Last week I posted some reflections on Bill Maher’s anti-religious satire Religulous. While I thought the movie itself tiring and tired, I found Maher’s elevation of Doubt to the level of high religious virtue too ironic to pass up. I half-thought Maher was going to recommend building a statue of Doubt and lighting candles at her feet.
I decided to take Maher’s statements about Doubt seriously because I think he makes a mistake that a lot of people make when thinking about religion—namely confusing doubt with humility.
As a more thoughtful example of such confusion I referred to a section of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame—not the part about abortion that everybody talked about at the time, but a lesser-noticed part when the President spoke of doubt as “the ultimate irony of faith.”
Both President Obama and Maher praised doubt because, in the President’s words, “it should humble us.” If you think about it, that’s a fairly strange claim.
Humility is, after all, universally praised in Christian spirituality. When a pious nun asked Francis de Sales for a final piece of advice on his deathbed, the dying saint wrote, “HUMILITY, HUMILITY, HUMILITY,” on a piece of paper. All the saints that I know of seem to think humility is a good thing, and I’m not inclined to argue. But the saints have not been quite so keen on doubt. On the contrary, they’ve said rather a lot about keeping and strengthening our faith, even proclaiming it boldly to the ends of the earth. Jesus and Paul were pro-humility, but I don’t recall them saying anything like, “Oh, heck, maybe this God business isn’t true anyway; let’s not go overboard on the religion thing.”
We might conclude from the experience of the saints that doubt is not the only way to gain humility and perhaps not even the best way. Regularly confessing one’s sins to a priest can also lead to a certain amount of humility, as can upholding an extraordinarily high moral standard—say, “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)—to which we often and repeatedly fall short. Acknowledging the gifts of others as well as our own fallibility, recalling mistakes we’ve made when we start to feel full of ourselves, remembering that everything we do and see and think is itself seen by an all-knowing and all-perfect judge, showing due respect for tradition and authority—all these practices seem rather good ways of inculcating humility, and none of them involve dabbling in agnosticism.
Furthermore, Doubt of the variety Bill Maher advocates does not seem to produce humility at all. Exhibit A, as I argued last week, is Religulous itself in which Maher levels some pretty sweeping charges against all the world’s believers without seeming to notice that in so doing he falls guilty of the same hubris he accuses his opponents of possessing. And if we think of the great unbelievers of the past few centuries—Nietzsche, Marx, Bertrand Russell, Freud—“humble” is not the first adjective that springs to mind. The actions of their followers were not all that humble either.
In the background of the contemporary tendency to praise doubt hovers the specter of religious extremism. In our post-September 11 world, the fear of religious extremism packs a definite punch. Maher cashes in on this fear by juxtaposing pictures of jihadists with pictures of mainstream believers (including pictures of the Pope) in his film.
The problem with Maher’s insinuations, however, is that violent extremism is not limited to religion; in fact, it seems more a human characteristic than a particularly religious characteristic. Plenty of violence was carried out in the last century because of secular nationalism taken too far, and, if we think on a smaller scale, even extreme romantic attachments have been known to lead to the occasional violent act. Get rid of religion, and you won’t get rid of violence or extremism.
And if by “doubt” we mean something that leads to lukewarm religious commitment, frankly, that’s not something I find very palatable (cf. Rev. 3:16). Most of the saints could fairly be categorized as extremists. Teresa of Calcutta, Paul, Francis of Assisi, even our own Ignatius and Xavier took religion pretty seriously, and they took it pretty far. There’s nothing moderate in the command to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). It may sound terribly un-post-modern (or, maybe, post-post-modern) to say this, but the real issue here is not whether one’s beliefs are too strong, but whether one’s beliefs are right. Suicide bombers are not at fault because they take their faith too seriously or because they never have doubts—I see no reason to imagine that suicide bombers are not, in fact, plagued by fear and doubts—but because it’s wrong to blow up innocent people.
Here the idea of balance is perhaps a more useful concept than that of moderation. Using reason to interrogate and improve our beliefs is also indispensible. We must love the truth more than our own ideas, which is where Karl Barth’s idea of “temptation,” which I mentioned in last week’s post, comes into play. Barth seems to be speaking especially to theologians in warning them that their theological conceptions will always be subject to refinement and deepening, and in some cases complete revision. Even theologians make mistakes. This doesn’t mean calling into question divinely revealed doctrines, but it should mean openness to understanding these doctrines on a deeper level. Who among us, after all, has spoken the final word about the Trinity after which nothing more needs to be said?
Barth has in mind something resembling “doubt,” but he is clear that this “temptation” comes as a divine initiative. We do not go searching for it. Likewise the experience of the “dark night of the soul” to which I alluded earlier is not something we can or should try to bring about ourselves. Times of doubt and uncertainty can be a part of the spiritual life, and God can use such periods for our own spiritual growth—by, perhaps, tearing down our inadequate notions about him in order to replace them with a better understanding or by drawing us closer to his experience of abandonment on the Cross.
Dark times like these are no reason to despair; they are an invitation to deeper trust. They should not cause us to panic—but we should certainly not seek them out or attempt to willfully put ourselves into a situation of doubt. To willfully put our faith—our most precious possession—into jeopardy would be an act of foolishness and, worse, an act of pride. We cannot seize the gift before God sees fit to give it.
In the end, it seems a far better thing to me to pray for a humble faith than to light a candle on the altar of Doubt.