Embracing Doubt (Part III) (Common Ground with Nonbelievers)


This is Part III of the relationship between faith and doubt (primarily in a Christian context but the same principles apply for other religious traditions).  In Part I, I described some of my own faith journey and the excerpt from Fr. James Martin, S.J. how the Path of Disbelief is one of the six paths to God.

In Part II, we discussed Pope Emeritus Benedict’s insights on how doubt is a common feeling, even among revered saints such as Teresa of Avila, and how this doubt can serve as a springboard to strive for a deeper intellectual and spiritual understanding of faith, which leads to a richer faith experience.

Today, we continue with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s discussion on the ability of faith and doubt to form the basis of cordial dialogue with non-believers and a deeper understanding of our common humanity from his book Introduction to Christianity:

“We can return without any more imagery to our own situation and say: If, on the one hand, the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt, if he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith, on the other, the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as a mere man without faith. Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life, either. However vigorously he may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty about whether positivism really has the last word. Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be. Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.

It may be appropriate at this point to cite a Jewish story told by Martin Buber; it presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma of being a man.

“An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him, too, and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room, he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, rapt in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly, and said, “But perhaps it is true after all.” The scholar tried in vain to collect himself—his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Yitschak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps” that echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.”

Here we have, I believe—in however strange a guise—a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.” That “perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.”

In Part IV, we will see what insights we can obtain on the nature of God from the fact that God uses doubt to help us grow closer to him.   

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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7 Responses to Embracing Doubt (Part III) (Common Ground with Nonbelievers)

  1. Pingback: Embracing Doubt to Grow Into a Mature Faith (Part II) | Teilhard de Chardin

  2. Tom says:

    These issues of faith and doubt occur often to me, but especially at funerals. What do we really believe about “eternal life” , “heaven”, “being with God forever?” What in the world, or out of this world do those things really mean? People dance around the issue: “Uncle Charlie is probably playing poker with the angels . . . . heh, heh, heh.” We don’t know what’s on the other side. But I believe there is something, some kind of life, existence. I am a Catholic and basically “believe” what I am expected to believe, but don’t ask me to explain it all. I don’t deal with doubt so much as with questions: what do we mean by the traditional words which we so glibly toss around? I have just discovered this site and blog. Thank you for your own questions.

    • Tom, thank you for the follow and for your comments! You are right that the question of what, if anything, happens when we die is a deep question for which we will not know the answer until it happens. However, I agree with you that there is something on the other side (which I believe is a union with God). I also believe that we are able to catch glimpses of it in this life through nature, through relationships with other people, through art, through music, through philosophy and through all the other wonderful things that God has created.

      In the last few years, after I came back to my Catholic roots with new eyes, I have viewed death as the next stage of our existence. We do not know what happens but I believe there is an existence that transcends the three dimensional world that our physical bodies are currently able to recognize with our senses. An analogy from Julian May, the science fiction author and Teilhard de Chardin disciple compares this life and death to the life of a baby in the womb of his/her mother and birth (somewhat similar to Plato’s cave). A baby develops dramatically in the womb from a single cell to a complex human being. During this development, the baby has his/her existence in a safe, warm environment, but is unable to see due to darkness or experience other basic aspects of human existence (eating, relationships, intellects, emotion, etc.). This dramatically changes when the baby is born; leaving a safe, comfortable environment to a whole new dimension of existence outside the womb. While this change may be initially jarring for the baby, the baby adapts fairly quickly and is able to appreciate this new and richer existence.

      I view death and the after life as a similar process: there may be an initial jolt, but death will bring about the next stage of development to a richer state of existence, closer to the Creator God. In this regard, I am inspired by the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin. During World War I, he served as a non-combatant stretcher-bearer, frequently needing to rescue the wounded on the front lines during battle. He developed a reputation for bravery and fearlessness in the face of death, receiving several awards for valor, including the Legion of Honor. When Teilhard was asked how he managed to keep so calm during battle, Teilhard replied with a smile “if I’m killed, I shall just change my state, that’s all”.

      W. Ockham

  3. Pingback: Embracing Doubt (Part IV): A God Who Lets Us Wander | Teilhard de Chardin

  4. Pingback: Embracing Doubt (Part V): Creation of Universe Out of Love | Teilhard de Chardin

  5. Pingback: Embracing Doubt (Part VI): The Incarnation | Teilhard de Chardin

  6. Pingback: Embracing Doubt to Grow Into a Mature Faith (Part I): The Path of Disbelief | Teilhard de Chardin

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