Why Doubt is Essential to Faith

The acceptance and importance of doubt as a part of faith has been constantly on my mind in the last year. The writings of Paul Tillich recently came to us thanks to my husband’s voracious study of spirituality and Christianity. Tillich was a German American theologian and philosopher living from 1886-1965. His method of describing doubt and faith rang true to me, so I weave his words here with my own understanding of late, in the effort to capture and share a snapshot of my ever evolving spiritual landscape, and in the hopes it might help others.timpTillich describes faith as an “ultimate concern.”

Deuteronomy 6:5 states “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

This appears an accurate description of faith as an ultimate concern – something that pervades our entire existence and demands total surrender.

Yet we are finite beings trying to comprehend the infinite. We have limited minds, mortally limited bodies, limited understanding and comprehension abilities. We are much like small children trying to grasp the comprehensiveness of a complex subject. God is infinite, without bounds, without time and place, large and mysterious and great.

It makes sense that there is friction in the space between finite and infinite. That is the space where doubt resides. Friction where a Finite Being tries to understand an Infinite Being. The very presence of that friction, of that doubt, proves how all encompassing my concern is. If I didn’t feel acutely at times how little I really know, how infantile I am in my limited understanding, I wouldn’t have to re-choose the courageous path of faith. Because surely, if I never question and if I feel like I have it all figured out, I’m not actually exercising faith. I am most likely exercising habit, which is not the same as ultimately concerned.

seedsI used to picture knowledge as the end goal, with faith like a baby step along the way, something like “If I only had enough faith, I would know.” In the Book of Mormon, Alma says “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” and again “…after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith…” Throughout Alma’s experiment faith is exercised – the words faith, diligence, patience, and long-suffering are repeatedly emphasized. Interesting to note that this famous Mormon treatise on faith doesn’t end with knowledge, but with the good fruit that represents eternal life.

So what do we have faith about? “Confidence or trust in a person or thing,” is the first definition on dictionary.com, and “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God” is the second definition from Merriam Webster.  “If faith is understood as a belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it” writes Tillich.

Somewhere in my religious history I started to think that “having faith” meant the same thing as “believing to be true.” My sphere has expanded in recent years as I’ve started to think of faith on a larger, more grand scale of seeking out the goodness of Divinity rather than seeking out true/false beliefs. This definition of faith has allowed me to see doubt not as weakness, but as a necessary part of developing courage to choose faith and show my humility before God.

In the the book of Luke in the New Testament, Jesus says “which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” and “What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?” These verses take place as Jesus is highlighting the cost of being his follower, but he does not appear to be shaming those weighing and counting (doubting) before making their faithful decision. Jesus instead appears to be encouraging an educated decision, recognizing that faith is a choice of ultimate concern and should not be made hastily.

It is my hope that we can create a spiritual and religious culture more accepting of doubt. And I mean genuinely accepting of existential doubt as a sign of intelligent friction while building an all-encompassing faith concern, without secretly seeing doubt as weakness or sign of unrighteousness. For without doubt, there is no need for the courageous choice of faith. 


One thought on “Why Doubt is Essential to Faith

  1. Eve N says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I really appreciate you putting this idea into an easy to read and understand blog post- the information is invaluable. I’ve been wondering how to approach teaching my daughter that even people in trusted positions can abuse others, some things are never, ever okay for others to do to you (no matter if you’re lying naked in a field!) and how to tell others if something ever does happen.

    I’ll be sharing this with others. Thank you!


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