Doubt by Joel Freeman

Liberal arts colleges are places catered towards uncertainty, places whose existences confirm the ability to be unsure. We are given nearly two years before we must declare a major. We are made to take a certain amount of courses in a wide variety of disciplines.  We are encouraged to study abroad, to be exposed to cultures simultaneously similar and dissimilar to our own.  We are told that such learning allows us to better understand our world, it allows us to see issues from a variety of perspectives, it allows us to question the way things are.  In this way, the liberal arts college dares us to doubt.  It challenges us to critically examine our own beliefs in the hopes that we might better understand them and those opposed.  I get the feeling, though, that this is not truly the case.  I am surrounded by, and am oftentimes one among, students who do not question themselves, who are steadfast in their own beliefs and are therefore unwilling to ever doubt them. There is an irony, though, to this whole situation, lying in the fact that most of this student population believes it already does doubt. We call ourselves open-minded, but how many perspectives do we honestly consider, how many worldviews do we accept as legitimate?  More dangerous than not doubting is denying the fact that we don’t.  I find this to be a dangerous state of mind, this one unwilling to look inward, and feel as though we especially—being students in an institution of questioning—are called to question ourselves: to doubt.

Or perhaps a better word would be humility.  Christians, certainly, have this word tucked into their back pockets, nestled into the corners of their vernacular.  This term speaks to one of the most intriguing paradoxes in the gospels—God made flesh, unlimited divine ensconced in a vulnerable finite being, made servant—and is at the same time perhaps the most challenging aspect of seeking to exemplify the life of goodness, the life of Jesus.  Despite its difficulty, there is no doubting the importance and prominence of humility in the life of Jesus, who taught an unconventional sort of wisdom.  And in the vein of such unconventional wisdom, humility driven by faith necessitates a doubt turned inward.  In order to be humble, we must doubt even our most strongly held beliefs.

In my experience this is something that Christians (especially, but far from exclusively, the most vocal and hostile Christians) are quite unaccustomed to doing.  When speaking of doubt here, I am not advocating for only that of the kind that is distant and intellectual—skepticism of God, of existence, of being—but also, and more importantly, a doubt of particular assumptions and world-views ingrained in a contemporary Western Christian tradition (though certainly even these traditions vary greatly).  Jesus’ call to humility compels us to hold gently to the correctness of our beliefs— to be willing to examine them in the face of others.  I often come to this kind of doubt by observing the actions and behaviors of those around me.  What do I do with a belief in the exclusivity of Jesus’ truth when I see deeply-seated goodness in those of different faiths or nonfaiths?  When their lives better exemplify that of Jesus than the high school boys of my Bible study?  What do I do when an institutional rejection of non-heterosexual orientations drives some to self-hate and suicide?  What do I do when the Bible is used as support for “holy” wars that are anything but pure in intent?  These cases that pull at my heart and conscience lead me to examine my beliefs, not necessarily with the aim of giving them up, but with a goal of honestly considering the other side.  For I believe this is part of what humility calls us to do, to listen seriously to that with which we do not align ourselves.  To be humble in our beliefs, we need to consider that they not be true.

I find this to be a lesson taught not only by Jesus, but borne also of the Enlightenment.  The scientific method, though made not to deal in the realm of the spiritual, has much to tell us about belief.  In arguing a claim, or testing a theory, the scientist must first and foremost hold to the idea that she has discovered nothing of interest; this basic premise must first be overcome before even the consideration of the experimental hypotheses, this newly proposed belief.  And once this has been tested and the data run through statistics, a scientist must support his analysis with everything he has, must push it to the boldest of claims.  But alas, technology changes, discoveries are made and new theories are put forth, new theories that may clearly disprove our scientist’s initial claims once so convincing.  At this stage, the scientist reveals something about humility.  She must look hard at these new findings, look hard at her own, and be willing to start again, to throw herself behind something new or else find a way to make her approach relevant again.  I find beauty in such a system that allows for scientists to be wrong without shame, a system that handles the dealings of fact and belief.  I’m not advocating for a scientific approach to the concerns of everything.  There are phenomena in our world that cannot be explained with parsimonious theories and level-headed predictions; by asserting such, we would be making a hubristic claim in the name of Science.  Though we can still use this methodology as a guide for the way we deal with beliefs.  And perhaps, even, a secular consideration of the religious.  For too often I have seen outright rejections of faith from those outside of religion with the assumption that one person leads a life of heady belief while the other’s is grounded  in unquestionable fact.  Both people, though, are choosing to ascribe to one construct of the world or the other, and in this sense, both have space to doubt.  Both can deeply question themselves.  The good scientist is unafraid to honestly examine an opposing theory; nothing is held precious at the expense of other possibilities.

In saying this, I step on thin ice and feel the gray smooth take my weight with audible creak.  I have come close to proposing—may have in fact just suggested—that we hold no belief sacred, that each one’s opposite should be given ear and the most serious of considerations.  And surely this would be the most humble of beings, this person willing to listen to all, holding nothing to herself.  Someone devoted to seriously considering the ridiculous and questioning the reasonable could not look down upon any other’s beliefs, for they, too, must be sincerely heard.  But at this point, I find myself reflexively stepping back, feeling the comfort of my heel on firm ground.  In going forward, I risk breaking that ice which is the system of beliefs I hold close.  I risk a sudden fall into weightless dark and wonder if there is another way to proceed that does not require me to let go of it all.  And I don’t know how to answer that question.

I feel a confidence, though, in the power I have to listen.  I am unsure of exactly what the doubting I have spoken of may look like, but know that I must listen to get there.  I am not speaking of an aggressive sort of listening—one bent on the need to rebuttal and deconstruct—nor one that is passive and disengaged.  At the core of doubt lies a listening that is honest and sincere, that gives its speaker a platform—a listening that hears.  It is such listening that prods me forward.

Posted on June 8, 2015 .