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When Doubt Is Sacred

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I don't usually engage in online debates, but when otherwise intelligent and accomplished people take to name-calling, it's hard not to. And in the case of Daniel Dennett, who accuses me of "spin doctoring" because I reject his tendentious and polarizing definitions of faith and doubt, I have no real choice.

This is not about me, though. I am angered by anyone, whether from the secular side or the religious side, who confuses dogma with faith, telling people that they must either believe in one specific way or give up on the notion of faith altogether. That false dichotomy forms the basis of both Dennett's recent study of clergy who have "lost their faith," and the thinking of those spiritual leaders who buy into that dangerous and needless dichotomy and therefore chose to participate in the research.

Let's start with the fact that contrary to what many of us were taught and what underlies Dennett's study, doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is a part of faith. In fact, the faith journeys of virtually all great spiritual teachers included moments of genuine doubt.

Of course, that level of nuance is lost on Dennett and all those who simply want pat answers to strengthen that which they already believe. How else could the professor end the article, which includes his name-calling, with the following:

We hope our presentation of these pioneers will encourage others to tell us their stories, so that the world can know something more about this phenomenon, which can only grow in importance as more and more religious leaders confront the flood of ideas and information that we in the developed world are swimming in today.

I guess anyone who doesn't share a polarized understanding of faith and doubt is drowning in a lack of development. But don't worry; we are in very good company.

From Abraham and Moses to Jesus and so many more, wrestling with doubt is one of the ways in which good people become great spiritual masters. And far from having an obligation to "protect" congregants from doubts and questions of faith, clergy are obliged to share those issues with those they lead.

You see, while it may not be true that those without a faith need one, it is demonstrably true that people of faith must have questions and doubts. Otherwise their faith becomes a static, lifeless, self-serving, and often dangerous doctrine.

Without doubts about the current state of faith, Abraham would not have broken his father's idols and popularized ethical monotheism. Without a loss of faith in the religious status quo of the first century, Jesus would not have taken on either the Pharisees and priests or the Roman Empire. And without genuine doubts about the value of the desert deities worshiped by his own tribe, Muhammad would not have created Islam.

Doubts and questions are the seedbed of spiritual renewal. They are the vehicles for clarifying one's faith and for maintaining personal integrity. If one's faith is nothing more than a source of static answers, it quickly becomes a mindless rhetoric with God as its footnote. That is hardly what most of us who subscribe to any faith believe in.

The challenge for clergy, not to mention any person of faith, lies in admitting the doubts and questions without turning them into new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs. When the latter happens, the clergy should relinquish their pulpit.

Religious leaders should not use the pulpit to simply hammer away at the very ideas that people come to have affirmed, but neither should they shy away from leading people in the evolution of their own faith. That, too, is a failure of leadership which should lead to their relinquishing the pulpit.

Responsible religious leaders must find a balance between helping their congregants to wrestle with tough questions and offering them secure answers. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that "the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".

Applied here, that teaching translates into a demand that spiritual questions and doubt afflict the spiritually certain while spiritual answers and faith offer security to the afflicted.