Doubt is the Faith That Colors Outside the Lines
By Paul Graves
I recently had an unexpected conversation with an acquaintance who might slip easily into the cliché-coat: “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” I wish now that I had asked him “Why is it important for you to never be in doubt?” A variation on that? “Why is it important for you to always be certain you’re right?”
Many of us lean on our certainty as a crutch to hold us up, afraid that to doubt what we believe will cause our entire belief systems to crash like a house of cards. For some people, I suspect their collection of beliefs does resemble a fragile house of cards. In this circumstance, doubt is indeed a kind of threat.
A Healthy Kind of Doubt
But there is a much healthier kind of doubt I suggest you consider! It asks “Why?” as a door-opener to new information, new hopes and visions. Last Thursday, the Perseverance Rover was lowered onto Mars after a seven-month voyage. I can’t imagine the number “Why?” questions that were asked by countless people that resulted in that successful landing!
No doubt there were doubters about that mission. (Yes, I’m aware of the verbal irony in that sentence.) But the vision-expanding doubters carried the day. Eventually, I suspect our world will be better for them pushing beyond traditional astrophysics theories.
The doubt I urge us to embrace colors outside the lines of a traditional belief system — scientific, religious, political, economic, you-name-it. This doubt is willing to trust (have faith) in the realization that we don’t have all the answers.
Doubt As Faith
That is why it’s important to consider this truth-piece: doubt is so often faith that colors outside the lines!
Let’s consider that in the context of religious faith. As I’ve said before, I speak only from my experience in the Christian tradition. I know other traditions deal with this doubt dynamic also, but I am most familiar with my Christian experience.
In his just-published book, “Faith After Doubt,” Brian McLaren made this affirmation: “A verse I had memorized in my childhood came to mind: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understandings’ [Proverbs 3:5].
A Difference in Types of Doubt
For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God.”
I was trained as a child to always color inside the lines. As I grew, I slowly learned the world didn’t collapse if my red or green ended up outside the lines. As a man who seeks more and more truth of “what is”, I continue to learn that the lines can too easily straight-jacket my curiosity, my imagination, and my faith.
I’m more willing to have faith (trust) that my belief that God is a certain way, is inevitably too small a belief. My willingness to doubt is driven by my desire to learn more about the God who is infinitely greater than my imagination can explore on its own.
In “When the Heart Waits,” Sue Monk Kidd speaks wisely: “Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling but in upheaval.”
My dwelling metaphor differs from Ms. Kidd’s, but its truth-piece works. I use the traditional religious belief system of my life as a floor to stand on, but not the ceiling and walls of a room much too small for me to discover God. I need to splash color well beyond the confines of that room. Spiritual growth can be messy at times.
But it’s all good! I have no doubt.
Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he’s been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in The Spokesman-Review’s Faith and Values section, and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.