To say that one must live with uncertainty doesn’t begin
to get at the tenuous, precarious
nature of faith. The minute you begin
to speak with certitude about God,
he is gone.
–Christian Wyman in “My Bright Abyss”
Years ago a friend of mine once told me he was going to write a book called “The Benefit of the Doubt”. I thought that was a wonderful title in that it seems contrary to our ideas of faith and spirituality. After all, doesn’t faith imply certainty? How can faith and doubt coexist? And yet, I believe that if one is honest, the real question is, how can you have faith without doubt? For in some ways, faith must be a hard-won and living thing.
This idea of a living faith also implies relationship and in fact the two are deeply interconnected, particularly within Christianity. For a Christian, faith cannot just be an intellectual exercise; it must be a lived reality within the context of a relationship with Jesus Christ. This implies an acceptance of the ebb and flow of life, of emotions that come and go, of experiences that support and challenge.
One of the more difficult experiences is that of doubt. The German theologian, Karl Rahner, once described two types of spirituality – summery and wintery. A summery spirituality is one of brightness, and joy; it is the mountain top experience in which one rises up with wings as eagles. There are individuals who are naturally blessed with this type of spirituality; for whatever reason, they come into this world with an optimistic nature and a sunny disposition, and they rarely struggle with doubt.
But, as Rahner explains, there are those for whom the journey of faith exists within the margins between “yes” and “no”. These are the wintery types. As nice as it is to live in the sunshine, wintery types know that summer will eventually pass into fall and from there, into winter. Wintery types generally want to be more like their summery cousins, and sometimes even wonder if there is any room in Christianity for them at all. In fact there are those who might argue that there is no room for the wintery spirituality in Christianity that doubt somehow equates with unbelief.
This attitude, though, is not born out in the living reality of a thoughtful existence. As Dietrich Bonhoffer explained, “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him…The God who lets us live in the world with the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.” Wyman, commenting on this quote, continues, “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith my take new forms.”
So doubt is part and parcel with spirituality, and, as Bonhoffer describes, it is part of our journey in this life to live as though we must manage our lives without God. This does not mean that we give up the effort to connect with God through prayer, contemplation, and other forms of worship it means that our faith may be formed through times of absence as much as it is through occasions of divine intervention.
Winter is representative of such a time. Grief and loss bring out the keen and sharply felt absence of something or someone we have loved; often these, in turn, lead us to times of doubt and questioning. We wonder, “Where is God in all of this?” It is as though the landscape of our lives is denuded of color and life; we look out onto the future and see only a barren wasteland. And, like the winter season, the promise of new life is hidden and thus remains only that – a promise. During these times we take it on faith that spring will come – that new life will emerge and the world will once again be bright and warm.
Those who have walked the Christian walk long enough understand that God’s ways are not our ways and are accepting of the mystery that lies at the heart of Christianity. This kind of wisdom is part of the gift of having walked through times of winter, of struggling with doubt and uncertainty. As Wyman states, “The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.” As such, as my friend understood, the benefit of the doubt is that it forces us out of our own finite understanding and makes room for an experience of the infinite God.