Doubt Yourself Rev. Wendy McNiven Sunday, March 3, 2013

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Doubt Yourself

Rev. Wendy McNiven

Sunday, March 3, 2013
I want to talk today about the place of doubt and reason in our communal conversations and our spiritual searching. Doubt is sometimes scorned in religion as well as in other parts of life. But we also know that it is exceedingly important.
The fourth principle of our UU statement of Principles and Sources supports a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The fifth source on which we draw is “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
You’ve heard of Doubting Thomas. Thomas was ridiculed for his unbelief. “Doubting Thomas” is a term that is sometimes used now as a mild reproach.
Thomas the Twin was one of Jesus’ disciples. According to the gospel of John, Jesus appeared to the disciples after he had died. Thomas was not with the rest of them on that occasion. They told Thomas about the experience, but Thomas said he could not believe them unless he could see for himself.
Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus invited Thomas to test the reality, to touch him, put his fingers in the holes. Thomas did just that, and because he had tested it, he was able to believe that Jesus was alive again.

Clearly, I’m not telling you this to prove the literal truth of the resurrection. I use it as a story about doubt, and needing to see with our own eyes. If you question the truth of something, you might be called a “doubting Thomas”. It isn’t the worst thing to be called, but still, it can have a dampening effect on a person’s willingness to speak out. In many contexts, to express doubt is considered to be somehow – impolite, or incorrect, or socially unacceptable.

Thomas really wasn’t a convicted un-believer as such. He simply needed to know for himself. He was willing to look at the evidence for a claim he thought to be ridiculous. He was willing to risk being wrong, in order to find out more information.
For many of us here, doubt has been, maybe still is, a significant part of our spiritual journey. Where it leads, whether or not it is painful to be doubting, what is the balance of doubt and certainty -- these are part of our own personal theological journeys. But to be a doubter is often to feel alone. Perhaps you have experienced that in your own life. …
Doubt lies somewhere between believing and not believing. Doubt asks “What if?” Certainty, on the other hand, feels no need to ask questions.
We live in a world which respects certainty above doubt and above equivocation. We hear expressions of certainty all around us. Listen to political speeches. Listen to advertising, to sales pitches. Listen to anyone with a fundamentalist position, including but not limited to atheists and evangelicals. The goal seems to be to hold one’s own position fast, while convincing other people convince people to abandon their doubts and adopt that point of view.
Certainty, though, has its dangers. It can cut us off from others. It can cut us off from ideas. Certainty leaves the world painted in dualistic hues, labels, concepts. Our present political landscape, for all its uncertainty, relies on righteous certainty, dividing people into Us and Them, leaving all of us demonizing the other guys.
Some leaders capitalize on people’s ignorance and/or doubt. They use language that feeds doubt, and plays to people’s fears of being seen as non-experts, of making mistakes, of not knowing what we’re talking about.

Take for example, the recent news that there are new regulations about federally funded scientists, where they can publish, and what they are allowed to say, to whom. From Elizabeth May’s newsletter:“As of February 1 this year, new rules were put in place requiring all scientists working on projects in conjunction with DFO in the Central and Arctic Region to treat all information as proprietary to DFO, and—worse—await departmental approval before submitting research to any scientific journals.” This is a massive change since only 10 years ago. The DFO (dept of fisheries and oceans) immediately responded to this “leak” that the regulations have not been changed. But since that DFO response, the change has been confirmed by people in the relevant research departments.

This seems to be an example of a government’s trying to reduce the amount of “thinking” (i.e. questioning) that is allowed to happen. A scientist’s work is reliant on checking evidence and approaching situations with an attitude of doubt. It seems that the current federal government is trying to silence its scientists, and at the same time, to silence public expressions of doubt.
It reminds me of a certain religious inquisition that happened several centuries ago.
Doubt and questioning have an immensely important role in our world. It is very important for us to make sure we are not seduced into ignoring our own inner convictions, even when we are uncertain of the absolute answers.
What of religious doubt?
Doubt and questioning is what eventually allowed Jenna Miscavige Hill to free herself from the Church of Scientology organization in which she was raised – but it was very difficult for her, and took several years until she had the know-how and the courage to leave.1 She lived from early childhood as a servant to the organization. Those who were in charge of the children had a great deal of certainty.
She tells the story of her being questioned about stealing an apple. –– did you steal an apple? No. You stole an apple, just tell us when you did it. They keep on until you relent. You know you aren’t going to be allowed out of the room until they hear what they want. You begin to wonder if you are not remembering correctly, if you stole an apple when you were sleep-walking, if you stole it in a past life. You doubt yourself completely, in the face of their certainty.
This inquisition stole the girl’s own sense of knowing from her.

In matters of theology, UU’s are inclined speak with more tentativeness than certainty. About the things we call the “mysteries” of life, we are almost dogmatic about our doubt! -- what happens after we die; if there is a god, what does God require of me and how should I relate to God; are some people more holy than others, e.g. Jesus, Mohammed, et al; what is the meaning of my life; how do I determine what is the right thing to do? On questions of moral and ethical choice, our theology often needs a lot of examination to help us come to our answers.

God or not God, and other such questions, are largely a matter of experience rather than intellectual thought. Some of us find it hard to suspend our disbelief without evidence at least in the form of some personal experience. We need to put our fingers into the holes first. And when we have an experience of something, we are, I hope, ready to believe.
For example, I’d love to believe in a particular kind of God, a God of comfort and strength, a God who can make things happen, a God I can talk to. I’d like to believe in the kind of God my colleagues in other churches can so easily talk about and refer to. But I can’t quite make that leap -- I have not had an experience of that personal God.
Possibly for many of us, the real question is not so much about the existence of god, but about the existence of meaning, and how can, should, must we make meaning in our lives. In any case, doubt and questioning are an essential part of the conversation.


While Unitarian Universalism is defined by more than what we doubt, it has certainly been enriched over the centuries by doubting the accepted teachings of religious and political authority. Our UU heritage is based on both deep faith and continual doubt. It has evolved to its present state because of faith and doubt being in constant interplay.
* 16th C. – Spaniard Michael Servetus wrote “On the errors of the Trinity” – admitting that he doubted the teachings of the church fathers. Many agreed with him; read his words, supported him when he was being persecuted by the church. And likely felt supported BY him when they had their own doubts.

* 17th C. -- David Ferenc -- questioned constantly in his quest to understand more clearly and deeply the faith he was wanting to embody in his life. He began as a person of substance in the Roman Catholic church – a bishop, perhaps -, evolved his thinking and joined with the Lutherans, then moved into the Calvinist church, and at last Unitarian.

* 18th C. -- Joseph Priestley -- England -- was a scientist and a Unitarian minister. Persecuted and routed for his beliefs that were out of sync with the C. of E. he fled with his family and went to Philadelphia, USA, to be a minister there.
* 19th C. – The Transcendentalists (of New England) -- rejected some forms of ecclesiology in favour of direct contact with spirit and god. They have much in common with our modern N. American Unitarianism.

-- also Theodore Parker wrote “The Transient & Permanent in Christianity” about what is dispensable in the religion of the people, and what isn’t. It speaks to the evolution of a religion.

* 20th C. -- Humanist Manifesto I and II and III -- doubting the existence of God as commonly postulated, and formulating other principles on which they agreed.

All of these people were earnest in their efforts to articulate a theological position that they found credible within their own experiences. All of them had enough doubt that they were unable to believe the dogma (teachings) given to them by the institutional church or by another person. All of them wanted to define their own beliefs -- that is, to clarify and articulate the beliefs that they were compelled to hold, by their own life’s experience.

In all cases, their doubts, once articulated, gave us the gift of greater latitude within the churches, for freedom of belief.

I want to point out that it was not the doubts of our religious forebears which defined their faith stances. Rather, it was their convictions. We are not simply a collection of doubters. Each of us DOES believe something, though we are not always able to articulate it at any given moment. It sometimes becomes more clear to us only in the face of someone else’s certainty. (I know I don’t believe that, so maybe I believe this.)

Mostly, we don’t want to be given the right answers, we want to be free to find our own. But of course, this is not an easy task, and along the way, one encounters uncertainty.
I doubt that the struggles of our religious forebears were easy, smooth, or painless. For many people, doubt is just too uncomfortable a place to be. It requires being willing to sit with not-knowing, with no final answer (at least for now). It requires a comfort with ambiguity.
there are difficult things about doubt

= doubt can paralyze a person into inaction

= doubt can be very uncomfortable -- knowing vs. not knowing

  • the aloneness of it

  • fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong leads to inner conflict and anxiety

Also as a movement,

= doubt can get in our way: doubt that we can make a difference; doubt that our own little light will burn so dimly that we might as well not light it in the first place2.
Good things about doubt:

= Doubt has led to scientific progress and knowledge.

= Doubt is related to open-mindedness. If you allow for doubt in your own mind, you are saying “I cannot know the whole truth; maybe there is another part of the truth, another point of view”. It is hard to be certain and open-minded at the same time. This kind of doubt improves the opportunity for dialogue, understanding among people, peace, communal problem-solving … it demands humility.
“… Humility does not ask us to grovel. Humility does not ask us giving up our own authority. Humility does not ask us to believe what we cannot. … Humility calls us to accept our responsibilities toward nature and society….” 3


People are hungry for deeper connection with Mystery, with themselves, with each other, with wonder, with nature, with community. Part of this hunger can be fed within beloved community.

But - A danger to community is found in individualism (as opposed to individuality) ie. the cult of the individual. If “doubt” becomes the doubting of any group statement, or all authority, a sort of knee-jerk reaction to whatever might be stated by church / fellowship governing council, or by the wider association, then it is unthinking doubt. This kind of individualism does not support community, nor the building of the Commons.4
Within healthy community, respectful dialogue of disparate opinions is a worthy goal. Our ultimate authority in congregational matters would become the ongoing decisions of this assembled congregation, when all who wish to speak have been heard, in the spirit of love and thoughtfulness.
There is a way to build community which allows for individuality as well as the common good. We do not do that by squashing people’s doubts. One intent of a religious community is to support the individual’s ability to know oneself and to live with integrity with one’s own values and beliefs. It is very difficult, very lonely to be a doubter all by oneself. With the support of a community, people find it easier to hold to their own truths even as they have doubts.

Doubt needs to be welcome in this place, even when it is uncomfortable for us all.

Realistically, “… Doubting takes time. … Doubt asks for us to listen with an open mind. It asks us to chew on and mouth words that may feel alien just to give us an idea of how they might feel. It asks us to accept that though others may perceive, think and see differently than we do, they are no more right or wrong than we. Doubt encourages us to accept others as who they are, not as the labels we give them….”5

The challenge is – we need doubt in order to stay open-minded. And yet, to act on our convictions, we need to know what we think. We need to pay attention to our own still small voices.

In times of real crisis, I don’t know what to tell people about God, what to offer -- other than myself, my presence, and my not knowing. I am gradually learning to stay with their and my pain, learning to speak and react from my own centre, learning to hear my own inner voice through the din of other voices. I’d like to be able to point the way, for people, to “a fountain of life, ... a river of hope ... in the midst of deserts of despair.”
May we continue to create a loving community, one that nurtures the individual mind and spirit, clarifying what we know to be true, what we value, and what we believe. May we have the wisdom and strength to act in the world according to what we truly believe – with compassion and openness to truth.

1 CBC, The Current, Feb. 26, 2013

2 Rev. Krista Taves

3 Rev. Susan Van Dreser, Confluence Lecture, CUC website.

4 see Fred Muir’s lecture on iChurch, UU World fall 2012, and the cult of individualism which gets in the way of Beloved Community.

5 Susan Van Dreser, Confluence lecture

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