Engaging With Doubt

Growing up in a church with a strong liturgical tradition, I used to be annoyed by the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. As the congregation mumbled through call and response prayers, I was sure I could detect the same unthinking recitation in the voices around me that I was feeling myself. I enjoyed singing hymns because I would challenge myself to try to sing a different part of the SATB hymnal arrangements on every verse, but I rarely felt the message of the lyrics

Now I attend a church in which liturgy plays a very minor role in our Sunday service. This in spite of the fact that our church’s Reformed denomination supposedly follows a number of creeds (Wikipedia lists 22.) Curiously, I find that I miss those liturgical elements. Maybe it’s the comfort of familiarity I miss. Maybe it’s the link to the past provided by a traditional worship service. Maybe it’s simply that I’m not wild about the contemporary Christian praise songs that have pushed the old hymns aside.

Or maybe it’s that the doubts that often made me feel hypocritical when reciting creeds are not being given anything to push against. Even though it sometimes felt like I was coasting through creeds and prayers on autopilot, one of my quibbles with mouthing someone else’s words was that I didn’t always believe them. Ironically, the thing that most kept me engaged, whether I was consciously aware of being engaged or not, was doubt.

In the April 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, there is an interview with Nashville songwriter David Olney in which he says, “There’s a lot more doubt than faith that goes on with me, but I just can’t dump the whole thing. It’s much harder to do that than to accept it on some level and just bite my tongue in a church service when the Apostles’ Creed is recited.”

Rachel Held Evans says nearly the same thing in her book, Inspired: “There are days…when I mumble through the hymns and creeds at church because I’m not convinced that they say anything true.”

Cynicism, of which I have certainly been guilty, is not helpful. It is a kneejerk dismissal of whatever I’m hearing or reading. Doubt is more nuanced. It allows for the possibility that what I’m being asked to believe may be wrong, but it also admits that I might be the party who is wrong. Doubt is not afraid to ask questions. When I feel doubt, that is a signal that it’s time to pay attention. I need to let the question in. What’s more, I need to listen for the answer with an open mind, especially if it’s an answer I don’t expect or don’t want to hear.

Living in the Question

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I spent a good deal of time as a child attending Sunday school, church services, vacation Bible school (now usually called by its hip initialism “VBS”), youth group, choir practice, and an assortment of church family nights, potlucks, caroling, etc. In college, I had a minor in religious studies. My present day job is as a worship arts coordinator in an RCA (Reformed Church of America) congregation. All of which to is to say the church has had a big role in my life.

So why is it that I still have so many doubts about not only the small niggling Biblical oddities and contradictions, but even about the most foundational aspects of faith? One thing I have learned for sure is that faith cannot be forced. I’ve tried and failed. It feels phony. It makes my brain hurt. My good friend Craig Ferguson (not the late night TV host but pastor of River of Life Church, an outreach of the UMC congregation in which I grew up) once told me he enjoys “living in the question.” It’s not a satisfactory answer, but I like it nonetheless. It implies that there is more to explore. It tells me doubt is not wrong, but rather an indicator that there is a reason to continue seeking.

I am a Type A personality. I like answers. Vagueness bothers me. Living in the question makes me uncomfortable. My ongoing effort to find answers leads me to dig deeper. It takes me into dusty corners, down hidden hallways, and often humbles me by forcing me to change my mind. By embracing doubt, my faith becomes fuller. Sometimes I feel afraid and discouraged. Then I remember that neither Job nor Jeremiah received satisfactory answers to their questions either. I’m in good company.