I believe in the healthiness and necessity of doubt. Unfortunately, many fear doubt because of its perceived debilitating effects on belief. What so many fail to realize is that doubt is what has led individuals to their current religious, emotional, political, or otherwise ideological security; and it is only through doubt that we can hope to maintain even a semblance of conviction. Doubt can actually make conviction more profound and comprehensive.
I teach religion at a seminary for high-school aged kids. Recently, a young man about to graduate approached me and expressed his doubts concerning a particular core belief of his religion. I detected immediately that when expressing such doubts he was accustomed to encountering a type of baffled disappointment from parents, friends, and leaders. Yet my belief in the importance of such defining moments of sincere doubt drove me to venerate and encourage the young man to further question—not simply for the sake of questioning. Not simply for the sake of being antagonistic. But for the sake of finding out for himself through his own experience what he believes. After a week of this type of conversation after each class, he visited my office one day after school. He sat down on my sofa and began to weep and started to share. He had had a profound experience that galvanized his belief in what he previously had doubted. He had asked the right question at the right time for the right reason, and I dare say that his life will never be the same because of it.
Doubt in a particular ideology of governance led to the birth of this nation. Doubt in certain presumed limits brought about the phenomenon of flight. Hitler and the self-proclaimed nobility of his cause were doubted and, more importantly, challenged by the greater world. Doubt in preconceived boundaries has generated mind-boggling accomplishments in space travel. And the doubts of so many religious reformers through the centuries have produced the cherished belief systems of countless millions throughout the world; and it is doubt that fuels current healthy dialogues concerning the being and nature of God—dialogues which deepen our beliefs and broaden our perspectives as we are forced to look inward (and upward) to find further evidence for what we hold so dear. Indeed, the more we doubt, the more we’ll find.
From vehicle safety and efficiency to parental strategies and pedagogies, doubt forces one to rethink and revise his or her approach to improving the quality of life. The word improve implies that doubt has not only been encountered, but embraced and successfully negotiated. I believe that belief is awakened by doubt. It is at once enervative and invigorating, and always indispensable. Like the young man in my office that day, as we learn to embrace and negotiate doubt, we come to understand the meaning of what Peter Abelard once said: “By doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive truth.”
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