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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

Celebrating the heroes of doubt

Seekers and journeyers get spotlight in two books on unbelief and faith


I work in an academic environment where Christian belief is the norm, and I sometimes feel apologetic or defensive about my unbelief. When I approached these two recent books about faith and doubt, I read Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt first, not only because it promised to be a longer and more difficult read but also because I suspected I would identify more closely with the point of view of this author. Indeed, when I took the short assessment instrument in her introduction, the scoring she provided labeled me as an atheist (not a term I usually apply to myself) but an atheist with a “pious attitude toward the universe.” In reading both books, I was struck with what I have in common with the believers with whom I sometimes feel at odds.

Doubt: A History is a historical and comparative study that includes material from all over the world covering a time span of 26 centuries. Hecht notes that the history of doubt has hitherto appeared as a mere shadow falling now and then across the history of faith. Her intention was to attempt a comprehensive history of doubt that would show the elements of continuity among doubters across the centuries, allowing one to speak of a genuine “tradition of doubt.”

By Jennifer Michael Hecht
HarperSanFrancisco, 551 pages, $27.95
Edited by Linda Jones and Sophie Stanes
Fortress Press, 218 pages

The stance surveyed in this volume covers a variety of phenomena, which Hecht represents in terms of seven specific categories. The first is the questioning of religious assumptions in the name of scientific inquiry, a venture that is often rationalistic and materialistic in tenor, can be traced back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and continues to this day. Second, she considers the doubt that thrives within cosmopolitan environments from the Hellenistic world of Alexander the Great to our modern urban societies -- environments that provoke questioning because of the mutual encounter between conflicting belief systems that could not all possibly be true, promoting a doubt that is then reinforced by the sociopolitical need for tolerance and open-mindedness in such pluralistic contexts. Third, one finds programs of spiritual transcendence that explicitly reject the theistic perspective, for example, many of the Eastern nontheistic or explicitly atheistic religions. There are also philosophical attempts to formulate guides to full human life without the help of religious belief; moral revolts against orthodoxy prompted by the experience of injustice (for example, Job); and philosophical programs of thoroughgoing skepticism. Finally, there is the doubt confronted by individuals who nonetheless strive to persevere in a faith tradition, the kind of doubt that is the primary concern of the second book considered in this review, In a Dark Wood.

Doubt: A History is densely packed with well-researched historical material. Nonetheless, it is for the most part written in an engaging and highly readable style. For example, Hecht’s discussions of Job, Ecclesiastes and the Buddha are clear, convincing and interesting, as will be recognized by teachers who have attempted to present the same material to students. Admittedly, a few sections become tedious because of the great number of individuals and movements surveyed. Furthermore, the attempt to summarize major figures from the history of philosophy (for example, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard) within the scope of a page or two leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, her mention of such a large number of thinkers who stand in the tradition of the great doubters of history impresses the reader with how long is the list of members of this company.

The most distinctive feature of Hecht’s book, especially when compared to the usual discussions of faith and doubt, is that doubt is treated right from the start as the unequivocal positive value. There is no suggestion that the erosion of belief is some kind of problem that threatens to lead to meaninglessness and despair. On the contrary, from ancient Greece through modern times, the heroes of doubt have often maintained that it was their skepticism itself that opened the way to living a full human life in appreciation of the beauty of nature, the warmth of human love and family, and a moral code that was often as altruistic as that of the most idealistic believer. In fact, many of them argued that true morality and universal recognition of the dignity of all human beings required the elimination of sectarian beliefs. The doubter’s experience is not devoid of spirituality. For example, in Zen Buddhism, it is doubt itself that opens the way to a transcendent experience of enlightenment. There is a kind of faith here, in the sense of a total surrender and a total trust. However, it is a faith that surrenders all beliefs, all conceptualizations, indeed even the future hope that is characteristic of much religious belief. Passing through the initially terrifying emptiness of such surrender, one can suddenly and joyfully awaken to the absolute beauty and wonder of ordinary reality. This is a direct and immediate experience of the now, a total acceptance of the reality of life.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Hecht titles her last chapter “The Joy of Doubt.” She has been out to celebrate the “saints of doubt, martyrs of atheism, and sages of happy disbelief.” Reflecting on the many deep similarities between believers and doubters, she suggests that until now doubters lacked only one resource that was available to believers: “a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Hecht’s book has indeed filled that gap. For kindred spirits, Hecht has made clear that “to be a doubter is a great old allegiance, deserving quiet respect and open pride.”

In a Dark Wood: Journeys of Faith and Doubt, edited by Linda Jones and Sophie Stanes, occupies the opposite end of the spectrum between doubt and belief, generally coming from a faith perspective. The book contains two kinds of material. The first consists of 23 autobiographical statements, between one and eight pages each, edited by Jones and Stanes on the basis of interviews. The second kind of material, interspersed between the autobiographical vignettes, constitutes an anthology of poetry, biblical passages and quotations from various other works. These selections lend themselves to a kind of meditative reading of one individual passage at a time. Though these passages certainly relate to the general theme of the volume, it is sometimes difficult to discern why they were placed in the precise section of the book where they occur.

The title, In a Dark Wood, alludes to the opening lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The scene is set for the motif of a journey that, in Dante’s case, led through hell and purgatory, then ultimately to paradise. Not all of the journeys reported in the book have gone in this direction. In a few cases, the workings of doubt led inexorably to a loss of faith, which one of the contributors experienced as liberation, whereas others were left in a painful condition of loss. A number of the stories report on a faith severely tested in the fire of doubt but ultimately rising phoenix-like from the ashes. In still other accounts, it was simply accepted that doubt and faith are ongoing dialogue partners in a person’s spiritual journey.

The individuals whose stories we encounter are mostly from the British Isles, though two Americans are represented. Most are either Roman Catholic or Anglican, though a few other Protestant denominations are represented, as well as a rabbi. There are a good number of priests and women religious. Others are laypersons from a number of walks of life. A considerable proportion of these are activists for peace or social justice.

The short autobiographical narratives are a pleasure to read. For the most part, they are written in a straightforward and direct manner, often with a striking tone of honesty and total absence of pretentiousness. One does not encounter here the glib self-assurance of people who claim a lifetime of unwavering certitude. Rather, the individuals who share their stories clearly fit the title of the book insofar as they are journeyers who have confronted both the ups and downs of an authentic and vital human experience. Many of them are persons who have challenged the doctrinal positions or pastoral practices of the church to which they remain committed. For example, we find Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Myra Poole and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who have been in conflict with the Vatican over the issue of women’s ordination, and Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, who has gotten into trouble for her involvement in ministry to gays and lesbians. These and others among the participants tend to be remarkably independent thinkers, willing to question and challenge both civil and ecclesiastical authority.

Quite honestly, when I turned to Into a Dark Wood, I expected that I would not like the book. However, as I read one after another of these brief autobiographies, I found that I was sometimes delighted, sometimes inspired and often touched. There was a great deal that I could identify with. As I tried to pinpoint what I as a confirmed doubter have in common with these believers, I began to suspect it is the fact that we are all seekers and journeyers. Dissatisfied with the rewards offered by a consumer society, rebelling against in-equities and violence in our world, impatient with the status quo, we wrestle to find the truth and strive toward that which may be deeper or higher or more encompassing.

It is this sense of recognizing fellow seekers that was the most surprising and rewarding aspect of reading these two books. I am left contemplating the intriguing possibility that there may not be that great a difference between doubters and believers. For rediscovering this constancy of our common humanity, I am grateful. I heartily recommend both books to other readers.

Conrad E. L’Heureux teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Dayton and is the author of Life Journey and the Old Testament.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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