The Doubt Essential to Faith

a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie


Agnostic Jew Lesley Hazleton, author of a 2013 biography of Muhammad, was struck by Mohammed’s doubt on the night he received the revelation of the Koran. And yet this experience became the bedrock of his belief. This sermon calls for a new appreciation of doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith — and an end to fundamentalism of all kinds.

The Reading

In a 1903 letter to his protégé, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and learn to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, evolve some distant day into the answer.

And this, six months later, in response to a letter from Franz:

What I could say about your disposition to doubt or about your inability to bring your outer and inner life into harmony, or about anything else that oppresses you: it is always what I have said before: always the wish that you endure, and single-heartedness enough to believe; that you might win increasing trust in what is difficult. And about feelings: all feelings are pure which gather you and lift you up; a feeling is impure which takes hold of only one side of your being and so distorts you. … Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become aware. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will perhaps find it helpless and nonplussed, perhaps also aggressive. But do not give way, demand arguments and conduct yourself thus carefully and consistently every single time, and the day will dawn when doubt will become, instead of a subverter, one of your best workmen, — perhaps the cleverest of all who are building at your life.

The Sermon

A few weeks ago environmental activist and indigenous rights advocate Winona LaDuke, told over 300 people at the UU church in Boston that we must reclaim our collective power of faith. A faith with energy to defeat the many fronts of oppression active today. Her faith energized a movement to defeat a pipeline proposal that would have destroyed the wild rice upon which her people depend. It took six years, all she wants to be is a farmer, but just last year, Enbridge submitted a new proposal for a similar pipeline on her land. She is optimistic that this time the fight will be shorter, but if not, she says the Ojibwe White Earth reservation in Minnesota will be the next Standing Rock and she invites all of us to come.

Since that night with her, I’ve been contemplating the power of faith to initiate movements for justice and peace, a faith that sustains us when the challenges seem to great; a faith that stretches the scope of what seems possible, a faith that transforms our cynicism and denies our despair. I am deeply concerned that we, the silent majority have let the power of faith be claimed by none religious extremists; Judaism by violent west bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic, racist, misogynist zealots, and Islam by suicide bombers. How do we as UU’s reclaim a public faith that inclines our hearts and our culture toward life? A faith that lets go of certainty and makes room for larger and possibly unknowable answers? A faith that meets truth while still bearing the full weight of suffering and our doubt of what is right, and what is possible?

I know we are not the first UU’s to wrestle with these questions. Our commitment to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, our 4th principle, has long served as a destination and our six wisdom sources as teaching of strength. Theodore Parker a 19 C Unitarian minister was exiled from his ministry in Boston because of his radical stance against slavery and Ralph Waldo Emerson left his Unitarian pulpit because he could no longer in good conscience offer the Trinitarian expression of communion to his congregation. Reclaiming faith means facing the ugliness of the world, wrestling with what challenges you and acting sometimes in conscious defiance of the place where you find comfort. And that’s not easy. To reclaim a faith with the power to do this we need to know how to skillfully use our doubts. For inspiration, I look to the faith of the Prophet Muhammad, a faith that turned him an otherwise modest man, to a radical advocate for economic and social justice. I look to the teachings of Buddha for wisdom, a man who faced a world of doubt when challenged by the demon Mara the night before he became the enlightened one.

Leslie Hazelton, an agnostic Jew recently published a biography of Muhammad. She wanted to understand what happened that night in the year 610 on a mountaintop outside of Mecca when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran. As an agnostic Jew, she felt out of her league but this question would not let go of her. As a rationalist, she said in her TED talk, “the human encountering the divine as Muslims believe Mohammed does seems like wishful thinking.” But as she researched written accounts she was struck not by what happened but by what did not happened. He did not come down the mountain walking on air, singing halleluiah and bless the lord. He did not radiate light or joy, there were no choirs of angels, no golden aura, no sense of his absolute foreordained role as the messenger of god. He did nothing of the things that might make it easy to put down the whole story as a pious fable. In his own reported words Muhammad was so convinced at first what had happened was unreal…a hallucination, a trick of the eye, or at worst a possession by a spirit, that he was tempted to escape the terror of what he experienced by jumping off a cliff. So the man that fled down the mountain that night trembled with fear, overwhelmed not with conviction but by doubt. She says, “that whether he believe the words he heard that night came from inside himself or outside himself, what is clear is that he did experience them, and he did so with a force that would shatter his sense of himself and his world.”

Some conservative Muslim theologians insist that Muhammad didn’t doubt for a moment, they want him to be perfect. Yet as I read Leslie’s biography it was precisely his doubt that brought him alive for me, that allowed me to see him in full, to accord him integrity, and the more I thought about it the more his doubt made sense because the more you doubt the stronger your faith. Novelist Graham Greene, says, “doubt is the heart of the matter, abolish all doubt and what is left is not faith but absolute heartless conviction that serves an the ideal refuge from the struggles and questions of real faith.” This struggle is simply part of reclaiming our power. Jacob wrestled with the angel, Buddha faced Mara, Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness, and Muhammad struggled with despair as he was forced to flee from his beloved Mecca in fear for his life.

Yet, struggling with our doubt is something we are not inclined to do. Kahlil Gibran wisely wrote “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
To better struggle with doubt, we must know there are two types, says the Buddha, one is helpful to faith, and one a hindrance. The helpful doubt encourages us to investigate when we are feeling disoriented, to experiment with teachings and not dismiss a truth simply because it doesn’t fit into our worldview. This good doubt helps us discover a wider view of truth that will in Buddha’s words “makes of us a light.”

For me this is such an incremental process. I recall the doubt and confusion I experienced during a trip to Haiti five years after their debilitating earthquake.
As soon as we left the doors of the airport throngs of men shoved to claim the carts pushing the 26 large bags filled with clothes, medicines, and diapers. Once in the van, others put their heads through the windows, saying “take care of me” in Creole. Hundreds of people lined the streets of Port –O -Prince; some studying the engines of stalled cars, others repairing ripped tires. We drove past rows and rows of shacks, crumbling cement buildings, and literally mountains of raw garbage. We then made our ascent to the top of one of the city’s hills and pulled into our hotel, Auberge du Québec complete with a pool, manicured lawns, and dining room with a panoramic view of the port. I was disoriented, the contrast nauseated me, and a sign in the lobby was a harbinger of things to come. It read “I know I have not found the answers to all of my questions. The answers I have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. I am as confused as ever, but about more important things.” On the day before we were to leave to come home, our Haitian interpreter, LaBelle, a man I was quite fond of, told us that as a student he witnessed the murder of 20 of his fellow students by the U.S. backed dictator Aristide. His eyes filled with tears, and my heart broke. Yet the Minister leading our interfaith trip quickly dismissed his account as political. I was confused. Socialized by race and authority I felt my heart harden as I doubted LaBelle’s account. Her politics became more real than his suffering. I lived the discomfort until the very last chapter of this massive book on Haitian history I was reading verified the killing on December 5th 2003. That day my faith inclined towards life and healing as I learned to trust my compassion and to do more research about U.S. complicity in Haiti’s instability. Now when I think of Labelle, and meet other victims of political violence, my heart opens unconditionally and I hear “blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted, blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven.” Doubt in this sense is ultimately a call of freedom as it helps us to see our own light and reinterpret reality to live fully this aliveness that’s in us.

The second kind of doubt is a mind state of uncertainty and indecision that brings this practice to a standstill. Yann Martel in his book Life of Pi, says “To choose this type doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Plagued by this doubt we get lost in endless thought loops that question our ability, our worth, and even the value of questioning. What makes it so hard is these thoughts come to us as the voice of wisdom. For me, my doubtful declarative voice is very good at defining reality. Do you know this voice? Over the last year of cascading calamities, affronts to our democratic values and attacks on our progress towards climate justice , the strength of this doubt voice doubled, and I have fought the temptation to throw up my hands and retreat. Maybe you too have known such moments? Sometimes the only distraction from pending cynicism is comfort. My go to place is Netflix. And this distraction isn’t just a modern day thing, St. Theresa of Avila was known to get easily distracted by a can of sardines.
This first thing to do when this immobilizing doubt takes hold says the Buddha is to cultivate wise attention and notice when it arises. Notice your thoughts and notice when you transition to another mind state, and what it feels like to be free of doubt for even one moment. This is what Rilke means when he said “train your doubt. ask why demand proofs from it, test it, not give way until doubt becomes your strength and brings the clarity of faith to your mind that like a gem makes clear muddy water.”

Skillful use of doubt both motivates us to find faith in the future and to find faith in each other whether we are atheist or theist or anything in between or beyond. With out you, and without this learning community, it would be hard for me to faith that peace in the Middle East is possible, that reclaiming our democracy is within reach, that we can resist destruction of our precious ecology despite overwhelming evidence sometimes to the contrary. But because of you, I do. I am not convinced of it, I can only have faith in it and commit to myself that is the idea of it. This faith may be naïve, and idealistic, but it is what makes me and all of us human. A faith Wanona LaDuke says we must with great intention collectively reclaim.

I am convinced that Mohammed could not have transformed a culture once rife with tribal warfare and greed to one of peace and inclusion without claiming his faith, and if he were alive to today he would be outraged by the extremists who act in his name, he would be torn apart by the division of sectarianism, and horrified by the oppression of half the population because of their gender. I am conversation with some people from Arm in Arm to explore more deeply the wisdom of Islam, please let me know if you are interested. The Koran says, “Anyone who takes a life takes the life of all of humanity, anyone who saves a life, saves the life of all humanity.”

Our living tradition calls on us to search for truth and meaning that bears the full weight of today’s suffering. A truth that sets free a power of commitment, a vision of hope, and a faith that inclines towards life. There are so many ways to save a life. In this spirit, let us work to save the life of all humanity, and let us faithfully commit to the hard and inspiring process of freedom and peace.