Is doubt good?

During Shabbat services at my temple last weekend, in an effort to get the kids excited for Passover, the prayer … Continued

During Shabbat services at my temple last weekend, in an effort to get the kids excited for Passover, the prayer leaders asked the children which part of the Exodus story they liked the best.

Many said, “The parting of the Red Sea!”

Some said, “When Miriam dances and sings on the opposite shore!”

A tiny one said, “Frogs!,” referring to one of the plagues God visited upon the Egyptians.

Then a little boy, about 7 years old, raised his hand. “I don’t believe the story,” he said.

His mother tried to shush him, but the adults in the room might instead have found in his response a teachable moment. The story — in which God delivers plague after plague upon the Egyptians, the Israelites flee, the sea parts and the Israelites are saved — is unbelievable. At Passover and Easter, which Jews and Christians celebrate this weekend, the faithful are faced with their greatest challenge. We are forced to hear our sacred narratives and celebrate at their climaxes, all the while shushing our inner 7-year-old who says, with inarguable logic, that these stories are, at best, incredible.

According to the Torah, the bush was on fire but it did not burn up. The staff, flung down before Pharaoh, turned into a serpent. The Red Sea parted.

According to the Gospels, the carpenter, executed as a criminal, came back to life in his flesh and blood. On the third day, according to the Book of Matthew, the disciples gathered at his empty tomb. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”

We agree not to speak publicly about our religious doubt, so our interpretations of scripture’s narratives divide us more than political party or social class. In today’s America, there are those who know, as surely as they breathe, that the events described in scripture are factual and true. And there are those who know or suspect them to be false — magical, superstitious tales of an antique age. One side cannot comprehend the other.

And within those two broad groups, smaller certainties divide us further, for as Jonathan Haidt explains in his new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” “We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong.”

As religious tribalism becomes increasingly entangled with politics, religion reinforces our political certainties. Now, some people know that Barack Obama can’t be a Christian because he had a father who was born Muslim. Or that Mitt Romney can’t be a Christian because he’s a Mormon. In the public square, religious surrogates of both parties claim to know God’s opinion about abortion, health-care reform, Occupy Wall Street and hoodies.

Such blind certainties have driven millions away from religion and church. In Newsweek this week, Andrew Sullivan describes a crumbling Christianity, abandoned by a generation disgusted with a faith that insists on “furious denunciations of others.” How to repair it, he doesn’t know. “I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis.”

But what if the 7-year-old’s impulsive “I don’t believe it” — or simply, as Thomas Merton said, “My Lord, God, I have no idea where I am going” — founded the bedrock of a faithful life? What if not knowing and not believing existed alongside knowledge and belief?

Even Mother Teresa, who was beatified nearly a decade ago, lived the last stage of her life in an anguish of doubt. “The silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,” she wrote in 1979. “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness,” writes Haidt. Surely doubt more than certainty triggers an empathic response.

Scripture’s greatest leaders have worried and wondered about what is true. God tells Moses to free his people and Moses responds that he’s no talker. God wakes Muhammad in his cave and tells him to recite his word, and Muhammad stammers that he cannot read. Even Jesus in the last moments of his life, according to the Gospels, expresses not assurance but uncertainty. “My God,” he said on the Cross, “why have you forsaken me?”

In a world divided by allegiances to small-minded, competing truths, perhaps a faithful life begins with “I don’t know.”

Lisa Miller
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  • YankInSlough

    There is a large creative space between the poles of absolute literal belief in the historical accounts found in scripture and complete absolute non-belief. Many thoughtful people live at various places at various times somewhere in between. Sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t. The life of the mind is a voyage.

  • persiflage

    The 7 year old hero of this story apparently has more common sense than millions of adult believers (make that billions). Doubting the literal truth of mythical legends infused with supernatualism would seem to be the default position for people raised in modern societies built by science and technology – but alas, such is not the case.

    Humans aren’t good at predicting futures or fully comprehending the reality confronted by the senses, so they have engaged in the age-old practice of projecting wishful thinking along with fanciful purpose and meaning, in the form of imaginative creations, symbols, and make-believe worlds – that eventually emerge as religious constructs.

    If humans would simply admit that religion is mainly another artifact of human culture under the control of time, place, and circumstance, they would gain great perspective and the independence of thought that should be the hallmark of every free society and the birthright of it’s citizens.

  • question1

    Very well put. And some of us who “know”, regularly aren’t sure what exactly it is we “know”.