In my formative years (which I am still only barely coming out of), no class has ever changed my life more than Mr. Prufer’s world religions class in high school. It was there I discovered the beauty of Jewish thought and the stillness of Zen philosophy which continue to temper my spiritual nature today. Rather than “polluting” my faith, as some have thought it as, it has continued to strengthen my beliefs. Judaism’s emphasis on continually arguing (in a good way) about faith has helped me to continually refine my belief system, while Zen’s focus on the impermenance of things help me to let go of more immature, erroneous ideas and move on. In short, the world religions class helped me shape a more flexible and supple mind, which has prevented me from otherwise mentally injuring myself during somewhat strenuous intellectual exercises with my faith.
One of the most powerful ideas that still stays with me today was learning about a definition of faith that has helped me in some otherwise bewildering times. I forgot who says it, and what religion he is from, but the definition defined faith as understanding that you could be wrong but choosing to believe in what you believe in anyway.
Jungian psychology introduced its disection of the human psyche, two of these being the persona and the shadow. The persona is the everyday mask we wear, the face we show in public. The shadow is our public face’s opposite, everything about us that we fear or hate or feel ashamed of. This, it claims, explains the congressman who zealously crusades against homosexuals, only to be revealed that he is one himself. Denying your shadow exists creates a type of paranoia – you project the shadow’s qualities onto everyone else. Thus, the homosexual congressman is irrationally paranoid that the homosexual movement will destroy everything that is good, even when the homosexual agenda is not really that militant. More personally, the person is subconsciously worried it will destroy him individually from within.
Doubt is perhaps the biggest shadow of the Christian. When a Christian acknowledges that such doubt is a part of himself, he is a more full person. He is humbled because he understands that he cannot know or understand all that God knows – yet. He is forgiving of other peoples’ weaknesses when he acknowledges his own. He is understanding of other ideas, and accepting of new thought as he continually progresses and shapes his perception of God. Like a blind sculpter, the Christian must run his hands continually over his subject before he can get a real image of him. The more he feels, the more his image sharpens until it is almost exactly like the original subject.
As Christians, we often cast our faith as knowledge – LDS members especially love doing this. “I believe” becomes “I know,” and pretty soon, you “know” a lot of things with every fiber of your being. This leads to some good things (witnessing is one example) and, because of our human faults, a lot of bad things as well. Professor Nibley famously described this as “zeal without knowledge,” saying “Zeal makes us loyal and unflinching, but God wants more than that.” We soon forget to continue to learn, to continue to grow, because we already possess all of the truth – at least in our minds.
However, doubt, in Church rhetoric, is never cast as a virtue; it is only a vice. Yet, it is a constant yoke which us as mortals deal with everyday. Paul described faith as believing in that which cannot be seen, and that requires a certain degree of uncertainty. In my zealous years as a missionary, I once asked my mission president in a private conversation if I could tell people that I personally knew Christ. After all, I had received a witness of Him, and I felt I knew Him fairly well.
He looked at me, then leaning back in his chair, asked, “Elder Lee, if Jesus Christ were to appear in this room, would you still learn something about him?”
“Yes, I suppose,” I responded.
“Then no, Elder. You cannot say it yet.” And I must report that I still don’t know Him as well as I could today.
The definition of faith I learned in world religions – to understand that your belief may be wrong or misguided, but choosing to believe in it anyway – highlights to me an important aspect of faith: deliberation. In this definition, we weighed the consequences, we’ve seen the evidence at hand and then decided to make, as the cliche goes, a leap of faith. We choose to believe it, even understanding that a sliver of doubt tells us we could be wrong. We acknowledge the doubt, but do not choose to endulge in it, and then move on.
When we do this, we realize that everyone in the world is groping for truth. As Christians, we feel enlightened with what we know, and accordingly, we wish to share this with everyone. This is certainly a good thing. The more people learn of others, the more we get an idea of the being who created humanity in the first place. We feel we have something to offer to humanity, and we are humble enough to accept others’ offerings. When we refuse to acknowledge doubt, we suddenly become, like the gay congressman, paranoid. We believe everyone who doesn’t agree with us whole heartedly is actively subverting the truth – when he could just be voicing concerns in order to understand. This view is self destructive, and hurtful to the Church. Should we refuse to benefit from others, we become cut off from the rest of the God’s family. We become quite certain (erroneously) that we speak for God or know His mind, when it is only a chosen few who ever receive such a blessing, and only after much trial and purification. We substitude pride for confidence, malice for strength, zeal for knowledge, hate for love and suspicion for trust. In short, we become the opposites of what the scriptures constantly call us to become.
Of course, we may feel this is the exception, because we actually have the truth, while those heretics and bufoons out there doubt, question and eventually fall into hell – or so we think. Chances are, we are very much not the exception. When speaking on writing style, Professors Booth, Colomb and Williams write, “Everyone who reads the philosophers Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Hegel struggles with their style, at least at first. But most serious readers concede that understanding what they have to say is worth the effort. The problem is, few of us are a Kant or Hegel. For most of us most of the time, such complex writing is more likely to reflect sloppy thinking than the irreducible difficulty in the ideas of a genius.” So it is with spirituality – a feeling of exceptionalism is dangerous. No one is exception to the commandments, not even Jesus. Charity is, according to Paul, the more excellent way and the pinnicle of Christian thinking and action, not zealous, prudish defense of dogma and man-made theology.
What would have happened to the gentiles, when God revealed to Peter, a Jew, that the gentiles (once considered unclean) are to be taught the gospel? This flew in the face of years of teaching, from God Himself, yet Peter was flexible and willing to override his own prejudices for the glory of God. When Jesus introduced the breathtakingly radical and sublime Beatitudes, it was the hardened, zealous pharisees that grumbled and plotted his death, whereas the humble tax collectors and fishermen went on to become apostles of God.
Doubt plays an important role in Christian life. But it all depends on how you use it. With the definition I learned of faith in Mr. Prufer’s class, a Christian can either take that doubt and use it as a motivator to seek greater truths and understanding, a spur digging into our souls urging us to continue on in becoming one with God’s will and learning what He has to teach us. Or, a Christian can endulge in doubt, let it feed off of him, growing as a leech and sucking out the life in his faith. However, doubt can either become a spur or leech only through the active decision making of its host. By ignoring it, however, we give up that decision making process and allow the whims of chance to knock us to and fro, and the outcome will most likely be ugly.
Moral of the Story: Doubt is a great motivator for faith, when utilized well. As Christians, we should always be open to new ideas, revelation and thought, while tempering it with the traditions and teachings of the past. We should never feel we have all the truth, because chances are, we don’t. Charity and tolerance, an educated and mannered dialogue with those whom we most strongly disagree with is what Christ would do, not flamebaiting and irrational, ill-thought out emotional reponses.