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The Religious Value of Doubt

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“Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds/ At last he beat his music out. There lives more faith in honest doubt/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gathered strength/ He would not make his judgement blind, He faced the spectres of the mind/ And laid them, thus he came at length/ To find a stronger faith his own…”

Tennyson challenges us to rethink the common conception that faith and doubt exist as polar opposites. Rather, doubt possesses the power to fortify faith1809-1892 englischer Schriftsteller. CDV-Foto 6,0 x 8,4 cm nach einem Gemälde von P.Krämer herausgegeben von Friedrich Bruckmann Verlag München Berlin.. Tennyson believed that the true man of faith would only be strengthened by confronting the doubts lurking beneath the surface. For Tennyson, the ‘spectres of the mind’ could add a qualitative depth to faith absent from those who follow with a certainty that ignores questions. In a sense, the faith that was able to confront and survive doubt had proved itself as courageous and durable. Describing Tennyson’s poem,  T. S. Eliot would write that In Memoriam was “not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt” (Selected Essays).  In short, doubt too, can acquire a distinctively religious hue.

Other thinkers, however, would contest the compatibility of doubt with religion. Leo Strauss (1899-1973), the German-Jewish emigré to the USA, argued that philosophy and religion were built on fundamentally distinct foundations, each with their own separate means of argumentation and knowledge. In his search for knowledge, the philosopher must be free to doubt even the most dearly held beliefs of morality and religion. Strauss believed that such doubt was incompatible with religion, which asserts certain truths as axiomatic and beyond refutation. In Strauss’ world, doubt and religion belonged to separate spheres and could never meet. Only a select elite could live in both worlds. Building off this core premise, many within the contemporary Orthodox Jewish world cast aside doubt as ‘destructive’ to faith, preferring instead to cultivate absolute certainty as the principal foundation of faith .

What, however, do we mean when we talk about doubt? Doubt has many different variations and distinct meanings. To enable a clearer understanding of doubt, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the German-American philosopher, has helpfully distinguished between three different types of doubt; methodological, sceptical and existential.

Methodological doubt is that of the scientist, the thinker who questions current theories and ideas in order to advance knowledge. This doubt is a mode of enquiry which challenges the status quo to deepen our understanding of the universe. Within Jewish thought, Saadya Gaon (882-942) made methodological doubt the cornerstone of his philosophical world-view. Indeed, at the very outset of his major work of Jewish philosophy, Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Doctrines and Opinions), Saadya underlines the legitimacy of such doubt:

“One might ask: ‘How can it be reconciled with the wisdom of the Creator that he allowed doubts and errors to arise in the minds of his Creatures? We may answer this question at once by saying that the very fact that they are created beings makes them subject to doubt and error. For according to the order of creation they require for every work which they undertake a certain measure of time in which to complete it stage after stage. Cognition being one of their activities , it undoubtedly comes under the same rule.”

Saadya Gaon- Manuscript Emunot
A 12th century copy of Saadya’s Emunot ve-Deot housed in the National Library of Russia.
Saadya carved out a safe space for methodological doubt within Judaism. He believed that doubt comprised a fundamental part of what it meant to be human. Human beings, Saadya argued, never achieve perfection or conclusive results immediately. To be human is to forever exist as a work-in-progress. All earthly endeavours and projects take time to mature and develop to completion. The very same idea can be applied mankind’s beliefs and opinions. Saadya firmly believed that man’s beliefs are never complete but demanded a lifetime of constant refinement and improvement. The very existence of doubt thus ought not to be denied, but rather embraced as a tool that encourages and inspires progress. For Saadya, doubt is critical to man’s intellectual and religious development.

The second form of doubt, according to Tilluch, is sceptical doubt. This form of doubting denies and rejects all certainty. According to Tillich, sceptical doubt, is more an attitude than an assertion, an attitude which leads to “despair or cynicism, or both alternately.”

Finally, we arrive at existential doubt. Here, Tillich’s description is worth quoting at length:

“Existential doubt does not question whether a special proposition is true or false. It does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time, the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt about itself.”

It is this final form of existential doubt which is implicit in the very act of faith itself. The existential doubter is painfully aware of the fact that he seeks to understand and experience the infinite, an entity which he will never fully grasp. In spite of this deep existential insecurity, the true man of faith is able to maintain his beliefs and convictions.

In the realm of Jewish philosophy, R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin during the 1920s, also championed the cause of existential doubt as a crucial part of religious life. In 1924, Weinberg penned an essay on the essence of Jewish faith:

“Faith and unbelief are not always pure opposites. There is a form of belief, which is basically nothing more than unbelief, a lack of self-confidence, a negation of inner personality, a renunciation of inner independence. The lethargic, sufficient and comfortable faith often means only inner emptiness and inner carelessness. The readiness to capitulate to strong impressions, which one’s own spiritual armour cannot cope with, robs men of their natural bulwark of personality. They allow themselves to be overrun and overcome by external influences… This person believes because he is unable to deny… This ‘Belief’ does not earn a positive designation. This man only reflects the absence of unbelief and never works as a driving force for creative power. The true, creative, religious belief… springs forth from a profusion of moral strength, it is no passive spiritual perspective, rather the opposite: an impetuous expression of increased spiritual activity, which strives for creative action… This true form of belief does not arise because unbelief has been killed from the heart of man, rather belief comes to these even more and picks it up… Such a religious personality is at once humble and masterly, pays tribute to God and shatters idols, builds with one hand God’s altar and tears down cultic statues down with the other. He builds and destroys, his works of destruction are themselves a constructive work.”

Weinberg believed that religious personalities were able to confront their theological or existential doubts with vigour and confidence. Those who do not fear ‘unbelief’, who positively struggle with and surmount their inner doubts, in Weinberg’s eyes, were worthy of admiration. This celebration of doubt rests upon the core notion that those who acknowledge and confront doubt, on whatever level, transform their own act faith into an active personal decision. The faith which embraces doubt and yet is able to thrive becomes a creative force. In this light, doubt enhances and ennobles the very faith it so often seeks overthrow.