Certainty is so often overrated.
This is especially the case when it comes to faith, or other imponderables.
When the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said recently that at times he questioned if God was really there, much of the reaction was predictably juvenile: Even God’s earthly emissary isn’t sure if the whole thing is made up!
The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.” Archbishop Welby’s admission had not just “raised a few eyebrows,” it declared, but “sparked concerns if the leader of the Church of England would one day renounce Christianity or spirituality as a whole.” Another journalist wrote excitedly, “Atheism is on the rise and it appears as though even those at the top of the church are beginning to have doubts.”
Despite the alarm, the archbishop’s remarks were rather tame. He told an audience at Bristol Cathedral that there were moments where he wondered, “Is there a God? Where is God?” Then, asked specifically if he harbored doubts, he responded, “It is a really good question. … The other day I was praying over something as I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”
The London-based Muslim scholar Mufti Abdur-Rahman went straight to Twitter: “I cannot believe this.” The Australian atheist columnist Peter FitzSimons tweeted, “VICTORY!” The “Daily Show” account joked, “Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God. Adds: ‘But atheism doesn’t pay them bills, sooo …”’
But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human. He may lead 80 million Anglicans worldwide, but he is also a man who knows anguish, rage, incomprehension and the cold bareness of grief. He lost his firstborn child, Johanna, a 7-month-old baby girl, in a car accident in 1983, a period he has described as “utter agony.” As a teenager he cared for an alcoholic father. When explaining his thoughts on doubt, he referred to the mournful Psalm 88, which describes the despair of a man who has lost all of his friends and cries out, “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” The psalm reads bleakly: “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Faith cannot block out darkness, or doubt. When on the cross, Jesus did not cry out “Here I come!” but “My God, why have you forsaken me?” His disciples brimmed with doubts and misgivings.
Just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the presence of doubt. Faith becomes then a commitment, a practice and a pact that is usually sustained by belief. But doubt is not just a roiling, or a vulnerability; it can also be a strength. Doubt acknowledges our own limitations and confirms — or challenges — fundamental beliefs, and is not a detractor of belief but a crucial part of it.
As Christopher Lane argued in “The Age of Doubt,” the explosion of questioning among Christian thinkers in the Victorian era transformed the idea of doubt from a sin or lapse to necessary exploration. Many influential Christian writers, like Calvin and C.S. Lewis, have acknowledged times of uncertainty. The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor said there was “no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe,” but for her, these torments were “the process by which faith is deepened.”
Mother Teresa, too, startled the world when her posthumous diaries revealed that she was tormented by a continual gloom and aching to see, or sense, God. In 1953 she wrote, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.”’
And yet by this work, she helped many thousands of people. And it’s not always torment. Some live quite contentedly with a patchwork of doubt. Who can possibly hope to understand everything, and to have exhaustively researched all areas of uncertainty? How can we jam the infinite and contain it in our tiny brains? This is why there is so much comfort in mystery.
Just over a month before he died, Benjamin Franklin wrote that he thought the “System of morals” and the religion of Jesus of Nazareth were the “best the World ever saw,” though Franklin said he had, along “with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” A logical pragmatism.
My local pastor, Tim Giovanelli, a Baptist whose ocean-swimming prowess has lassoed scores of surfers and swimmers into his church, puts it simply: “For Welby, myself and many others, it is not that we have certainty but have seen the plausibility of faith and positive impact it can make. In a broken world, that can be enough.”
If we don’t accept both the commonality and importance of doubt, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. While certainty frequently calcifies into rigidity, intolerance and self-righteousness, doubt can deepen, clarify and explain. This is, of course, a subject far broader than belief in God.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell put it best. The whole problem with the world, he wrote, is that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Of that at least we can be certain. I’m pretty sure, anyway.