Monday, 24 July 2017

When Faith Isn't the Opposite of Doubt

There is an opposite to doubt that isn't faith but rather is humility. When we experience life's cruelty (as we all will at some stage or another) faith isn't an option within easy reach of most people. It's hard to 'keep faith' and remain optimistic when everything seems so chaotic and meaningless. At those times a response that many believing people are tempted by is doubt. For many the issue of suffering is the conclusive objection to faith in a good God and one that gives people permission to not just disbelieve but to disbelieve very loudly and stridently. This is a response to pain that I'm fairly familiar with myself. It seems only too natural and reasonable to avert my gaze from God in the face of pain, to decide to stop myself from going to a god at all. However that seems to me to be the least reasonable way to behave since it's when life is difficult and confusing and full of pain that I need God the most. When there are crocodiles circling below, sawing off the branch you're sitting on won't help!

It hasn't always been the case that we believed suffering to lead neatly and logically to atheism. One of the oldest works of literature to deal with this issue, is the Bible's book of Job and it doesn't suggest this as even one of it's possible conclusions. Why not? Why do we (do I) seem to process pain so differently to those who've gone before us? Why do we in the modern west seem to draw such a straight line to atheism when those in many of the other parts of the world don't? (I'm reminded of an anecdotal insight a speaker once shared when he explained that even though he'd travelled to and spoken with people from many of the world's poorest areas it was only in the West that his objectors would raise the issue of suffering and God's existence as reason for non-belief in Christianity.)

One reason that so many of us are so tempted by doubt and atheism is because we live in the first human society that has very good reason to believe it knows everything there is to know about the world. Our confidence in our own abilities is at an all time high, and why wouldn't it be - we have google!
But there is an opposite to doubt that isn't faith, but rather is humility and sometimes that's all that's needed. To stare at and engage with the real hurt and heartbreak in the world one can say 'Surely there isn't a God who cares about us!' but one could also choose instead to say 'I don't know why this is happening, or why any of this has happened, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an explanation out there that will satisfy me in the end.' That is an option open to us. 

I'm reminded of Cotton Mather, one of the early leaders and founders of Harvard University. A Christian and a pastor he was a man, like many men of his age (18th C), who was well acquainted with grief. Of his fifteen children only two outlived him. That bears repeating. Of his fifteen children, only two outlived him. Oh the heartbreak he must have experienced. I can't begin to fathom the pain he, and many others like him, had to endure. And yet he was a devout, faithful, passionate and strident believer in the goodness and love of God. He was also one of the early pioneers of modern science and medicine, a prolific reader and a hungry mind. He was hardly naive and ill-informed and yet, despite all he suffered, he chose faith and belief instead of doubt. Why? How? Humility; he understood enough of the world to know that he didn't understand it all, nor would he ever understand it all. He understood enough of God to know that he could be trusted and loved, even though he knew he'd never know the reason 'why?' to all the pain he'd had to endure. 

There are choices we can make in calamity and despair. As well as anger and vehemence at the universe and God, we can also choose humilty and honesty. We can choose to hold onto a belief that our pain is not and will not be wasted. By acknowledging our own finitude we can choose to believe that life isn't meaningless. By allowing the possibility to exist that there are things beyond even google's ability to understand we can endure without losing hope, we can grieve without giving up joy and we can continue to live with a belief in life's purpose. We can hold on to the very things we need most to get through the storm we find ourselves in. For that reason and many others recent thinkers have pointed out that our modern secularism is the poorest worldview there is for equipping people to endure suffering, and as Buddhism teaches 'life is suffering' - making our vulnerability to it a very big problem.

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