How doubt redeems belief

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
8 Jul 2009

Music is served by silence. Mass requires space, both around and within: consider the grace and eloquence of a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore. That which is unrelieved, without antithesis or contrast, fails to convince and tends to sclerosis.

As with art, so with faith. Where there is no doubt – or no admission of doubt - faith has no “other” to give it shape and reference, no perspective enabling the vision of a larger landscape. On 3 July 2009, many Christian traditions celebrated the feast of the apostle who has become known as Doubting Thomas. I will own to a devotion to this very human and confused follower of Jesus.

For me, faith has always been difficult but it is also something without which I feel incomplete and which never quite goes away: a dominant pedal gathering me up and directing me towards some as yet unheard harmonic resolution.

Once past the unquestioning belief of early childhood, I was held in my wavering course by the understated and slightly unorthodox faith of my parents. They never required me to believe six impossible things before breakfast, never offered theological definitions and never tried to win the arguments which arose from my teenage stroppiness. Being secure in their own faith and having experienced the ebb and flow of belief in living through the hardships and losses of war, they simply let their lives speak.

There have been three distinct, faith-nourishing experiences in my life. The first dates from my early teens and gives me an insight into the meaning of “becoming as little children”. My father was dis-assembling his motorbike – a task which always seemed to consume far more time than actually riding it – and as I passed him spanners and oily rags, I was protesting at the incomprehensibility of God.

My immature and wholly solipsistic argument ran something like this: “if there is a God, why can't he fix it so that we know? Why do people always say it's a mystery? How do we know it's true if we don't understand it?” Dad sighed gently as he always did when I was being difficult and pointed to our dog who was idly scratching himself amongst the scattered vitals of the BSA: “Look at Django. He's got no idea of how to put this engine back together. Doesn't mean it can't be done.” That was all. And the impact it still has on me decades later suggests that it was sufficient.

Not long after this exchange, my father died suddenly and my creaky adolescent faith was tipped over into an angry and desolate atheism. Philip Larkin's disturbing lines on religion laid me low then and still have the power to do so: “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade, created to
pretend we never die”.

The words precisely catch and cruelly define that fear that our credos may all be the result of existential terror and denial. The dead are gone as we will one day be gone. Their absence tears at our existence and we long beyond measure to see them again whilst dreading that we never will. That was the condition of Thomas whose grief and shock at the execution of his beloved rabbi was such that the excited protestations of his friends must have seemed like delusion and madness.

During my period of atheism, there was another memorable occasion when simple words took root and have remained a source of light. A fellow undergraduate - who could not return my love in the way I desired and is now a Catholic priest - gently and without dogma or dialectic, spoke to my confusion. Pouring me a Guinness, he observed “well, I just think that faith does better things than doubt.”

The third occasion was of an entirely different magnitude. It happened ten years ago in an intensive care unit as my mother's life came to its end. In those last few terrible minutes, we felt an immense presence “come for her”. I have longed to recapture that astounding experience, to draw upon it for comfort and validation. But the transcendent is not so biddable and the tensions between faith and doubt remain when we temporal and finite creatures clutch at the eternal and infinite.

None of these faith-sustaining experiences owe anything to orthodox teaching, biblical exegesis or force of theological argument. What they have in common, in varying degrees, is the experience of love – its actions and consequences. That was what happened to Thomas. No rabbinical exposition, no references to Torah. Just “put your hand here in my side.”

Whether or not the account is literal or allegorical (the agnostic in me speaks), it is true on the level which speaks to the heart. And despite the value of the intellectual aspects of belief, it is the experiential which, in the end, keeps us going.

In childhood, I began to learn of humility before the unknowable; in youth, to start to believe that positive choices are in themselves an act of faith; in maturity, to catch a glimpse of that power of love which survives our bodily dissolution.

To fear one's doubts and to deny them, is to take away the silence from the music and the space from the sculpture. As with all untruth, denial demeans, diminishes and eventually destroys. It is in acknowledging doubt that faith is brought into focus. And it is only now, in my sixth decade, that I have learned to doubt my doubts and to be less fearful of uncertainty.

I believe, help thou my unbelief.

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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