Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Benefit of Doubt

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson
This quote appears on the homepage of my website. It comes toward the end of Tennyson’s elegy, In Memoriam: A. H. H., penned over a 17-year period about his dear friend Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly at age 22. As they had done as part of a group of friends at Cambridge known as “the Apostles,” the poem struggles with faith and doubt.

The love between the men, even though Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister, intrigued me when I read it as a late teen struggling with my own romantic inclinations toward men and for God. I marked these two lines not only with a yellow highlighter, but subsequently underlined them in blue pen, writing “great” in the margin. Closer to the end of the poem’s 131 sections, I highlighted seven stanzas and wrote “My own struggle” in the margin. This poem gave us the famed line, “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

The poem’s prologue, written after the poem’s completion—thus after 17 years of anguished hope and doubt—seems to allude to doubting Thomas in its fourth line, “Believing where we cannot prove.” Though biblical scholarship suggests that the Johannine school, exclusively responsible for casting Thomas as a doubter, did so because of disagreements with the Thomasine school, Thomas could be considered the patron saint of doubters.

In our cynical times, much is made about the need to believe. And cynicism IS problematic when it dismisses all belief out of hand, thus Tennyson’s emphasis on “honest doubt.” But to know honestly what we truly believe, we must be encouraged to acknowledge our doubts. Here are a few doubts that help me:

Doubt yourself. This flies in the face of self-esteem systems that make you the center of the universe in control of your own destiny, but it makes for modesty and humility that behooves a speck on a speck circling a speck in the infinite cosmos.

Doubt religion. This comes more easily to progressive Christians, but I’d say we need also to doubt our own religious pretensions that we’ve got the answers.

Doubt government. This too is easy, as not even democratically-elected governments always behave in a democratic manner, sharing decision-making power. And why, for instance, is one who reveals the mistakes of a corporation called a whistleblower while one who reveals national mistakes called a traitor?

Doubt leaders. Not true leaders, who act altruistically rather than out of self-interest. But discernment of the spirits is key: whose agenda reflects Jesus’ concern for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the sick, the homeless, the vulnerable, the imprisoned?

Doubt business. Even business doubts business, because business people know themselves oh too well.

Doubt science. This too almost goes without saying, as the very basis of science requires empirical skepticism, repeatedly testing one’s findings and theories. Yet again “honest doubt” should not include rejecting things out of hand, theories that have already amassed an overwhelming body of evidence, like evolution.

Doubt art and artistic expressions. Beauty, creativity, and innovation can be enlarging or simply the result of market forces, bias, and deficiencies.

Doubt doubt. Just as beliefs need questioning, doubts do too. And some beliefs deserve “the benefit of the doubt”!

Ultimately Tennyson, in his own study of the sciences and his spiritual struggles, confessed faith over doubt as well as doubt over faith in his prologue, written after his 17 years of pondering: 
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they. 

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