Monday, April 8, 2013

In Praise of Doubt


In the film Doubt, Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with a student in the school. She is relentless in her pursuit to expose and get rid of Father Flynn. She even lies to Father Flynn about calling a sister in a previous perish who acknowledges Father Flynn’s past history of “infringements.” Father Flynn resigns.

Sister James, a younger nun, was the one who originally suspected something and notified Sister Aloysius, but then her fears dissipated, and she came to the conclusion that Father Flynn was just concerned about the boy, the only African American student in the school.  

Sister James is at home visiting her family when Father Flynn resigns. Soon after her return, she sees Sister Aloysius sitting outside, looking troubled. It is a cold day, snow is on the ground. The following is the interchange beginning with Sister James.

“Why did Father Flynn go? What did you say to make him leave?”
“That I called a nun in his previous perish. That I had found out his prior history of infringements.”
“But you didn’t prove it?”
“I make no such call.”
“You lied.”
“Yes. But if he had not such a history the lie wouldn’t have worked. His resignation was his confession. He was what I thought he was. And he’s gone.
“I can’t believe you lied.”
“In the pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God. Of course there is a price.”
“I see.”

Then Sister Aloysius starts to break down. There is pause in the conversation. She cries out, “O, Sister James.” Sister James draws close, “What is it, Sister?” She says, “I have doubts.” Then she begins to weep as she exclaims again, “I have such doubts.”

Some see this final scene as a scene of despair. I see it as a sign of hope. I would argue that her admission of doubt to Sister James suggests the possibility of her redemption.

Until this moment, she had expressed no doubt whatsoever. She was quite arrogant and pompous in her certitude. She had even lied in the pursuit of her agenda to get rid of Father Flynn. But here, in her confession, there is at least some presence of humility. Maybe she can change. Maybe she can become someone different. Maybe she can become more than what she is.

In the interchange between Thomas and Jesus in John 20:24–29, Jesus in no way judges or condemns Thomas for “doubting.” In fact, Thomas is no different than the other disciples, who did not believe the report of the women that Jesus was alive.

Doubts are necessary stops on the journey of faith. They provide places where we can assess our beliefs, presuppositions, perceptions, and images of the Divine to determine if they are leading us into authentic God experience. Our doubts can be a way of keeping us honest and humble by acknowledging that our search for truth is always a limited and error-prone search.

If the truth were known, some people’s main interest in religion is not the pursuit of truth, but control. And people who use religion as a means of control will not allow themselves to doubt or question their faith. To do so would be a source of shame and a sign of weakness. The sad thing is that they themselves don’t know it’s about control. They have convinced themselves it’s about truth, when it is really about control. So they have to keep their doubts hidden, even to themselves.

When a faith community is more interested in control and in maintaining the institution than authentic spiritual growth, doubt is viewed negatively. The leaders may claim that questions are welcome, but everyone in the community knows that only certain kinds of questions are welcome. The community is not a safe place to seriously express one’s real doubts or questions. Such doubts and questions are either ignored, dismissed, regarded as a sign of spiritual immaturity, or flat out condemned.

When I pastored in Maryland, I had a member who worked as a police chief at the Capital. I was invited to give a prayer at the installation of some new officers, and while there my friend was able to arrange a visit with the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. I asked him: What do you think is the greatest spiritual need in our country? He said, without much hesitation: “For religious people to know God.”

What he meant, of course, was to know God in relationship, to have authentic God experience. Religious people have information about God, which information is always limited and inadequate. Religious people without genuine God experience are often the most zealous to protect their particular definition of God or their particular version of faith. They are zealous to guard what was handed down to them. Their faith is a second-hand faith that serves as a substitute for authentic God encounter. If they truly met God they would fall down in humility and repentance, the way Paul did in the book of Acts when he encountered the risen Christ.

If we are to grow spiritually, if we are to become more, then we need to grow comfortable with doubt, with uncertainty, with the continual questioning of our faith as a necessary part of our spiritual development.

There is a story about a university professor who came to a Zen master to ask him about Zen. The Zen Master poured his guest a cup of tea, but when the cup was full he kept pouring until it ran all over the table. The professor cried out, “It’s full. It’s running over.” The Zen master said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Some of us grew up believing what we believe, and we are convinced we know, but only when we empty our cup, only when we come to know that we don’t know, only when we let go of control and needing to be right, can the space be created to experience an authentic, dynamic, transformative relationship with God. 

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