The Death of Certainty: Embracing Faith and Doubt

You'd be hard pressed to find a person in my church who hasn't heard some variation of the pithy phrase "faith and doubt cannot coexist." You'd be equally hard-pressed to find a saying that bothers me more, because of how much it contradicts what the scriptures teach about faith and doubt. 

I want to explore this today, because it's foundational to understanding what my relationship to Mormonism is like right now. Piecing these thoughts together has carried me through a lot, and I hope it can be helpful to others who need it.

If I had to describe this relationship in my life, I'd say I come by love for my faith honestly. I refuse to lie to myself, or accept bad rationality for unacceptable behavior anymore. But I also don't allow anyone to bully me into hating my religion either. I will keep what is worth keeping, because this represents so much of the good in my life. I will trash what is trash, without apologies to anyone. I am the boss of my own testimony. I have peace co-existing in spheres of faith and doubt, because I have embraced them both. I have no intentions of changing that, for reasons we'll explore momentarily.

Some would call my journey to get to this point a "faith crisis." I disagree. I never had a crisis of faith. That is not an accurate description of what happened to me. I had a crisis of certainty. And to understand the difference, let's take a look at Alma 32.

Faith, Doubt, and Certainty

Alma 32 is one of the most important chapters in holy writ to me. Everything I am, everything I believe, and how I approach God is wrapped up in this chapter. It was the first chapter of the Book of Mormon I ever read seriously. The spiritual experience I had with it is why I got baptized. It was the first time in my life faith as a principle made sense to me, because of how Alma separates it from everything faith is not.

As a background, Alma is serving as a missionary in the land of the Zoramites. He is preaching on the hill Onidah, when he is approached by a multitude of the poor. They want to be believers, but they've been rejected and turned away by everyone, especially the priests. Even though this group builds the houses of worship within this society, they are denied access to them. They are undesirable to allincluding those who claim to know and love God.

The question in their hearts is never spoken, but it's palpable in every word: How do I maintain faith in a God whose people are full of such prejudice, hatred, and blatant hypocrisy?

To answer their question, Alma speaks to the humility they've demonstrated by continuing to seek God in those circumstances. He acknowledges the dignity inherent to who they are, instead of defining their worth in being acceptable to others. Alma assures them it isn't necessary to worship God in a building, thereby dispelling any notion that these people are dependent on their oppressors to have a relationship with him. The priests and ruling classes do not, he argues, have the power or authority to remove God from their lives through compulsion. He then replaces those ideas with how to actually form a relationship with God.

At the forefront of that process are faith, doubt, and certainty. And the interplay between them in this chapter is completely inconsistent with the message that faith and doubt cannot coexist. Rather, Alma makes the argument that faith and certainty cannot coexist.

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
Alma 32:21

Faith, defined in verse 21, rests primarily in uncertainty. To hope for something we have never seen means entering and existing in the space where ambiguity, skepticism, and doubt exist. If we no longer have reason to doubt, it's because we have certainty born of knowledge and personal experience (see verse 18). He goes on to make analogies and allegories, and repeatedly asserts a single truth in every part of this process: if we still possess faith, we do not possess "a perfect knowledge," i.e. certainty.

So when do we finally obtain a perfect knowledge of anything in the gospel of Jesus Christ? When can we finally say, "I know this thing with a perfect knowledge, without any doubts whatsoever" and have it actually be the truth?

He answers that question in verses 42 and 43:

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
Alma 32:42-43

When we're dead, resurrected, have come into the presence of God, and have received eternal life. When our lives are complete. When we are finished. That's when we will have a perfect knowledge of anything. Short of that, there is no untouchable, unbreakable certainty that belongs to any person on this planetlet alone in the Church. Doubt belongs to all of us, and we belong to it. It is a necessary part of the mortal experience. 

We talk about "opposition in all things," and here it is. Without doubt, there can be no faith. And I don't mean that generally speakingthat doubt must exist abstractly somewhere, for someone else. If we have never personally experienced real, lasting, prolonged doubt, we cannot say we have mighty, unshakeable faith. Faith is a positive response to real doubt. Faith is not avoiding doubt by denying truth or reality. And it certainly is not pressuring others into silence to make that denial easier.

"Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."

So why, then, is so much of our church experience centered on convincing ourselves and others that we have any certainty regarding the foundational tenets of our faith?

Why do we have testimony meetings, where the format exists to assure everyone that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt the Church is "true"? Why do we have temple recommend interviews where we proclaim to know the tenets of our religion to be "true"? Why do we insist on hearing each other assert that we've achieved certainty in our beliefs and discipleship, when that isn't even possible at this stage of our spiritual development? 

If these experiences in the Church are supposed to be based on imperfect faith, not perfect knowledge, how does this change the way we see each other? What does this say about what God really expects from us when we worship together?

When you search for faith and doubt together in the scriptures, a variety of texts emerge where writers have analyzed the relationship between them. But for our purposes, let's examine Romans 14. It provides valuable insights into when faith and doubt were primary concerns to the apostle Paul. Who is strong, and who is weak in Christ? Who gets to decide, and what criteria is on that measuring stick? What obligations do we owe to each other as disciples in Christ? Take a few minutes to read the chapter, if you haven't recently. Some of the answers to these questions may surprise you.

As it turns out, developing a relationship with Christ in a community of other Saints has always worked best when... we mind our own business and don't take it upon ourselves to judge other people and their offerings to God. So much of what we define as discipleship is nothing more than personal preference, interpretation, and opinionwhich Paul acknowledges throughout this chapter. 

Note verse 1 where the very first instruction reads, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations." The person's doubts and hangups, however, are not the problem. The "disputations" are the issue, according to Paul. He compares those differences first to differences in eating habits (meat vs. herbs), then preferences in weather, then in how we choose to spend our time. In none of these things are there right and wrong answersjust differences in opinion and preference. These differences have no lasting value to God one way or the other, and no impact on our salvation.

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.

I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
Romans 14:13-15

Jesus Christ left much of what it means to be a disciple up to personal interpretation. Within the context of Mormonism, there are standards associated with receiving ordinances. But even after meeting these obligations, there is so much room for people to decide what discipleship means to them. What is compatible with your personal worship of Jesus Christ? That's a question we each get to decide how to answer. It's not for us to force our answers on others. In the words of Paul, there is no culture of conformity so precious that it is worth harming someone else in order to achieve it.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a message that demands for me to have a perfect knowledge of anyone or anything. Not here. Not yet. It is an invitation to have frail, human, imperfect faith in him. It is a message of flawed devotion, played out millions of times throughout my life. It is the hope to present myself inadequately before God, full of contradictions, and to marvel that I am acceptable anywayeach and every time. It is the reality of knowing every person in the pew beside me, no matter who they are, lives on the same hope and hypocrisy that sustains me.

Faith and doubt do not dispel each other. They dispel false pretenses. They forcefully remove the facades we learn to wear while comparing, competing, and reassuring others that everything is "just fine." They call our bluffs in each and every moment we spend trying to be perfect, or forcing others to be in our own sight. In the hands of God, faith and doubt are the great equalizersthe reminder that we are all the same exact distance away from being perfected. We all depend on the matchless love of Christ to get there.

When it Matters

It's one thing to talk about faith, doubt, and certainty in the abstract. It's another to view them personally through deep anguish. When the answers to questions like "Is God real?" and "Is there life after death?" were part of the debris of my former life crashing down around me, "faith and doubt cannot coexist" became all but meaningless to me. I now understand what it means to be dissatisfied with Instagram quote answers to profound questions born of grief.

I found myself asking these questions in the dark, knowing the impossible choices I would face the next morning. My mind was full of anguish, and I craved certainty in that moment. I must know there is life after death, that everything here isn't meaningless suffering amounting to nothing at all.

In the quiet that seeped slowly into my chest like morphine, my mind emptied and went still. An image of a sandy beach coalesced into my consciousness, blue water stretching before me in an endless horizon. I saw myself standing there, gazing at the line fixed between water and sky.

Imagine thinking there is no land anywhere else on earth, just because you can't see it.

Reality is not bound by what I have seen or experienced. I have not seen a corporeal God with my own two eyes. I have never seen the afterlife. There are endless numbers of people, living and dead, who I will never meet. Places I have never seen, and never will. My inability to see and interact with them does not logically turn them into fiction, cardboard cutouts and painted backdrops. A description of places I have never seen, of experiences I've never had, doesn't make them any less real.

There are some in my community who, after having an experience like this one, would infer or imply all kinds of certainty from it. Surely such an interaction was an answer to my questions! I've been given certain knowledge, beyond the shadow of all doubt, that God is real and there is an afterlife! Look more closely. I asked for certainty, and I didn't get it. I received a lesson on faith instead.

I'm realizing that the tendency to affix certainty upon spiritual experiences is a learned behavior on my part. It's what has set me up for so much frustration throughout my church experience. If my spiritual experiences are supposed to be vehicles of certainty, of course it would be wrong to question them. Of course doubt would be an undesirable experience, tarnishing what I already "know" to be true. Of course it would be devastating if the spiritual experiences at the heart of that "certainty" ever turned out to be incomplete or insufficient to bear me through the trials of my life. I can see why discovering the brittleness of certainty would be traumatic, a crisis, in the lives of some. The only reason I've never had a "faith crisis" is because I've never stopped giving myself the right to be fully human in the name of my religion.

I exist in a place where all that is real includes what I cannot see. Believing in the possibility that I may see God is faith. The acknowledgment that I can't/won't always do that is doubt—whether in God, or in people, or in myself, the impact is the same. Beyond my faith and doubt is a growing sense that claiming I will ever exist in any other state, at least here on earth, is the real delusion.

For me, it is the death of certainty. And it's in that place I'm becoming content to stay.

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