Monday, April 13, 2009

Faith, Doubt and Enduring Uncertainty

I believe uncertainty is what empowered every major change in human history that dealt with revolution of some sort - both good and bad. “I'm not sure about . . .” is the starting point for all kinds of ennobling and enabling movements. The only problem, in my opinion, is when “I'm not sure if . . . ” leads to “I doubt that . . . therefore, I can’t . . . until I no longer doubt.”

1) “Faith” is not “knowledge”. It is the substance of things “hoped for” - the evidence of things “not seen”. Faith is based on “hope” - a desire for something that cannot be seen or understood fully. “Certainty” is the end of faith - the desired outcome. It is to be sure of something to such a degree that it is expressed most often in terms of knowledge. “I know this” and “I am certain of this” are seen generally as saying the same thing.

2) On the other hand, “doubt” is not a lack of certainty. It is not a passive lack of belief or faith, but rather an active disbelief. It is expressed as a negative. It is NOT expressed as, “I am not certain of that,” but rather as, “I doubt that is true” - meaning, “I don’t think that is true,” or “I don’t believe that is true.”

3) Faith exists NOT in conjunction with doubt, but rather it functions side-by-side with “uncertainty”. One exercises faith when one is uncertain; one does NOT exercise faith when one doubts. When one doubts s/he actively disbelieves - thus, the one who said he would not believe until he personally had seen and touched was called “Doubting Thomas”. He didn’t say, “I’m not sure.” He said, instead, “I will not believe unless . . .” He could not exercise faith, not because he was uncertain, but rather because he actively doubted.

I get more than a little bit frustrated by the insistence that everyone can know everything, but I have no issue with the idea that faith and doubt cannot co-exist. Faith is the active expression of an internal orientation toward belief; doubt is the active expression of an internal orientation toward disbelief. Therefore, based on a strict parsing of the technical meaning, they can’t co-exist - since they are opposites. However, because we tend to conflate and confuse doubt and uncertainty, I do have an issue with the idea that faith and doubt cannot co-exist IF what the people who say that really mean is that faith and uncertainty cannot co-exist - that if I am uncertain of something, then I lack faith. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

I would posit that we all must, by definition, exercise faith until we are certain - and then hold onto that previous faith again if we lose certainty. Since none of us can be certain about everything imaginable, every one of us needs faith in something all our lives. If we are certain of everything, I believe we either are ignorant or delusional. What we cannot do, however, is cultivate a doubting spirit. If we never reach an acceptable level of certainty, then we need to accept a life of searching - following whatever principles and people and politics and religion we feel provide us with the highest degree of certainty we can obtain. What we have to avoid is becoming our own version of Doubting Thomas.

Finally, we are told that Jesus experienced everything we possibly can experience - including the crushing weight of being judged to be guilty. That must include doubt (or something similar enough to qualify) if it is to be comprehensive. Generally, we do not associate "doubt" with the Savior and Redeemer of the world (God, the Son) - but, again, doubt means not wanting to believe or accept something. However, there were at least two times when I think it is safe to say that He struggled mightily - because He didn’t understand and didn't want to accept something. (In the Garden, where He asked if the cup could be taken from Him and on the cross when he cried out and asked why His Father had forsaken Him.) In these cases, he seems to have been uncertain about some aspect of the Atonement and, possibly, even doubted temporarily: specifically, if He would be able to do it and then why He had to do it alone at the very end. I hesitate to call those "doubts" - but it might be a fair assessment. I prefer to call it "enduring uncertainty".

13 comments:

Jen said...

I believe our spirits remember that deep love and feeling of peace, comfort and joy we felt when we were with our Father in the pre-existence. The Lord knew His love perfectly for He emulated it perfectly to those on the earth.

When the Lord felt forsaken by the Father, I think the separation of God's peace and love was so deeply painful to the Him because it was such a part of Him. When it was removed from Him for a time it was enough to have Him cry out from the depths of His soul "Why has thou forsaken me?" I can imagine thoughts running through His mind wondering how the Father could abandon Him after He had done all that He had asked of Him (and perfectly no less). I think He knew that He had fulfilled the Father's will but could not withstand the deep feelings of abandonment and thus He cried out to the Father for relief.

Paul said...

Philosophically, I'd say you're right on with your explorations of doubt and faith.

Practically, I'd say that the philosophy applies equally to any person of any religion, and is thus as compelling in promoting Hindu belief as it is in promoting Christian belief. It can even be turned on its head to promote the atheist point of view, as it still requires faith in one's belief to actively disbelieve.

Since I've heard from you a lot on similar subjects I hardly think this will surprise you, in fact I suspect you'll say something like, "Yes, isn't it great?" But I thought it worth mentioning, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Defining doubt as active disbelief makes the common LDS claim understandable that faith is the opposite of doubt. However, disbelief is not the dictionary definition of "doubt" as a noun, at least in the American Heritage College Dictionary. The only definition of doubt,in that dictionary, that includes a variant of disbelief is the second definition of doubt as an intransitive verb, "To tend to disbelieve, distrust."

DavidH

Papa D said...

Thanks, Jen. You put it very well regarding abandonment. I hadn't phrased it quite that way, and I like it.

Paul, isn't that great? *huge grin*

David, when I define "love", "faith", doubt", "fear", etc. in religious discussions I tend to focus on their usage as verbs, since that is how I read most of the passages in scripture. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." "Doubt not; fear not." "Be believing." All of these are taking what in isolation would be nouns and imbuing them with action as verbs. Even the Beatitudes teach of *acquiring* adjectives in the process of "be(coming) ye therefore perfect" - which, again, is focused on DOING ("becoming"), not passive nouns.

From a Gospel perspective, nouns are pretty much useless. They must be transformed into adjectives and verbs to have any lasting meaning.

Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, 'doubt' is not a lack of certainty. It is not a passive lack of belief or faith, but rather an active disbelief."

In these two sentences, "doubt" (and the pronoun representing "doubt") are used as a noun. My point was that my dictionary does not define faith, when used as a noun (as it is in those sentences), as meaning active disbelief.

(In addition, in the common LDS sentence "faith cannot coexist with doubt", "doubt" is also used as a noun.)

I would also add that, even when used as a verb, "doubt" is not defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as "active disbelief".

Unfortunately, I do not know enough Greek to say whether the Greek words translated into the English noun or verb "doubt" mean "active disbelief" or "active disbelieving".

Perhaps in the LDS setting, "doubt" really does mean active disbelief. As I mentioned before, if that is the definition, then I have no problem analytically with the proposition that faith cannot coexist with doubt, or that faith is the opposite of doubt.

But for many non-LDS (and for some LDS), faith means "uncertainty", and stating that faith is the opposite of "uncertainty" is a difficult proposition to understand or accept.

DavidH

Papa D said...

Interestingly, David, I actually agree with what you just said. I am addressing this explicitly from a Mormon perspective - understanding that there always are multiple ways to define any word in English.

As I said in the original post, I tend to see these nouns as "the expression" of the verb form. "A doubt" is the expression (or feeling) associated with the verb, "to doubt" - which means to not accept in the original, Biblical usage.

In the end, I really don't care about the exact words we use to discuss this - as long as the result is that people don't think they lack faith if they are uncertain. That's my core stance - that faith by very definition is uncertainty.

Theresa said...

I like your last comment - someone (very wise) in my ward once said about faith and doubt, that "faith is not faith unless it includes doubt", which of course goes against your definition of doubt in the original entry, but agrees with the "uncertainty". I just wonder if doubt really needs to be so harshly categorized as active unbelief, or if it not can be seen as a synonym to uncertainty, that leads to either active unbelief or (this is why I like doubting at times) to active openminded research.
Oh well, again, it's just playing with words. What is important is what you said: "as long as the result is that people don't think they lack faith if they are uncertain. That's my core stance - that faith by very definition is uncertainty."

Andrew S said...

hmmm, interesting article; I should've read this before but I just never did...but I have some problems with it.

2) On the other hand, “doubt” is not a lack of certainty. It is not a passive lack of belief or faith, but rather an active disbelief. It is expressed as a negative. It is NOT expressed as, “I am not certain of that,” but rather as, “I doubt that is true” - meaning, “I don’t think that is true,” or “I don’t believe that is true.”I think there are some problems with what is active and passive.

"I don't think that is true" or "I don't believe that is true" *is* the passive. Since you acknowledge that it is negative, it's strange that you should say it's active. The "negative" nature of it is the quality that it is the subtraction (the lack of) belief. This is the nature of disbelief.

But this lack of belief, this negation of belief, if you will, is intrinsically passive. If you don't believe, you don't believe.

To become active, you MUST have a belief. For example, you'd have to move away from, "I don't believe this is true," to "I believe this is not true."

Not believing something to be true (passive) and believing something to be not true (active) are two wholly different things, and without that distinction, it makes the entire passage read strangely.

I imagine we must have fundamentally different ideas on what it means to believe.

I, for one, believe that belief is not a 'choice.' I mean, you can SAY you believe, but belief is something that is in your heart. If it is not in your heart (because you do not have faith -- I also don't think faith is all that chosen), then saying it over and over will not somehow put it there. You will be living a lie and you'll feel the discrepancy.

If I were to look at your idea of "doubt," I would guess that would fit in with this. Doubt isn't chosen. It is a aftereffect of not having belief in your heart (of not having that faith).

This isn't active. The doubting Thomas does not have faith and does not believe *not* because he 'actively believes' that the objective faith is not true...rather, he lacks a belief (a passive thing), and cannot 'force' it, and that is the source of the doubt.

Andrew S said...

Now, concerning your ideas about faith and uncertainty, I don't have so many problems.

In my experiences, I find faith to be an unchosen inclination toward belief (as you say, an internal orientation...). Faith, in my mind is that thing that makes someone say, "You know, I really don't KNOW for sure (uncertainty), but I believe this is true." It is the grounding of belief in the heart...or the gut...or wherever you want to put it. I think that faith is something that...when people try to move away from belief, it gives them the same kind of discomfort or sense of "living a lie" that someone who doesn't have faith would get when they try to believe.

Papa D said...

Andrew, thanks for your commentary. It really does boil down to the way I was using "active" and "passive", since I agree with the rest of what you said.

I tried to clarify in my response to David H, but I'm not sure you read that comment.

As to the issue of the internal orientation, I have said before that I wonder if Laman and Lemuel were being honest when they said, "God maketh no such things known unto us." I really do wonder about that, since I know plenty of people who have expressed similar things - that they simply don't get answers to their prayers.

In those cases, I think people can choose to accept and follow without ever believing (particularly if they see some other benefit), but I have a hard time judging and condemning them if they don't.

Andrew S said...

oh, I had missed your comment to David. still, I think even making them all verbs...some verbs are passive. To disbelieve is a passive verb.

Disregarding the connotations of taking a position that Laman and Lemuel have also taken, I would argue as well that such an idea is not and should not seem foreign. Some people don't get answers to prayers, don't have spiritual experiences, etc., (Now, the question could be: what if they *are* having these things, but they can't perceive or recognize them [or the converse: what if faithful believers *aren't* really getting any answers, but they perceive that they are]? These questions would need more post space...)

I partially expected what you said in the last paragraph, but then I think this also raises some problems. This kind of standard *could* be applied to anything (why not choose to accept Islam even if you don't believe it? Why not choose to accept a homosexual relationship if you aren't attracted to the same sex?) If you can't 'follow your nose' on this kind of issue, and instead have to walk *totally* blindly, then how are we supposed to discern *anything*? At least, with faith, I think people aren't walking *totally* blindly. They have that Iron Rod and a narrow path, but there is a lot of uncertainty around while they are enduring to the end.

Papa D said...

Yep, if you can't follow your heart, you need to follow your mind. I can accept that, and it's why I think it is important to, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." We just never know what is playing how much of a role in anyone else's decisions. We have a hard enough time understanding why we make the decisions we make.

Michaela Stephens said...

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