes. I let go, borne along in the spirit of inquiry and belief, the latter roomy enough for all the doubting reasoners among us.
We see through a glass darkly, after all.