A Reasonable Doubt, and Beyond
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1) according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures. “The evidence of things not seen.” Of course, Mark Twain put it more bluntly saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Or at least that is how some define faith. There are however a large number of religious traditions that do not characterize faith as a blind believing in things for which there is no evidence. Of course I wish to tell you about how this works in our particular faith tradition, but I am always aware that this year the children are focusing on World religions in their Sunday School classes. I like to allow that to effect our focus here in the sanctuary as well.
There is a book I picked up because I heard about it during an interview with the author on NPR a year or two ago. Doubt: a history by Jennifer Hecht is a thick book that runs through the history of great doubters like Socrates and Jesus, Confucius and Thomas Jefferson. She explores doubt in the various world religions as well as great secular traditions. “Like belief,” she writes in the introduction, “doubt takes a lot of different forms from ancient Skepticism to modern scientific empiricism, from doubt in many gods to doubt in one God, to doubt that recreates and enlivens faith and doubt that is really disbelief.” (Doubt: a history by Jennifer Hecht; p ix)
Many of us are here in this congregation because we were lead here by doubt. It is not that doubting brought us to try this community. But doubting is what led many of us away from other communities where doubt was discouraged, where questions were quarantined, where wondering about stuff was not welcomed. Many people in this congregation left another faith community in doubt, or perhaps you were sent from or even kicked out of other communities because you had doubt about the creeds, and the beliefs, and the professions of faith. Or maybe you never were all that connected to a faith community and began to experience doubts about the meaningfulness of the life you were leading. However the details played out, doubt was a major element for many as they left. And now, with doubts still in hand, you are here.
A Catholic acquaintance of mine attempted a compliment saying, “Douglas, you’ve got your work cut out for you, I think it’s great what your doing. For so many people your church is their last chance.” And while, yes, it was patronizing, I took it in the spirit in which the comment was offered. It is rather remarkable, this community where you are welcome as you are, doubts and all. For many of us, I suppose this place could be considered our last chance. But I think it is more accurate to recognize that for so many people this community is their first chance. Many here find this to be the first chance to be in community without hiding some aspect of their faith. Many here find this to be our first chance to be in a community where we allow our beliefs to change and grow and mature.
As a religious movement, Unitarian Universalism is constantly pushing itself beyond narrow definitions of religion. We are perpetually searching for a better way to see and a better way to describe what we experience as religious people. We do not claim to have all the answers and do not demand anyone to adhere to even a specific set of questions. Here you’re allowed to be skeptical; indeed we encourage it for it sharpens truth. William Ellery Channing, the preeminent preacher from the founding of American Unitarianism, offered the text from first Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 21 as his opening passage for the landmark Baltimore Sermon. That sermon from nearly two hundred years ago that launched Unitarianism as a denomination in its own right rather than continuing as the heresy de jour of liberal Christianity. He begin that sermon with the passage from Paul’s letter the Thessalonians, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is true.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Unitarianism began as an iconoclastic faith; smashing the idols constructed under in the creeds and doctrines of the church. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. At the inception of American Unitarianism, the major difference the Unitarians claimed was in their interpretation of Scripture. Channing said in that landmark Baltimore Sermon that as Unitarians we “feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon [the Bible] perpetually.” By claiming that the use of reason was key, we have over the years followed Channing’s example on nearly every aspect of religious life imaginable.
Reasonable doubt helps us to steer clear of many idolatries. We do well to have a touch of agnosticism, a dash of doubt, if you will, in all of our religious statements. After all, “The surest way to lose truth is to pretend you already possess it.” [Gordon Allport Becoming, p. 17] Doubt is the handmaiden of truth, the constant attendant of new discovery. Doubt keeps us honest. For there is much we do not yet understand, more information is being uncovered on a regular basis. New ideas, deeper understanding, and richer connections are always still coming.
Indeed at times it seems like we know so much and with the space three breaths I am suddenly struck by how little we understand. “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) In his early book, Leaves for the Notebook of an Untamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of his experiences as a pastor. He recounted one experience with a dog owned one of his parishioners, a dog with hair hanging over its eyes. When he inquired about it, saying would it not be kind to trim the poor dogs hair so it could see better, he learned that this breed of dog had evolved this way. The hair protected the dog’s eyes in harsh conditions and thus the eyes had grown exceedingly sensitive to compensate for being covered with hair. The eyes were so sensitive, that if the hair were trimmed the dog would be effectively blinded by the over stimulation of light. For now we see through our dog hair, darkly. Niebuhr saw it as a metaphor, complaining that many of his parishioners seemed to be like this dog: unable to see fully the light; always needing to filter the gospel lest they be stuck blind in receiving it in its fullness. Niebuhr did not remain as a pastor for long. Perhaps he was not able to keep his less-than-complimentary opinions of his congregants out of his sermons, I don’t know. No, Niebuhr found his calling instead to be in academia as a theologian and ethicist.
People shield themselves from their doubts; we shield ourselves from reality itself when it shows itself to be in contradiction to what we were quite sure of yesterday. We all do it. Keeping a dash of doubt on hand is good; allowing a smidgen of skepticism to slide through every situation can save you from getting stuck in false certainty.
Certainty is an idol. When you feel certain, beyond a doubt, that you understand yourself, God, the meaning of life or humanity’s place in the universe, then you are probably sitting on a false idol. What is certainty? It is that which lies beyond a reasonable doubt. Do they still use that phrase in a court of law? You have to find the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a court of law you are working from objective truths. In religion we work from subjective truths. It is possible to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt when dealing in the realm of objective truths. We can objectively say “the man walked in the room around 11:00 at night.” This can be verified as true and, more importantly it can, with contrary evidence, be shown to be false.
Subjective truth, on the other hand, “God changes lives through the transformative power of love,” can have all manner of contrary evidence thrown at it with possibly no effect. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) No amount of evidence is going to make a difference to subjective truth when it is considered beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Paul Rasor characterizes liberal religion as “Faith without certainty.” “This is not the same thing as faith without conviction,” he writes in his recent book titled Faith without certainty. “It does mean that religious liberals tend to hold faith claims with a certain tentativeness.” (p ix)
Doubt is always an inherent part of faith, and theology should never be free from doubt. Religious liberalism has always to some extent involved faith without certainty. German Theologian Dorothee Solle has pointed out that faith without doubt is not stronger, it is simply more ideological. The more important question is, does your theology matter in your life? (Faith without Certainty by Paul Rasor p xxi)
It has been observed by many liberal theologians (Wittgenstein for one) that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. The most intimate and ultimate levels of life are so enormous, so deep, and so mystical that they are unnamable. There are no words in our dictionary with which we can give voice to our experiences. If I were to try to articulate what I experience of God, it could only be like trying to catch running water in my bare hands, and then bring it in to the sanctuary to show you what running water is. I simply do not have a firm enough grasp of how to communicate mystery. It is not for lack of something to say, it for lack of words to properly articulate the experiences.
But recognition of mystery is not the same as doubting the mystery, of course. And as Davies said in our prayer this morning, “o God in whom we only half believe, we cannot altogether doubt.” Being doubters does not mean we can give up and say, “Oh, well we’ll never understand.” Ours is an iconoclastic faith – to be sure, but we smash the idols so we may see more clearly what needs to be there. We leave behind old creeds and doctrines not only for the sake of leaving, but also for the sake of finding.
There was a delightful and provocative novel published about five years ago called Life of Pi. It is the adventure of a shipwrecked boy named Pi traveling across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger. It is also a book about faith and truth. In one scene before Pi gets on the boat he bumps into one of his teachers from school and they fall into a conversation about faith during which the boy learns that his favorite teacher is an atheist. “Religion is darkness,” he tells Pi. “There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist.” (p 27) Now, Pi is a deeply religious boy and at first does not know how to hold this new perspective. But he goes on to say, to us, the readers:
I felt a kinship with him. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must me. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (p28)
Now, Agnosticism is a well represented theological perspective in this congregation, I am sure. But that is why I offer Pi’s critique! Is Agnosticism at times simply a cheap way of ducking the question? While I was in seminary I had a teacher who would say to us, “No appeals to mystery before 5:00.” She wanted us to struggle with the theological questions, to settle on an answer or two – even if only for a short time. We were not allowed to throw our hands in the air to her questions “why is there suffering?” because she was training us to make hospital visits. When someone dying of cancer looks up at you and asks “why am I suffering, what did I do wrong?” it is best not to say, “Well, God does move in mysterious ways,” and then shrug. It may be theologically accurate but it is not very pastoral.
Perhaps it is only a matter of degree. How severe an Agnostic are you? I’ve been sorely tempted to buy the bumper sticker that reads: “Militant agnostic! I don’t know and you don’t either!” Instead I have a gentler admonition that says nearly the same thing: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Unitarian Universalism is remarkable because here we are willing to doubt, willing to admit we do not own the corner on religious truth. Painter Paul Gardner has said, “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.” And so the same could be said of my faith and beliefs. It’s never finished; it simply stops in interesting places. We Unitarian Universalists have long insisted that we apply reason to our beliefs and making allowances for changes in beliefs. If our reason leads us to doubt, then let our doubt be a process by which falsehood is burned away, a process whereby truth may be purified.
In a world without end,
May it be so.