the constructive nature of doubt

i’m sure i’m almost completely warped, but i am beginning to appreciate doubt.  i have become weary of apologetics and overbearing dogmatism that, to me, smells so much like insecurity (i can just imagine what it smells like to the unchurched).  doubt feels a whole lot closer to faith than it does to nihilism.

once again, oprah (america’s theologian) has come through for me.  kelly corrigan wrote a painfully vulnerable essay that is posted on oprah.com called, “the doubter’s dilemma,” in which she contrasts her faith-filled father’s cancer diagnosis with her own as a self-avowed agnostic.  i gotta’ tell you, when i finished the article i did not want to argue with ms. corrigan, i wanted to hug her and reassure her.  let me share a few snippets:

I envy my parents’ faith. Supplication, I’ve often thought, must be easier on the body than Tums and Ambien. And how contenting it must be to believe that someday everyone you love will be in one place and will stay there forever. Who wouldn’t want that destiny? But for all its comforting appeal, I rarely go to church and have read only a few chapters of the Bible. Even when disaster struck four years ago, I did not fall to my knees and petition the God of my childhood…The day my doctor called with the diagnosis, I hung up the phone, looked over the heads of my kids, and mouthed to my husband, “It’s cancer.” Then, after a long hug, a cold Corona, and a cigarette (I had squirreled away a half-smoked pack after a party the year before and for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t wait to suck down a Merit Ultra Light that afternoon), we went to the computer and started searching for information on “invasive ductal carcinoma.” My father got his diagnosis in person; after thanking the doctor and scheduling a slew of tests, he and my mother slid into the Buick and drove down to St. Colman’s, their favorite little church, for noon Mass. They gave it to God; we gave it to Google.

The art of growing up is coming to terms with the disturbing fact that even the very smartest people don’t always have the answers. Let us remember that it was only a generation or so ago when new mothers smoked cigarettes on the maternity ward while nurses fed the infants nice big bottles of formula. Only two years ago, children were still being taught to believe that poor Pluto was a planet. If history teaches us anything, it’s that the truth is subject to change. This means that what is standard practice now may someday be eschewed, in the same way that no health-conscious person puts plastic in the microwave anymore. It also means that notions we now consider dubious may, somewhere down the road, become widely accepted. So might we eventually say, “Can you believe that people used to doubt the power of prayer”

In fact, the federal government has underwritten elaborate studies asking this very question. Online, I’ve found a pile of research suggesting a measurable, therapeutic benefit to prayer and prayerful meditation. Sure, the link can be explained away; like any type of quiet meditation, prayer is relaxing, and relaxation has proven physiological benefits. But a click away from the reports was a survey of physicians—a clear majority of whom pray for their patients. So prayer isn’t just for my gullible parents. And if doctors can get to belief, might I?

Faith is the tallest order, the toughest nut: the humbling of yourself before purposes you don’t—and cannot ever—comprehend. Let’s face it, believing that there is a God who might get involved in your tiny little life is beyond anti-intellectual. And this is why I doubt. But when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that there’s doubt within my doubt. And every time I remind myself of that, I think of Voltaire’s confounding line: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” So I let my parents share their faith with our children. When we visit Philadelphia, where my parents live, I let them take our daughters to church. At night, my mom gets the girls on their knees and shows them how to cross themselves and position their hands and bow their heads. It is a lovely sight, and I would never discourage it. Of course, when we get back home to California, the girls are loaded with new ideas and questions they’re counting on me to answer.

Regardless of where I am on the spectrum from atheism to theism, I’d rather my girls be grounded in something, even something that seems too good or crazy to be true. This is why, when the girls ask me about God, I say that people believe all kinds of things and no one really knows, including me, but that I hope. Then I tell them what my husband, with tears in his eyes, recently told me: I say being with them is the most spiritual experience of my life—the highest high, the deepest yes, the most staggering gift—and that gift must have come from somewhere.

If you asked my dad, he’d assure you that heaven exists and boy are you gonna love it. Just like if you asked him why I got better, he’d say something about how God wants me to be here. I tell him I got better because of four chemotherapies, each an impressive creation of man. But that just makes him laugh, shake his head, and flash his big knowing smile. “Aw, Lovey,” he says, “don’t you see? What do you think makes a man spend his days trying to cure cancer?”


after reading the article i asked myself a question: “if this essay were a question and it were directed at me (as a christ follower…a possessor of the answers), how would i respond?”

i think i would say, “amen.”  in many ways, i feel like i am in the same boat with kelly corrigan: much more inquisitive and uncertain than anointed and enlightened.  and ordained.  years ago, i remember mike yaconelli saying, “we’ve got to get more comfortable with i don’t know” and i have and i am.  it’s frustrating when people look to me for answers and i have none to offer, but it feels more christlike to suffer with them and cry with them than to solve their problems.  and in my confusion and brokenness, i feel closer to jesus than ever.  could that be because i’ve chosen to embrace doubt?

the one piece of advice i’d give kelly corrigan if i could is found in proverbs:

I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.

you’re close to the kingdom, kelly.  don’t be dissuaded by doubt.  god is perfectly capable of making himself real to you.


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One thought on “the constructive nature of doubt

  1. You are almost completely warped. Going to miss you. We’re moving to Denver. I’ll be back home a couple of more times and I will make it a point to come to church once again.

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