Faith and Doubt
-by Brian O’Donnell
I was recently asked to speak at an event regarding the spiritual life. Several weeks prior to the event I sat down to collect my thoughts and come up with a topic. Nothing came to me. I felt barren of ideas and inspiration. I tried to will myself to be inspiring. Of course this didn’t work. I next grabbed books from my library regarding spirituality and began to cram. Some of what I ingested was momentarily inspiring yet when I put the books down I lost my excitement. I began to panic when I realized I was supposed to be spiritually uplifting in less than a week and I was so lost. My next strategy was to sleep a lot!
It finally dawned on me, after going around the infamous vicious circles, that I could speak about the exact predicament I was in. My topic could be about doubt, lost faith, as an aspect of the spiritual journey. By accepting this my flame was re-ignited.
So what follows are some ideas that I shared with the folks who attended my talk. Much of this is informed by the Guide’s Lecture on Faith and Doubt.
To be on a spiritual path means being confronted by faithlessness, to being lost in the dark, to be besieged by doubt. An authentic spiritual discipline can accelerate the encounter with these forces and experiences. Prayer and meditation often surface buried and banished fears and pockets of misgiving.
As I was meditating on this aspect of my (our) journey a series of phrases kept coming to me. Have faith in your doubts’ have doubts in your faith; have doubts in your doubts; have faith in your faith.
I want to discuss each of these in turn. What do I mean by having faith in your doubts? What I mean is to listen, to pay attention, to honor, to serve the voice of doubt. This voice can be the voice of discernment. It can be the tool of the sharpened and mature intellect. It can be the voice that says the Emperor has no clothes. Doubts can arise from the realms of intuition or the accumulated wisdom of life experience. Doubt can be just plain common sense asking the obvious question. I shudder to think of some of the “spiritual” detours I took before joining the Pathwork that would have been quickly remedied if I’d listened to my doubt. Polish the jewel of doubt and let it glisten and light the way.
What about having doubts in our faith? Isn’t faith what we are to be building in our spiritual practice? Much of what we call faith rests on shaky foundation. It can be a function of wishful thinking, laziness and ignorance. It can be a blind belief. This kind of faith comes from the child consciousness in us that doesn’t want to take responsibility for our life’s creation. It doesn’t want to see how we are constantly creating our life circumstances. It comes from the child consciousness in us that wants an external God to make it all right for us—like our parents didn’t. It comes for the child in us that yearns for the image of heaven that was portrayed to us when little. A seemingly orderly, bland and ”perfect” state.
Ill-placed faith tries to rise above and deny the terror of existence. Resists facing that we are going to die that we are dying. This child faith looks the other way from the realities of war, cancer, aching poverty, horrific cruelty, AIDS. Such faith candy coats life with a superimposed confection that tries to banish terror, uncertainty and the ambiguities of life.
This kind of faith requires doubt, penetrating, wise courageous doubt.
This kind of doubt is what makes us grownups, not kids who are naively believing in an updated fairy tale with religious overlays. It is the mature discernment of the individual who is willing to question. Who is willing to make up his/her own mind (literally).
If doubt is so valuable why do I suggest to doubt doubt?
Any truth and capacity can be sued to serve truth or the will of the ego. As I mentioned doubt can be used to facilitate our growing up. It can make us independent thinkers. It can tear down faulty edifices cerected to protect us from the vicissitudes of life.
But doubt can also protect us from ever taking a leap into unknown territory. Doubt can become the minion of fear. It can seduce us away from risk—from dying into greater life. It can be the tool of the imperial ego. We can cling to the “solidity” of reason when the movement of spirit calls us. All of us have had the experience of crossing a stream and needing to jump from rock to rock. The voice of doubt can protect us from true danger yet it also can freeze us on the first rock where we stay stuck and petrified. It points out all the negative possibilities and outcomes. This same voice often visits us on our spiritual journey as we are about to make a leap.
There also can be a hidden stake in doubting. There can be wishful thinking here as well. If there is no meaning to life, no larger purpose, if life ends at our death than this can allow us to avoid facing the consequences of what lives deep in us. To doubt a larger orchestration and unfolding can provide us the out from doing the hard work of looking deep inside to purify and cleanse what is dark and opposed to life.
What does it mean to have faith in faith?
When we have honored our real doubts, which means confronting our destinies. And when we have challenged our ill placed doubt that is the servant of fear and the little ego that doesn’t want to lose control. Then we can have faith in faith.
Then we can step towards the Greater Mystery of life undefended, with courage, integrity and love. We can risk discovering that we are not cosmically alone. We can discover that we are loved and in fact are Love. We can experience that we are a part of joyous choreography.
Touching into this kind of faith allows us to meet more doubt which then allows us to expand our faith in an ever increasing benign circle.
Which brings me to the role of spiritual practice in regards to faith and doubt. I see spiritual practice as the deepening of faith through meeting doubt. It is the active summoning of doubt, both in its ill-advised type and the real existential doubt. It is the undefended opening to the lostness, the darkness, the places of separation that exist in us, that we are put her to meet and transform.
Rumi has a great line that sums up this attitude quite well. “The elixir is hidden in the poison, come to the poison and come, return to the root of the root of your own Self.” We need to put our doubt in the chalice of our practice and drink of it fully to eventually savor the Essence that is basic to the brew.
Doubt is co-existent with separation. As long as we are separate from the Divine Source we will be challenged by doubt. So Doubt isn’t the issue, it’s not whether we have it or not, it’s how we meet it.
Spiritual practice can cultivate the attitude of not being victimized by doubt but using it as the portal to a deeper connection to faith.
I want to finish with a hymn from a Protestant minister, Al Carmines that captures in a simple manner the true faith experience.
“Faith is such a simple thing. It can’t talk, but only sing. It can’t reason, but can dance. Take a chance. Take a chance. Life is full of ways to go. Sun, rain, wind, snow. All unknowingly we trace a geography of grace. From breath to breath and blink to blink, it’s never quite the way we think.”