01/16/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

The Fruits of Doubt

In the 1856 edition of "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman writes: "I do not doubt that whatever I know at a given time, there waits for me more which I do not know." This is a potent summation of our human state, so readily defined by the unknown, and of our relationship with the divine. We proceed from moments of knowing to moments of unknowing, again and again; often they are the same moment.

I struggle with doubt every time I sit down at the desk to do my work as a writer. It used to be the blank page, now it's the blank screen, but it amounts to the same thing: bringing something out of nothing, and questioning whether the effort is worth it.

A more profound doubt takes hold when I attempt to pray. To whom am I praying and why? The very idea of God defies plausibility. All too easily, I find myself agreeing with those who say that we have created God because we need the idea of God as a bulwark against loneliness and death.

Yet, theologians through the ages remind us that doubt is integral to belief and even to prayer. Paul Tillich argued that "doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." Accepting doubt means moving beyond an either/or proposition to a complex understanding of both God and self. Too often, however, I am seduced by the dualistic thinking of my age. Either God exists or God does not exist. Either prayers are answered or they are merely our attempts to console ourselves.

On Election Day, I volunteered to drive voters to the polls. My first assignment was to pick up a couple in their late eighties. She walked with great difficulty using a cane, and her husband and I had to practically lift her in and out of the car. If the weather had been better, she told me, her husband would have pushed her nearly a mile to the polling place in her wheelchair, but it was too cold that day. She had a lot of trouble finding their winter coats, in fact. Her daughter had packed the winter clothes in boxes because she thought her mother was not coming home again.

The woman explained that she had spent four months in the hospital and undergone two heart surgeries. "My kids thought this was the end, but it wasn't the end. God spoke to me. He said, 'It's not time yet. You're going to be here for a while.' When God speaks to me, I listen."

How much I admired this woman's faith. She has a relationship with God that is direct and real. Her words were not so much a statement of belief as they were a statement of felt experience that made doctrine and creeds irrelevant.

When my co-editor and I interviewed the poet Fanny Howe for "A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith," she said: "As it is in the liturgy, so it is in the world: Truth is as fleeting as a sunbeam, and each time you go to Mass you see truth drop in a place it hasn't before." A practicing Catholic, Howe describes her relationship with the church as a marriage that, like all marriages, has its moments of love and boredom, disappointment and joy. And of course doubt.

In an essay titled "Doubt," Howe speaks of the moment when "doubt shows itself to be the physical double to belief ... the invisible engine behind every step taken." She describes doubt as "a mesmerizing and glorious force" to be welcomed and mined rather than feared and avoided. By facing doubt, we own up to what we do not know and cannot control, and in doing so, may be granted a glimpse of grace. If we follow where doubt leads us, we may discover the twin force of a faith that is not fixed in a brittle way but alive, open to hearing God's voice.

"People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." So Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay "Circles." We live in unsettled times which give us the opportunity to test Emerson's claim. But the unsettling demands of lives defined by technology and materialism, in a capitalist culture whose only god is wealth, appear to make many of us run for absolutism. Fundamentalism has its appeal because it offers the appearance of certainty. Give me a formula, I am tempted to pray, and a set of rules easily followed. As much as I long for predictability, though, I recognize that a formula does not offer a lived experience of faith.

God is present in our doubt as much as our certainty. It's the moments when I am most unsure, most paralyzed by doubt, that light breaks through. Giving in to doubt allows for the eyes and ears to open. "Are you a person of faith?" the woman asked me as we drove to the polling place. No, I might have answered, I am a person of doubt and hope, making my way through a landscape shaped in equal measure by both.