- Doubt as Growth
Every day we see trees. They seem to be the same as yesterday, last month and a year ago, not changing to the extent we don’t even notice them much of the time. Truth is, trees are changing all the time. They are extending both with their root system into the soil and their branches towards the sky. Someone said to me “if we’re not growing, we’re dying.” If a tree remains truly the same it is dying.
If you’re ever read any works written by faith development scholars: Kohlberg, Fowler, Westerhoff, Blake, Rocoeur, Kierkegaard, Jung, Paget and others, we realize that faith is not a static if it is living at all. The caution about all of this is that in our western culture we can see “development: from the perspective of walking up the rungs of a ladder or stair steps while failing to realize that we are standing also on the previous stairs, else the stairs would collapse. We can also get competitive and see one stage or phase as “better” as another and then differentiate between people as being “ahead” or “behind” others. There is one truth that Fowler makes: If you are more than one phase in your faith development than your previous group, your sense of “belonging” in that group becomes tenuous because you’re living at a different experiential level than your former groups and this is why people will leave groups or even churches because they feel that they are no longer being fed or that they fit. This makes a challenge for any priest or pastor to vary the “menu” attempting to present the gospel at the level of various phase of the hearers. The roots go deeper and the branches go higher. The new shoots come out of the older braches all the way down the tree trunk to the roots.
Doubt is a chief instrument of moving from one phase of faith to another. Trees have seasons of growth and dormancy as McLaren writes, marked as circular lines that are visible as rings around the tree. Our brains hopefully if stimulated and used, grow over time. Our intellect, making meaning in the world, our experiences and the ability to interpret them in the context of Divinity, our sense of belonging, being ourselves (discovering ourselves) and the world along with the Divine expand. We move from what McLaren calls simplicity of dividing things into two groups, good or bad, called dualism. Trust is important in others and building our understanding of what to choose and what to avoid.
Beginning at age 12 or later, we begin to move from the dualism of Simplicity to Complexity. As we practice living our faith, we move into a wider area where we meet more adults who act as coaches who help us grow in our ability to act more independently. Life at this phase is one of learning how to master skills for living and involves exploration of the world and oneself in comparison to what is around us. An example of the Complexity phase is moving into a Bible Study where questions are asked rather than searching for one right answer. The Bible becomes more than an answer book but rather a complex history of a story of a people with whom we share similar questions and experiences as we attempt to respond to God and make sense of God’s universe. The zeal of this age often finds a sense of urgency to engage the culture and change the world. I remember this phase in my earlier years and how later my zeal was tempered by others who brought different perspectives of faith that brought me in to greater complexity and more self-doubt. An example of this is when seeking to enforce justice, we can create much more damage and injustice along the way of our original intent. The teens and twenties (and later) and be full of the “me” and the complexity of life can begin to wear the “me” down (which it should in order for us to mature and ascend). A real conflict at this phase is to either with good intentions to inflict our justice on others or become discouraged and not act at all. This dualism is transcended through the next phase called Perplexity, a phase of doubt we will address next, leads us to a sense of God unity called Harmony when we discover as St. Paul, that appropriate action is not in what we attempt to do to change the world but in how we awaken to God living in us and allowing God to work through us. St. Paul: “It’s not me, but Christ within me.” Discernment between “me” and “Christ within me” becomes an ongoing daily discernment.
Questions for Reflection
- Take a moment to review your personal story of faith. Recall the years of Simplicity and when life and your faith became more complex than simple “right or wrong.”
- If you were a tree and examined your own “tree rings” of growth and dormancy, what periods of your life seemed to be more growth wise and more dormant? Dormancy can be either a plateau of comfort or a period of restlessness. Recalled periods of your faith “comfort zone” and periods of when you felt restless in your faith.
- In what ways have you resisted periods of complexity around your faith in your own life? When have you allowed complexity in your life to carry you past simplicity alone and was there a reward in this for you?
- What was the most fulfilling times of Simplicity and Complexity in your own life?
6. Doubt as Descent
“Taking the descent” was told to me by my spiritual director and seminary professor, Jesse Trotter, during my senior year in seminary. I had just finished my weeklong General Ordination Exams in early January and at the age 25, I experienced the faith I stood on for 25 years, falling out from underneath me. What do we do when God becomes a stranger? It was the most painful, terrifying and disorienting experience in my life. It’s also the best thing that ever happened to me.
Most faith development scholars report that a large number of adults never leave the second Complexity Phase. For many however, a life crisis can catapult faithful person into a faith crisis. Real life for them isn’t a simple walk down the “yellow brick road to Oz” (although there were challenges on this road as well). The life they have experienced in crisis turns out as McLaren says “to be more of a mysterious, less formulaic and more messy” than the “how to formula or checklist” that offer the promise of a prescribed easier, simpler way. An example of this is the “Prosperity Gospel” whose followers think that God will give them everything they want rather than Jesus who says in the Beatitudes to “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” and all things that we need will be given to us. I wonder if Janis Joplin ever got the Mercedes Benz that she prayed for. Another example is when a person is in deep grief, their faith can be challenged because their faith of answers doesn’t reach deep enough into the deep chasm within the spirit where grief resides.
This is the Perplexity phase where we begin to confront that the pieces of life and faith puzzle don’t fit together as much as we thought they did. Once our beliefs begin to fall apart, we begin to feel uneasy (and others can begin to feel uneasy with us) around our once supportive faith community and often have to leave to search through the questions and emptiness of this phase.
At times like these doubt grows even deeper because people in the faith community are ill prepared and tend to shy away from the appearing anomaly of the person’s painful faith spasm. We can only listen as deeply to another as we can listen to ourselves. With no one to be able to confide in, being met with pat answers or avoidance, some fearing to speak to the clergy who may or may not be able to hear them, they will silently fade away from the congregation.
Another factor in the Perplexity phase is that doubters begin to see the flaws in systems, authority, purpose, experience a lack of belonging and become suspicious and skeptical of trust except in the company of other skeptics. If allowed to be themselves in a church community, their skepticism and doubt can lead to the discovery of honesty, humility openness, curiosity and seeking truth.
Being perplexed is an experience of descending into the experience of “not knowing” that feels like dying. We can easily identify with Jesus’ words in Gethsemane: “Father let this cup pass from me.” What the perplexed individual doesn’t realize is that God is the light at the end of the dark tunnel and that God is waiting with us.
Questions for reflection:
- Recall your earliest doubts about God, Christ, the Church and your faith. How did you negotiate through them? How did they affect your faith and your relationships?
- Why is it difficult to find a faith community that is open to the Perplexity phase of doubt?”
- Is Church of Annunciation (your church) a community where you can share your doubts? If not, what might I be able to do to help create a place for the perplexed doubter to find a home?
7. Doubt as Dissent
Lloyd Geering: “Expressing or even entertaining doubt sometimes takes so much courage that we may say it takes real faith to doubt.”
Even though disoriented, McLaren points out that all is not lost even though it seems to be. We still retain the gifts of former phases. We still carrying an internal sense of right and wrong from phase one. We carry the curiosity, flexibility and openness to complexity and growing independence of phase two’s Complexity.
Perplexity has its silver lining. Humility, admitting that we “don’t know” helps us remain open for new learning and revelation. We discover that the more we know the less we don’t know. Humility opens us up to the Holy Mystery.
Sensitivity is birthed during this phase as we explore new concepts and experiences looking for nuances in faith that we never bothered to look for before. We’re more willing to examine things so that we might incorporate them more deeply. It’s also easier to be honest when we get used to living in doubt and not having the “right answer.” Instead of attempting to “build our faith” during the Complexity phase, we begin to realize deeper practices of the church that Jesus would call, dying to self and the daily dying of St. Paul. Faith becomes more wordless as the inner attic of the spirit is cleared out for the presence of God. Getting used to sitting in the dark, finally after we begin to let go to our resistance to accepting this, actually becomes what McLaren calls a “portal” for the revelation of the presence of God. In the dark we shift from doing to being and begin to know ourselves and that in some crazy way, emptiness is the prelude to Divine Peace. We begin to gain insight as we are now open to receive wisdom that goes far deeper than human thought.
Perplexity also gives us the opportunity to confess our dissent—that we’re having trouble with the spiritual traps that can only be uncovered in the Wilderness. Perplexity is the Wilderness. Jesus practices dissent when tempted by Satan in the Wilderness. We see the church as a broken vessel made out of broken human beings such as ourselves. Now that we are beginning to realize this, we have nothing to lose by voicing our dissent. Faith and its terms become redefined. Authority is recast by Jesus to become service as we continue to move out of the way of the world. Liberty transcends self-interest to become concerned about seeking the benefit of others. Freedom means liberty to love and serve. I was surprised to learn years ago that local communities would see to the needs of the poor before government welfare became the norm. The central task of dissenting is to challenge the whole shebang of faith and its six foundational moral values: purity, loyalty, authority, liberty, justice and compassion rather than from the Simplicity phase of right and wrong. Seeking turns into the discovering of one’s human spirit commingling with God’s Holy Spirit. McLaren calls this fourth phase, Harmony. Harmony is being One with the Presence of God. Or in the words of Jesus in John 17: That all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. Doubting over time works through many cycles so that we finally come to knowing our birthright of being one with God and seeking that same gift in one another.
Questions for Reflection
- The term, not knowing, in the third phase of Perplexity takes on new meaning and as seen as a strength instead of a weakness. Think of any of the periods of your life when you have experienced not knowing and how it shaped your faith.
- What is your understanding of the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) and reflect on your experiences of this.
- Have you ever read any of the Christian mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and others? What gift do you believe they offer the Church and the world? Many mystics were noted for their Christian service. How might “taking the descent” into this contemplative way actually impact Christian service, say in comparison (non-judgmental) to the Complexity phase in stage two.
8. Doubt as Love
To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart—that’s what life is about, that’s its task. –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Letters
One of the benefits of moving into the Perplexity and Harmony phases is the gift of revelation one receives such as seeing things in the Bible that one had not yet noticed. Instead of looking, seeking and thinking, one begins to observing, become aware and seeing. Doubt, if followed, creates perseverance. After perseverating, one begins to use Henri Nouwen’s of prayer as walking through life with open hands instead of clenched fists (H. J. M. Nouwen: With Open Hands). Eventually, leaning into doubt (being where we are) leads us into God because God is always where we are. All of this leads us into the harmony of what McLaren, Rohr and many other contemplatives call non dual seeing or unitive spiritual awareness or what St. Paul calls, the mind of Christ (Romans 12). In non-dual seeing as McLaren says, faith and doubt, clarity and mystery, darkness and light become complementary rather than opposites, two parts of a whole. The term Jesus uses for teaching us to be “perfect” (Matt. 19) in the New Testament, telios, means to be whole. We are led into God as we realize as the Wisdom of God pierced the mind and heart of the writer of Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). McLaren realized my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God. We leave our old and less developed understanding of God to enter God, himself.
I usually choose the term “Presence” of God because the term, “love” has been so overused and misunderstood, I doubt that we really understand what love is. But we may know love as the simple yet omnipotent presence of the Holy One. Love is being in union with the presence of God. To love others as God loves us is to allow the Divine Presence to come through us to others so as St. Paul says again, “It’s not me but Christ within me (Gal. 2)….” McLaren uses Dostoyevsky’s quote from The Brothers Karamazov: “Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.”
Just a note to remember to treat these phases or stages lightly. It is possible to vacillate back and forth as faith is not a static thing. Doubt is not our enemy but rather a way of preparing us to go deeper into God.
Questions for Reflection
- On your journey of faith, who have been the key people of your life who have supported you through the various peaks and valleys of your faith? Who has supported you by their presence and who has supported you by their example? Say a prayer in thanksgiving for them.
- How has the phrase, “Doubt is the doorway to love,” been true in your life?
- Notice the four phases of your life and attempt to recall when you experienced a time when you were in Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity and Harmony. Remember there are no wrong answers.