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Doubt is the Faith That Binds Us Together

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Some people are bound together by faith. They believe the same things, and say so, and that connects them. Like saying the creed in church. Or agreeing about certain spiritual truths. Or sharing the same initiation or race or ritual.

But the world is a complex place. We're intimately connected to a wider, more diverse range of people than any people before in history. Our communities are hardly, if ever, closed. Even people who share faith increasingly have doubts.

Sometimes they admit it. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they push doubt away and other times they embrace it, even deepen it.

There are more of us than ever who not only accept doubt, but see it as essential to faith. Doubt is good for you, in part because shared faith was never what we thought it was. It was mostly an illusion -- like the suburban cul-de-sac of religious truth. Living without difference does not a faith make.

It is increasingly clear to me that doubt is, in fact, the most important faith of all. Doubt invigorates faith, demands more of it, and causes us to ask more of each other. Doubt connects us to each other. Doubt binds my faith to yours. It makes me reach out. Discover. Explore. Question. Challenge. Learn. A person who doubts is one still on a journey.

If doubt defines you, too, check out Graham Greene's novel, Monsignor Quixote (1982). The story follows Father Quixote, an aging parish priest in the little town in La Mancha, Spain (yes, that La Mancha -- the allusion to Cervantes' holy-foolish Don Quixote is near-complete) as he vacations with his best friend, Sancho. Sancho is the retired, ex-mayor of the town and a committed communist. Both characters are men of very different but deep faith. But what ultimately binds them together are the ways in which they share doubt.

At one point, Father Quixote and Sancho have this conversation:

"I hope -- friend -- that you sometimes doubt too. It's human to doubt."

"I try not to doubt," the Mayor said.

"Oh, so do I. So do I. In that we are certainly alike."

And then Greene's narrator explains: "It's odd ... how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference: the doubter fights only with himself."

Later on, the priest says: "Oh, I want to believe that it is all true -- and that want is the only certain thing I feel." And he wonders to himself, "How is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief?'" The rest of the novel shows these two characters embracing their doubts, and their doubts causing them to re-imagine their beliefs.

It was Graham Greene who said about himself late in life: "The trouble is, I don't believe my unbelief." He confused a lot of people by saying that, but I get it. Sometimes it is hard to tell when belief has come or gone. Instead, it is doubt that is the constant. Doubt shows a person wrestling God. What could be more important than that?

I also embrace doubt because the older I become, the less interested I am in belief and the more interested I am in practice. A spiritual life endures even when I doubt, misbelieve, or refuse to believe. Doubt engenders practice. I may not know for certain what I believe, but at least I can pray. I can give. I can love. I live in hope. I observe what is holy. More than belief ever could, these practices structure my life, and as Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "You can't argue with the form of a life."

Graham Greene even took to calling himself an "agnostic Catholic" toward the end of his life. I get this, too. He was tired of belief as a measure of relationship with God. Belief comes and goes. It is fleeting. It is a state of mind. Belief is far too ephemeral upon which to rest something so important as faith. Instead, it is doubt that truly binds us together, and to God.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His new book is Verily, Verily: The KJV -- 400 Years of Influence and Beauty (Zondervan). He will be speaking at The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in NYC on Sunday morning, March 13.

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