“In Celebration of Doubt”
As spiritual beings having a human experience, we all experience doubt at times. We wonder about our place in this universe, our relationship with Spirit, what we are here to do or be. In challenging times in our lives or in our world, we wonder about the presence of God at all. We won’t answer all these questions in this week’s talk, but we will celebrate the questions. Doubt is a step, some say a necessary step, on the spiritual path. We don’t need to fear it or even resist it – it might be the herald of a greater awakening.
Speaker: Rev. Melanie Eyre
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Let us pray to the God who holds us in the hollow of his hands –
to the God who holds us in the curve of her arms –
to the God whose flesh is the flesh of hills and hummingbirds and angleworms –
whose skin is the color of an old black woman and a young white man,
and the color of the leopard and the grizzly bear and the green grass snake –
whose hair is like the aurora borealis, rainbows, nebulae, waterfalls, and a spider’s web –
whose eyes sometimes shine like the evening star, and then like fireflies, and then again like an open wound
whose touch is both the touch of life and the touch of death –
and whose name is everyone’s, but mostly mine.
And what shall we pray? Let us say, “Thank you.”
~ by Unitarian-Universalist Minister Rev. Max Coot
“In Celebration of Doubt”
When my brother was five years old he went out to the family car, pushed in the cigarette lighter, and waited for it to pop out. Now this was in the day before cigarette lighters became 12-volt power connectors. At that point they actually lit our cigarettes. Some of you may remember that small glowing red circle. Well, my parents had told him that when the cigarette lighter popped out that circle was really hot. But he didn’t have any direct experience of this, and so he just didn’t believe them. And, as we say, he had an inquiring mind.
So it popped out, he stuck his finger in and guess what – he had a direct experience. It was, as we call it now, a teaching moment. He never did it again because he had found out for himself. He didn’t have mere information. Now, he had no more doubt – he had experience.
Not all our questions, especially our spiritual ones, are answered this easily or clearly. Nowadays we don’t see bushes that are burning but are not consumed, or the Red Sea parting, or pillars of flame going before us. Today in the Christian calendar it is Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter. According to Christian tradition it is the day in which the holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, signified by a rushing wind and tongues of fire descending over them.
Wouldn’t life be easier, or at least clearer, if we had such clear signals of God’s presence? (There He is!) We don’t. Subsequently, we wonder.
So in our discussion today I want to celebrate doubt: our not knowing, our uncertainty. If you have ever found yourself in doubt about your spiritual beliefs, you’ll be relieved to know that doubt has a blueblood lineage. It goes back thousands of years. As a matter of fact, it goes back as far as faith does. Early religious doubters included St. Augustine, John of the Cross, John the Baptist, Teresa of Avila. Jesus himself expressed doubt at various times throughout the New Testament, for the last time on the cross itself.
In 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church of England, mentioned to a reporter that he sometimes wondered at times if God was even there. The International Business Times called it “The doubt of the century”. People went crazy – articles shouted atheism was on the rise and this was proof positive.
His comments were really pretty tame, and they only proved that he was human. At some point we all have doubts about what we believe, about the existence and nature of the Divine, about our place in this universe and how we connect with God. Spiritual doubt has been with us forever. We are human, and it is supremely human to doubt and to wonder.
If you have ever had any questions about your beliefs, or faced any doubt, rest assured you are in excellent company.
I’d like to focus on doubt today for this reason. We spend a great deal of time talking about belief, the strong power of our belief to drive our reality, to create our future, to draw our good to us. This is very strong stuff, and over the course of your journey you may have heard that if you don’t believe 100% you are just doing it wrong. It’s not that easy. Some of you are sitting there saying, “I want to believe, I want to believe . . .” but there is a part of you that may be whispering, “yeah, right.”
In the gospel of Matthew, the story is told of a father who brought his son to Jesus to be healed. The child was possessed by an unclean spirit, and suffered greatly. The father told Jesus,
We want to believe, and be relieved of suffering. Not so easy. We question – we just don’t know.
Over the years many of us have questioned the beliefs we assumed we had, doubted them, and then discarded some. You awaken to new ones, and you may begin the process again as you continue on your spiritual path. If we know one thing, it is that creation is ever-creating, not static. We are made of that infinite and eternal stuff, and so we are not static. Even when we are in doubt, our journey continues.
Doubt may start small. Doubt is a journey, as is awakening. As a matter of fact, I see it as the samejourney.
Doubt can start with examining questions of belief – why does God think a newborn baby is sinful? Why does God call me sinful just because I love someone of the same gender as I am? Or if there’s a God why is there so much suffering in the world? How could God let 21 people, 19 of whom were children, be shot to death in their school as they were celebrating the end of the school year? Why is it not easier for the good to prosper, and why does it seem that the wicked so frequently do? Why is the playing field not level, at the very least?
The questions go on and on. Whatever your individual questions are they may start small, and then, the crack begins to grow. You begin with the small doubts, perhaps over individual questions or issues, and over time you may come to doubt more and more, and ultimately perhaps even in the existence of a benevolent loving universal power itself. That is one way doubt grows.
That’s the doubt of belief, what I’ll call the more intellectual doubt.
Questioning can also grow more subtly, almost without notice. Where once our spiritual practices were robust and vibrant now they seem more arid. Have you ever felt that your spiritual life was almost on hold? You go through the motions, you come to church because you are used to it and you like the folks there, you even continue your daily practices. But you just feel . . . less. Your spiritual life is just not as nourishing as it once was, doesn’t sustain and energize you as it once did. You might settle for this. You might say, “Well, perhaps this is all there is.” While you don’t consciously doubt, you live through a time of more spiritual isolation and loneliness.
This experience is common as well.
As I was preparing this talk, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how we step back from our beliefs and our practices, about how we move through the idea that we’re missing something. There is not a great deal said in communities like ours on doubt, or rather on the potentially positive aspects of doubt. I went onto the website for one national organization teaching principles of New Thought and I did a search for the word “doubt” and there were no hits. Doubt often is seen as something to be overcome with additional affirmations or mind treatments and an increasing emphasis on positive thinking.
And all that may be true, to some extent. But it may not be the way all of us work through our doubts. Our journeys are so individual. Many spiritual seekers take their doubts head on, believing these moments have something to teach. Many have looked back in gratitude at their periods of doubt and even downright disbelief, as it propelled them forward in their journey. Far from being an experience to be avoided, traveling through the questions and perhaps even the darkness was a time of growth, even if painful.
One of my references for this talk was a book entitled “Doubt” by author Jennifer Michael Hecht. It’s a really interesting, well-researched book on the history of religious doubt.
Ms. Hecht writes:
Let’s look at that phrase “inner transformation.” Isn’t that what we’re looking for? We all can appreciate intellectual belief, an intellectual understanding of what we think is the truth. However, we know that until we step into the truth, until we step into our own beliefs, what we merely think is half a loaf at best. True transformation, true awakening, happens when these beliefs become so internalized that you are living them as true for you. Some call this faith, some call it conviction, others call it trust – you can call it whatever works for you but it happens when you awaken to your own truth.
This is the process that questioning leads us through. When we take in what we are told, or what we read or hear, and we work with it, we question it. We just sit with it until all of it, or a kernel of it, resonates with us and we say, “Yes – that is my next step.” We cannot ask anyone else to take our spiritual journey for us – we take it. Each of us as an expression of spirit is having our own conversation with Spirit. We cannot find our truth by simply ingesting someone else’s.
Sr. Joan Chittister writes:
She writes that doubt is the beginning of real faith, calling doubt “the mother of conviction.” It is our own growth, our own experience with the questions, that drives our awakening.
Often it is our experience in the world itself that addresses our questions.
I have a friend who grew up in a conservative Christian church. At some point as a child, she started to doubt what she was hearing from her ministers and her teachers. Up until that point, she had had faith in what she had been taught and her faith had made her feel safer. She was a child and needed to know that a power larger than she was had her back.
As she grew older the lessons made less sense, and she began to doubt. Out of that little crack of doubt grew increasing doubt about everything that she believed – about her world, about God. As she put it, she lost her faith.
She continued on for many years, believing she had no faith. However, she continued to live her life, to love her friends and family, to serve her community, to act toward others with love, compassion, and kindness. She then had an opportunity to go on a medical mission abroad to a third world country to help people who needed medical care, many of whom suffered from agonizing medical conditions that in this country are fixed with simple procedures. She was on this trip for several months.
When she came back, as she tells it now, she saw life differently. She said, “All of a sudden, wherever I looked, I saw tiny miracles that I didn’t see before.” And she looked back over her life and saw that there had been miracles all along – she just had not seen.
While my friend still doesn’t believe what she was taught as a child, she experienced a new way to see her world, with different eyes and a greater awareness that perhaps wasn’t there before. She found her way to be in the world that didn’t involve the traditional notion of God, but which did include the profound knowing that a power was at work, whatever it is. This is her truth, internalized and born over years of living in the question, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, but always open to the possibility of answers. Her experience, and her ability to keep her heart and awareness open, transformed her view.
So often, I think, we miss the presence of Spirit in our lives because we expect it to look a certain way, and only that way. When we release our expectations of how Spirit will appear, who knows what we will see.
So often those who refuse to doubt, who refuse to question, are those who appear to be the most certain. They may fear doubt, having been told that doubt is a sign of lack of faith and that’s a bad thing. It’s not. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is. Where there is certainty, there is no need to question. It is doubt that leads us into the questions that make us expand our understanding and help lead us to answers that are true for us. Or, as theologian Paul Tillich put it,
“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
Our journey into the light is not always a steady progression of joyous understanding. There will be moments of pause, moments to reconsider, wonder, dig deeper. Often, new awareness arises in us after we have been through the process of doubting, questioning.
Doubt or unbelief is not something to be feared. It is the process of creating your own truth. So let’s not shy away from the questions. Let’s not shy away from those times when Spirit seems remote. We all have them, and they may last awhile, or not. They can remain pathways to growth, community and awakening. We may have different answers, but we all have a voice in exploring the questions, together. That is the only way that we will move forward on our faith journeys.
About Rev. Melannie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
Reading (read by Linda Wendt)
Some days I wake with a cloud around my heart, and it dulls everything except the weight I carry deep inside. Yet, just because I can’t make it to the light today doesn’t mean that the light has vanished. . . .
So faith, it seems, can be defined as the effort to believe in light when we’re covered by clouds, and though it feels like the sun will never come again, the truth is it has never stopped burning its light. In fact, its heat and warmth is burning steadily, right now, on the far side of whatever cloud we are under.
If we could only suspend our judgment when clouded in the heart. For many skepticisms are born from conclusions drawn while unable to see, as if any kind of understanding will prevent the clouds from coming or going, again and again.
But no cloud lasts forever. The Earth and all that grows from it knows this well. So does the heart and everything that grows from it, in spite of all our very understandable pains.
Nepo, Mark. The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have (Gift Edition) (pp. 130-131). Red Wheel Weiser. Kindle Edition.
As we weather the winds of change,
May we have the wisdom to cherish
Moments of stillness.
As we touch on memories of challenge and pain,
May we have the courage to remember
The graceful blessings of our lives.
As we look to future unknowns,
May we have the boldness
To trust that there is unimagined Good yet to come.
~ by Maureen Killoran
This service aired on June 5, 2022