Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Song of Doubt

The priest in the Oscar-awarded movie “Doubt”, (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman - famous for portraying flawed and complex characters) opens the movie with a Homily about the sacred power of doubt. He points out that post the Kennedy-assassination (the 9-11 of the sixties), the country was united by a sense of feeling lost, bewildered, - questioning their very sense of purpose and direction.

He tells a story about a ship sinking at sea. The sole-surviving seaman manages to get into a lifeboat and set a course by reading the stars and then fall into an unconscious exhaustion. Over the next twenty days, as he slowly starves, the nights are overcast and he never gets to double-check to know whether he’s on course –heading home - or whether he’s off-course and certain to perish in the wide expanses of empty ocean? Had he set his course correctly? Was he confused by the shock of that shipwreck survival moment? Had his then-certain confidence been a trick of the imagination?

Haven’t we all questioned our once-certain experience of God’s presence and call upon us?

The priest then asks how many in that congregation have suffered shipwrecks in silence and alone? A woman thinks “No one knows how sick I am.” A man realizes “I’ve lost my only true friend and no one realizes it but me.” A child thinks “I’ve done something horrible – I’m such a bad person – no one must know.”

Where is the power of Faith – of knowing how loved, accepted, forgiven, we are when such horrors happen? How alone we feel. How far from God’s Grace we are – pushed by life beyond the arms of our embracing faith – past the light of hope – alone in a dark, cold, place.

Doubt is as much a part of our Soul-journey as Faith. But do we ever honour it’s role in our prayers or worship? Isn’t there a tendency to downplay it’s power – to ask forgiveness for such weakness – and quickly get us back to the safe ground of faith? Or is that safe ground really not faith but certainty?

Certainty is the opposite of Doubt to be sure. But it’s also been said that Certainty – knowing for sure – is also the opposite of Faith.

Doesn’t that put Faith and Doubt on the same side of the equation? Aren’t they the right and left hands of the balance we hold in tension?

To say that Doubt is not intrinsic to our soul-identity is like saying that sleep is not a part of healthy living. What if the church told us – “Well, we all sleep, but it’s much better if you just stay awake all the time.”?

So I was thinking we need A Song of Doubt to go along with the one we repeat often about our Faith.

Don’t we just love to put things into opposites? Black and White (a racist metaphor). New and Old (age-ist). Light and Dark (sun-ist) Right and Wrong (relig-ist) are all ways we make Good and Bad distinctions.

One of the things we can really celebrate about the United Church of Canada – what makes us unique – is our comfort level with the grey. We are good at wondering (another word for leaving the safe ground of black and white certainty.)

What if, in spite of what the Bible says in places, black people deserve the same human dignities as Caucasians? What if, in spite of what the Bible says in places, women are equally able to lead us in Christ’s ways? What if, in spite of what the Bible says in places, sexual orientation isn’t a moral problem but a natural expression of God’s diverse creation?

Instead of drawing lines in the sands of our ever-shifting understanding of Scripture, what if we get better at drawing circles? Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still, the song goes. What if our soul-journeys are more like elastic bands than tightropes between birth and death?

What if we define who we are by the common efforts and purpose we join in on? Like safeguarding the inherent sacred dignity of all Human – no – of all Creation? Like the Prophetic call to resist the evils always associated with a passive trust of consolidated wealth and power? Like being co-creators of a vision for earth-based communities where diversity, radical generosity, and planetary interdependence bring the flourishing of arts, science, and the questing for peace instead of conquest? Like driving out all forms of Fear with education and the illumination of wisdom as expressed amidst the greys in all earth’s peoples stories?

With our efforts invested in these urgent matters, who has time to let our differences divide us? Must we not put every effort into finding partners and collaborating with whoever we find standing with us on these rock bottom tidal flats of sacred ground?

Doubt – the suspension of certainty – in pursuit of a higher good than being right - has a lot to do with the necessarily humble faith that we might be a part of such a holy, sacred, sacrificial, effort much bigger, wider, deeper, and more ageless than any of us can truly know.

While Faith very often divides us, all humanity shares certain doubts. In fact, when we stop doubting we enter into places of certainty and claims of power that make us susceptible to the evils of our hearts’ hungers and hubris.

This is why reason alone will never save us. Reason takes us into places of certainty. It is Faith that keeps our hearts humble, soft, flexible, vulnerable in the small of our Maker’s heart.

Doubt – married with Faith – is what the United Church is really good at. Let’s celebrate it.



corrie said...

Hi Allan, for me those doubts are the half empty/full glasses. It can either pull you way down or you just get on your knees and pray because God can deliver us from doubt. Our minds are tricky places at times and the unwanted thoughts even trickier. But we all get into that situation more often than not. I find it very disturbing becaise my doubt can make me weak, so yes, I have to leave it with God and have faith in his teachings as I perceive them

Mick said...

Allan, I watched the movie only two nights ago and was profoundly moved by both the homilies by this (I think, having long and difficult experience, pedophile priest.) In fact, I replayed the one on doubt myself.

I wholly agree with you about the opposites needing each other to partner the dance. If we choose one or the other, we harden into certainty, and - God knows - God has no certainties as far as we can see in this undulating flow of creation. Holding them both gives us the energy of the paradoxical link.

What comes to mind is Blake's etching of The Trials of Job. Job is lying prostrate, overcome by his trials, and God is floating above him, about a foot above and parallel to his body, overbearing and suffocating. If you let your eye go along God's body to the left, you come to his foot, and it's a cloven hoof. Shocking - and just what you're saying.

Mick said...

I don't know where the "Mick" comes from - an old google account where that was my nickname - but it's really Brenda writing...