09/30/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Thank God the Archbishop Has Doubts

Tutu Kazooie/Flickr

The archbishop of Canterbury recently admitted that he sometimes has doubts about God. Thank God! We could only wish that more religious leaders had some doubts and expressed them honestly. The archbishop's confession caused a bit of a stir among some of the ignorant and uninformed. Some atheists hailed it as the beginning of the end. A person of faith who doubts is a contradiction? Even though the news was a bit of damp squib, the issue did point out, yet one more time, the appalling ignorance in our culture about the very nature of faith. Faith isn't necessarily believing fifty impossible things before breakfast. It is not believing in something in spite of the evidence. Faith has to do with risk and trust in the face of deep uncertainties and amazing mysteries. It comes in many forms -- admittedly, some irrational and unreasonable -- a sort faith in faith; but others, are humble and tentative, inviting and deepening questions.

If you're a faithful unbeliever and approach the claims of religion as if they were scientific facts, you will naturally point to and even rejoice in their whacky falsehoods. In this view, science and religion cannot be reconciled. So claims David Barash (an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington). He's right, but only if religion is thought of as a bunch of "facts" to be swallowed. He writes, "But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death -- and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things." (see the New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 2014). It's an amoral process. So far so good (or bad). But in the light of this how should we vote? Where does our social and political vision come from? Or should we seek to be more efficient predators, parasites, and murderers? Religion could be helpful here but it needs to give up its claim to "scientific" knowledge and share its deep wisdom in myth, story and metaphor, as to how we are to live together. Religion has a lot to give but it also has a lot to give up -- not least its greedy claim to explain things.

Novelist Grahame Greene was a great critic of religion's greedy claims. In his novella Monsignor Quixote the priest has a dream: Christ had been saved from the Cross. There was no final agony, no stone to be rolled away. He just stepped down from the Cross to the cheering crowd. A happy ending. "There was no ambiguity, no room for doubt and no room for faith at all. The whole world knew for certainty that Christ was the Son of God. It was only a dream, of course, only a dream but nonetheless Father Quixote has felt on waking the chill of despair felt by a man... who must continue to live in a kind of Saharan desert without doubt or faith, where everyone is certain that the same belief is true. He had found himself whispering, 'God save me from such a belief.'" It's hard for believers and unbelievers alike to understand what Greene (and what the archbishop) is getting at. We're all -- believers and atheists -- in the business of trying to control reality. Certainties give us power over both data and others. Our need to domesticate the awesome mystery in which we find ourselves is manifested in the arrogant certainties, which are at war in our culture.

Science, too, has a lot to give and a lot to give up -- not least its claim to be the privileged language. Alex Rosenberg recently defended "naturalism" as "the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge". But it's a pretty thin view of "knowledge" -- knowledge as information, data, the plumbing of the universe; but no help in reasons for getting up in the morning. All we are left with is the affirmation that life is meaningless and we'd better grow up and muddle along with our own meaning. But there are languages other than science. As professor William Egginton of Johns Hopkins University points out: "Literature has played a profound role in creating the very idea of reality that naturalism seeks to describe." I would add that a lot of that literature is "religious" in impulse and science needs to leave the safety of it's supposed objectivity to enter a conversation where come up with a view of the world that doesn't destroy us.

When I saw Richard Strauss's opera Elektra for the first time, I was momentarily paralyzed by the music in the context of a stage filled with blood. I was shocked that there was no stunned silence from the audience but the relief of rapturous applause. It's understandable. The pressure to domesticate art is as intense as the desire the exile mystery and metaphor from religion and kill it with literalism -- making it manageable. Religion and art degenerate into that which can be easily controlled. We see to it that the genuinely new cannot break in and upset the world. Art is precisely the subversion we need to enable us and the world to come alive in a new way. Both religion's and art's radiance depends on a dialectical double path manifested in three ways:

• There are two journeys: the journey of images and metaphors and the journey of their rejection;
• The way of irony in being able to discern that something can be true on one level and not on another.
• The way of reliance and yet distrust of narrative in recognizing that we need a story and the story must always be capable of revision. We cannot avoid the movie going on in our heads but woe betide us if we think it is somehow unambiguously true.

That evolutionary biology class at the University of Washington sounds terrific but it could do with a little bit of poetry, narrative and metaphor not only to spice things up but also to ground the course in human experience. What do you do after you've grasped Darwin's momentous truth? Many of the students will be obliged to see their Bibles (those who still have them) in a new light by letting go of the burden of literalism and fundamentalism. That "letting go" will open the door to mystery and metaphor. Any one who reads a novel knows that it's not "true" -- not literally -- but that it can be true on another level. We have no difficulty in grasping "levels of truth" -- that something can be true on one level and not true on another. We all have a movie going on in our heads. As Dr. Egginton points out, "we are all active participants in the creation and support of a fictional world that is always in danger of being sold to us as reality." That's why we need to talk to each other and, like the good archbishop, always leave plenty of room for doubt.

Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.