01 November 2008

The (False?) Faith/Doubt Divide

Are faith and doubt truly and fundamentally incompatible? Because the concept of faith forms so fundamental a part our belief system, its contours merit careful attention. Likewise, the negative space surrounding it merits attention, which is the purpose of this post. 

Faith sometimes carries an ephemeral sense about it, leading to the often assumed conclusion that faith may only exist intangibly. Despite many efforts to redefine faith as involving more than mere belief, such efforts rarely annhilate barriers that many have constructed from an upbringing focusing on faith as belief or as assent to certain ideas or concepts. A few of the more effective attempts of this manner to which I have been exposed redefine faith as belief + action or as "faithfulness." 

Thinking upon these redefinitions has led me to evaluate what effect they might have on the "negative space" surrounding the idea of faith/faithfulness. I have heard many times that faith and doubt are polar opposites, which concept (at least on its face) received support in the Lectures on Faith (6:12). Notwithstanding the advantages of such a belief, its tendency to stigmatize any harboring of doubts as a betrayal of one's faith can itself create a crippling, chilling effect on both faith and doubt. For individuals whose inquisitive minds instinctively question and examine, even when maintaining faithful observance of covenants, the thought that questioning or reevaluating their beliefs might actually constitute a rejection of those beliefs can lead down a dark path paved by the great deceiver.

Rather than reinforce this false divide, making use of the concept of faith as faithfulness seems to restructure the "negative space" of doubt. Instead of seeing doubt or questioning as something to either avoid or embrace wholesale, the faith as faithfulness idea seems to suggest that in the gospel and in scripture, doubt should be understood as "doubtfulness" or acting on doubt--similarly to faith being understood as "faithfulness" or acting on faith. In this light, doubt loses its independent positive or negative connotation and may return to its rightful place alongside belief as means to an end (whether the end is good or bad depends on the direction that the belief and doubt lead us). Questions and inquiry and examination can allow a righteous individual to pursue righteousness and faithfulness as did Joseph Smith, without worrying whether his questioning of the various tenets of faith which surrounded him would eternally condemn him as a "doubter" or infidel. 

Although faith as faithfulness and doubt as doubtfulness may not provide every answer or resolve all lines of inquiry, leaving these interpretations open can allow the believer to hold fast to their belief while evading the forces that would require an unquestioning belief in the face of doubt. Doubt can then act to strengthen belief in truth by allowing for questions and inquiry to uncover reinforcing truth, enabling intelligent belief and a spiritual way of learning truth by study and also by faith. Similarly, doubt and questioning and inquiry can provide means for discrediting the untrue by providing believers the freedom to hold fast only to true beliefs and not feel obligated to embrace every whim that might entice them down roads of human musings and sophistries.

The true believer may then proceed to "prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2). Faithfulness can include faithful doubting and questioning and inquiry so long as such faithfulness directs itself at bringing the faithful individual closer to God and to truth. In this manner, the possibility that faith and doubt may coexist in the same individual simulataneously without either threatening the security of the other seems real, provided that the individual retains the motivation to follow truth. Such a motivation seems to be the root of faithfulness. What doubt may remain can serve as a catalyst to further learning--an enabling power to the seeker for truth. 

Only when doubt gives rise to doubtfulness--to unfaithfulness--should it be absolutely shunned. Otherwise, the beginning and ending point of faith is a perfect knowledge. As recounted in Ether, the brother of Jared "knew, nothing doubting." (Ether 3:19). Such a description should not be the touchstone of faith, but rather of knowledge. None of us should expect to begin our journey at the culminating point.

Faith strengthens into knowledge through experiences of faith--which by definition require belief in things as yet unknown, or in things where some question may remain. Thus, the absence of certainty becomes a hallmark of faith, allowing for faithful doubt, questioning and inquiry. These gifts--the gifts of faithful doubt, faithful questions, and faithful inquiry--may form the stumbling block of this age. To reject them is to reject the progress that they offer--even if that rejection is pronounced in the name of seeking certainty or knowledge. Thus, seeking to know, "nothing doubting" mistakes an end for the means to achieve it. To attempt to reach knowledge without first passing through faith--and tests of faith--only serves to limit our agency and our ability to progress, a form of self-damnation.

Knowledge and certainty do not come from discarding faithful questions, but rather from embracing them and the learning that they open unto us. We cannot be acted upon and not act, cannot shelve faithful inquiries instead of pursuing them, and expect to receive the blessings of the faithful--even the growth from faith to knowledge. Instead, the Gospel requires that we remain faithful despite the (initial, and possibly long-lasting) absence of knowledge. It requires that our faith persist in the face of doubt. Only then are we truly exercising faith and relying on it as our "evidence of things not seen" or known (Hebrews 11:1).

As faithful adherents to the Gospel, we must maintain our faith in the face of doubt. We must, as Paul described it, "against hope, believe[] in hope" (Romans 4:18). And through such faithful experiences--when faced with true tests of faith, requiring careful thought and questioning and study, even as we pass through the valley of the shadow of doubt--we grow in faith unto the perfect day when our faithfulness allows for the Spirit of God to answer all faithful doubt, questions, and inquiries. 


cloak removed,

covering hidden,

absent longing returns


justification fled

when will, revealed

and covered by


opened the path

leading away

toward the reentry


fruit half-eaten

tangy and sweet,

the bloodstain 

lingers on lip

as longing eyes



ungraven image

eye of faith encompasses

yet fading forms



rippled reflections 

reveal failings,

sustain new stature


a new creature emerges and