A Few More Notes on the Question of Doubt
This is a follow-up to the journal of August 5 on the mixture of doubt and faith which I, and apparently quite a few others, experience. In passing: it seems to be happening to me more often than usual lately that a spiritual matter that’s on my mind pops up everywhere; so it was with this question, which was followed in a day or two by a great deal of publicity about Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul—not, I hasten to add, that my anxieties should be given that name. As Francesca said in the comments on one of those posts, most of us have not reached that level—have not, so to speak, known the daylight upon which that night can descend. We are, rather, to borrow again from the comments, this time from Daniel, only muddling around in the murky twilight of the flesh.
First, a clarification. A couple of people wondered whether the degree of doubt to which I confess implies the absence of genuine faith. Someone on the Caelum et Terra blog quoted this from the Catechism:
Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” (157)
And I finally troubled myself to look in the same source, and found this, which I posted in a comment there, and which would have saved some confusion had I included it in the original piece:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. (2088)
So: involuntary doubt is what I’m talking about, although none of the three formulations of the concept seems perfectly precise as a description of my own experience, which I think can be summed up as anxiety that the faith might not in fact be true. I find in myself, on what I hope is an honest appraisal, no voluntary doubt at all. What I’ve been calling “doubt” is not an intellectual act contrary to faith, but an emotion that accompanies it. Anthony Esolen, at the Touchstone blog, says it well (as usual):
Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition. We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily. The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook.
It does sometimes seem that this doubt, or this anxiety, is especially strong in the modern world (meaning the world of the past two hundred years or so), the world which has been rearranged intellectually by science. It certainly seems to be more prominent in Catholic art: the stereotypical literary Christian of our time is a Graham Greene or Walker Percy character. I think there are good reasons for this. It was never the case that people in general saw the truths of the faith “with the same clarity as one sees a tree.” But science has made it more difficult (or perhaps only created a different sort of difficulty?) for at least two reasons.
One reason is that the relation of the scriptural account of history to the truths of the faith has been rendered complex and difficult by the replacement of the straightforward Genesis story with a scientific picture of evolutionary development over billions of years. Those who accept Genesis as literally historical can only do so as a conscious choice and with constant struggle. Those who are willing (like me) to take Genesis as symbolic have to live with a level of skepticism about the literal truth of scripture which did not much trouble people five hundred years ago. We have accepted the introduction of the principle that scripture may not always be factually accurate about the physical world and human history, and suffer an inevitable anxiety that the assignment of “merely symbolic” to key components of the story might not stop there (as, indeed, it has not among many theologians). This anxiety may be slight, almost nonexistent, for many of us, but I think it’s there in everyone, as one can demonstrate to oneself by spending a few minutes in the psychological experiment of imagining that one has no doubt whatsoever that human history is literally and exactly described in scripture.
The other reason is the presence in our consciousness of the scientific approach to truth. This, I’ve realized in the course of these reflections, is very strong in my own mind. I’m not a scientist (I’m far too undisciplined) but I’ve always admired it and loved its elegant method of arriving at truth by hypothesis and experiment. The truth so arrived at is objective, available to everyone, and demonstrable. Anyone who doubts it can (at least in principle) prove it for himself. And contrary to a misapprehension one sometimes encounters, facts arrived at in this way are rarely proven wrong except on the basis of procedural or technical mistakes in the experiment. They may be refined and made more accurate and precise—this is the relation of Einstein’s work to Newton’s—but they are not disproved. (Hypotheses, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent theories, are disproved regularly, and it’s sometimes the over-eagerness of scientists to state a strong hypothesis as fact that leads to the perception that science is constantly undoing its own findings. And I’m not talking about the areas of science, such as cosmology or evolution, which are more a matter of reasoning from observation than of experiment.)
When a group of scientists set out to start a science humor magazine they couldn’t think of anything funnier to call it than The Journal of Irreproducible Results. Faith, of course, offers us only the irreproducible result, from any perspective we can measure. No two people can pray for the same thing and be certain—or even reasonably hopeful—of obtaining the same response. No one person can expect the same response twice. This makes perfect sense, because every person’s relationship to God is unique and constantly changing. But it only serves to highlight the greater level of confidence we have in the facts proved by science. Against that standard, the persuasive claims of faith appear relatively weak, at least in the abstract. It doesn’t really help much to state the obvious, that spiritual reality is not subject to the same sort of interrogation that science performs on the physical.
In the personal realm, of course, faith has at least as much power as it ever has, perhaps in part to a certain clearing of the air, aided by science, which has aided us in seeing more clearly the difference between genuine religion and magic. But we’re left with that gap between the psychologically and the scientifically plausible.
Although many or most of us may have to resign ourselves to a certain amount of involuntary doubt, of anxiety about the faith, we shouldn’t be too passive or too accepting of it. It should be not merely endured, but questioned as vigorously as it questions faith, and used in that way it can press the latter to become stronger and more profound. Resignation can go too far, relinquish too much. As someone in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest says (quoting from memory): “Resignation is a dreadful thing when by slow degrees it prepares the soul to live without God.”
(By the way, you can find The Journal of Irreproducible Results here.)