Doubt vs Faith: A False Opposition

It has been four and a half years since Elder Uchtdorf’s “Come, Join with Us” talk, one of the best talks in recent memory. His talk is inclusive, it is hopeful, it is practical and it is wise. Everyone should watch it and read it, in my opinion. There is one part in particular which has generated a fair amount of discussion, the line “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” Here is the more full quote, for context:

It’s natural to have questions — the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith — even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters — my dear friends — please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The point here is that doubt can be paralyzing; it can hold us back from community and fellowship, keep us from feeling the influence of God in our lives. Pres. Uchtdorf wants us to do the best we can with what we have.

I want to add my own voice to that message, by talking a little about how I personally experience doubt, and faith, in an LDS context. Oppositional in some contexts, we tend to view doubt as the opposite of faith — this is natural, since we define faith as belief in things that are not seen, and doubt as a feeling of uncertainty. But I don’t really view them as opposites as I experience my faith. This is partially because the object of my faith and the focus of my doubts are not the same, but also because the way I believe also necessitates a certain portion of doubt. I’ll try to explain both here, so bear with me.

First, the topics of faith and doubt. Fundamentally, I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe in personal and communal redemption, and I believe that families are the key to salvation. More specifically, I believe that unless generations of humanity can extend love and empathy to each other, none of us can be saved. I believe that Jesus exemplified a life of reaching out to the poor, the marginalized and the outcast, and that I must try to do the same. I believe that the first shall be last, and the last first. I also believe that blessings can be efficacious, that ordinances have real power, and that spiritual gifts are real. These are, more or less, the most important things I believe in, though of course there are appendages to this and lots of little things, too. They all point towards the sublime, to steal a line from a friend.

My doubts, on the other hand, don’t hit any of those things. My doubts hit matters of history, human operations, temporal policies, stuff like that. My doubts are on points that are hotly debated but without satisfactory resolution. My doubts tend also to become more pressing on matters where church practice and personal conscience rub against each other. My doubts are commonplace.

So, when I think about what Elder Uchtdorf said, I’m happy to doubt my doubts before I doubt my faith, in part because the doubts don’t hit my faith in ways that would seriously affect my day-to-day. I know that spiritual gifts are real because I’ve witnessed them from various men and women of different backgrounds and genders. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ because I try to repent of my own sins and have felt forgiveness. These sorts of things are independent from the sorts of doubts which I feel. This is all very shorthand and oversimplified, I should point out. It’s not that I am brimming with confidence as I march smugly to Church each week. It’s more that there are some burning embers that resist the cold.

But more than this, my particular faith also brings with it some doubt as a necessity. When I believe in intergenerational family salvation, this means in part that I believe in temple sealings and temple ordinances, and yet I’m very cognizant of how some are excluded from temples, and how even those admitted are marginalized by the liturgy. As another example, when I say that blessings are efficacious that means that I think God has answered my pleas — but perhaps not others, hence problems of evil are constantly looming. These are real doubts to which there are no good answers. My take with respect to these doubts is not to “shelve” them or ignore them, because doing so does nobody any good. Rather, I name them. I articulate them, understand why they bother me, why they keep us from being one, why I cannot be saved when others are deliberately left behind. Then, having named them, I sit with those doubts. I understand the impact of them, the paradoxes they imply. I am a Christian but far from Christ in word, deed, institution and learning.

When I understand my doubts, can articulate them, I can see better how they work, how my faith — which I must also name, which I must also keep before me — is inseparate from these problems. The collective, messy whole is what I have to present before God. These doubts show me the work I feel I have to do, whether that’s showing more empathy, opening my home, or simply being honest about the mess. This helps me to not allow doubt to hold me prisoner — rather, the doubts, fueled by the imperatives of my faith, point me to the divine love that I can feel. Do I feel doubt about the Nov 5 policy, for example? Heavens yes. My faith tells me that all are invited to come to Christ. So that’s the work I feel called to do. I’ll stay and try to make this community one that lives up to that injunction, regardless of policies. That’s just one example, but the point is that the doubts don’t drive away my faith, they amplify the spiritual tasks before me.

My personal take is that the sooner we understand our doubts, the sooner we can start the real, messy work of believers.

—————–
Edit: one thing that I didn’t say, but that I should have said, is that this post comes from a position of relative comfort. I’m not sidetracked or marginalized by the Church or its teachings in any respect. I’m a cishet white dude and have suffer no disadvantages. So it’s easy, and perhaps glib, of me to say that doubt is no problem. It’s not my intent to downplay the intensity of isolation and suffering that many have felt in the Church. I don’t begrudge anyone that pain and would not want to minimize it. I am more trying to articulate a path for myself that permits me to remain and make the community better.

Comments

  1. I wish I had a brilliant response to this. Alas, I do not.

    I will instead say I love this and am grateful you are in my faith community.

    I do wonder if when we speak of faith and doubt we have deep paradigm level rifts between units in our community which inform the the very words faith and doubt and render the whole discussion more challenging. As you say your doubts do not hit your faith, I see the human actions, history and temporal policies for one are prophetic actions, the path of Good, and doctrine to another. But that is exactly why your call to compassion matters so much. But I can not help but ask, what can I do? This all makes me feel so helpless.

    I recently moved into a Ward where you used to live in Seattle, and Nov 5 has torn this Ward up. How do I help that?

  2. I don’t know if this is in conjunction with the BYU devotional given today, but I appreciate your take on this subject. I get frustrated that we too often tell our youth to just focus on the basics and the other stuff will just work out. Or if they are wearing the wrong glasses, their paradigms are shifted in the wrong way. Not that this message is wrong on it’s face, I just think our youth would be better served if we also admit to the compexities and the messiness within our faith.

  3. Matt, I know that ward and miss it. Please say hi to the old guard.

    How do you help them? First I guess would be to not pretend there’s no problem. Acknowledge that this is real, there is pain and that different people will have different paths around that. Then make it clear that regardless of paths chosen, yours will be that of openness and compassion to everyone.

    More significantly, recognize where that feeling of helplessness comes from. What fuels it? What are you really helpless to do? How does that shift your calling to help others?

  4. Em, I didn’t know about the devotional.

  5. Thank you for this. I have recently found myself filled with questions, doubts, and more than a little bit of anger regarding the Church, its policies and doctrine, and certain attitudes prevalent in our culture. Having read this, I am able to hope a little more that I am not alone in my more existential questions, and that one day I will feel welcome again.

  6. Also, you’re from Seattle, Steve? My dad used to live in Queen Anne. You might know him.

  7. Yeah? I might — been a while but it’s possible I ran into him. We were in Magnolia.

  8. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Faith and doubt can both become stagnant and blind. Neither seems like it is supposed to be a final state, and just like we expect powerful faith to lead on to knowledge, you have nicely expressed a way for doubt to move you forward.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Steve.

  10. Thank you for this, Steve.

  11. You’re welcome. I don’t know if it really goes anywhere, or if it’s just rationalization, but it feels to me like a way of making a way through some of the more difficult aspects of our religion without losing my soul.

  12. Thank you, Steve. My experience has taught me to believe in the value of doubt. Doubt is not usually a wonderful or comfortable feeling, but it is indispensable because it can drive us forward in faith when nothing else will.

    Doubt reminds us that life always offers more than our cozy sphere of personal convictions can account for. Doubt makes us alert to possibilities that we otherwise would not see. It make us consider that other people experience the world differently. It makes us notice hidden suffering.

    Doubt is a source of humility. People like Steve (and like me and many other readers of this blog), who are economically and socially privileged, often lack a reason to be constantly humble. Doubt takes us down a few pegs in spite of all that we have.

    Doubt is faith’s companion. If we are not afraid to let doubt work on us, we are more able to exercise faith: faith to learn what we do not know; faith to share and teach; faith to recognize and heal pain; faith to wait for God.

  13. This resonated with me. Thanks, Steve.

  14. Thanks Steve — great contemplation.

  15. Thank you for sharing. I have been tempted (I use this word intentionally) at times to “shelve” my doubts, and that idea has appealed to me because of the comfort it implies. However, I have chosen, like you and many others, to name my doubts and use them as fuel for moving forward–for searching for truth. For me, this is essential in building my house upon a rock.

  16. Jack Hughes says:

    Thank you, Steve. In recent years, I have come to believe that faith and doubt are not in opposition to each other, but complementary. Doubt is a prerequisite to faith. I was only able to begin reconstructing my own faith when I learned first to embrace my doubts, then carefully follow whatever intellectual/spiritual path on which they would take me. While I otherwise love the talk by DFU, well-intended advice to “doubt your doubts” rings hollow to me.

    The opposite of faith is not doubt–it’s certainty.

  17. J. Stapley says:

    Excellent stuff, Steve. You are wise and caring, and a good friend.

  18. Thanks for this. In a church that features public proclamations of faith (as in “I know this gospel is true”), admitting to doubts takes a lot of courage. We don’t always seem comfortable with a continuum that includes both faith and doubt. For me, doubt is often the starting point of faith, if I can use it to motivate me to find the answers to my doubts. But experience has shown me that isn’t always possible. Admitting to the complexities and messiness of our faith and acknowledging our doubts ought not to be so hard, but it is difficult to practice when there is such an emphasis on surety. So, I have faith, strong belief, an optimistic viewpoint, but all of that still has to acknowledge the doubts. The concept of a shelf for me doesn’t work anymore. I am getting a little more honest about doubts, and trying to find better answers.

  19. Kevin, I like that. But even those public proclamations of faith are, for me, informed by my own doubts, so that I recognize the efforts to show each other that we are part of the community, that we can be trusted, that we are “all in”. I want to show myself as worthy of that trust (even if the language of certainty is hard).

  20. Thanks Steve. Will you elaborate on your last comment about trust? Are you saying you’re comfortable using statements of certainty as a way to build trust and unity because your definition of the “certain thing” resonates, even though other people will likely define it differently? I don’t think I’m explaining myself well…are you okay with using language that most people will interpret very differently than the way you mean it, since it’s technically true to you and you want to maintain a sense of trust?

  21. Thanks, Steve. Thinking of doubt as the thing that calls us into the life of the community is very helpful to me.

  22. All doubts are not created equal. For instance the doubt that the Book of Mormon is other than fiction is a big one, maybe THE big one, because how do you get around that? Many find latter-day explanations, rationalizations and work-arounds utterly and completely unconvincing, yet desperately want the church to be what it claims to be. It’s rough going when the same science that sees literally to the furthest reaches of the universe and decodes our life blueprint sequence by sequence indicates zero possibility for large Semitic civilizations in the New World. For me, this is the elephant in the room in any discussion on LDS doubt. Sometimes beneath belief, faith and hope there is love, simple unadorned unexpectant love, for the institution and the people. I hope that counts for something because at this point it’s all I have.

  23. P, what you describe counts for a lot.

    I have my doubts about the historical nature of the Book of Mormon. But those doubts don’t get in the way of me considering it to be the word of God. I recognize the importance of a historical Book of Mormon to many. And I certainly leave room for both those who go on tours of mesoamerica and those who completely reject any factual basis for the book.

    Ultimately, my salvation depends on the grace of God, which compels me to act in the community. The Book of Mormon pushes me towards that community action, so I love the book. DNA evidence, etc is unimportant to me in that respect, though it is certainly important with respect to other “truth claims”. But I largely reject the paradigm of truth claims as a means of being saved.

    In other words, the concern is both vital and irrelevant.

  24. A very fine statement of faith and action. I am very pleased to see a part of your soul, Steve Evans.
    Somehow I never caught on to faith and doubt as competitors. They have always seemed to operate on different planes–neither correlated nor opposed. It is therefore interesting to watch someone pull them apart.
    It is also interesting to follow a train of thought that feels familiar yet ends in a different place. I have some theories for where small differences have large effects, but that becomes my story instead of yours.

  25. “Faith” and “doubt” can mean many different things. To me it seems that certainty is the opposite of faith as much as doubt is. Elder Oaks has recently made a statement that seems to try to limit the meanings of doubt to one condemned by scripture. I think I understand what he means, but it is dangerous to export his definition indiscriminately to others’ usage. It can mean simply “question” or even “lack of certainty.” I’m not quite sure what kind of doubt President Uchtdorf was speaking of, but I very much appreciate learning of others’ resolutions of faith and doubt — even when they don’t quite tell us what they mean by “doubt” but leave it to us to divine. Thanks, Steve, for starting this chain with your post.

  26. There is something less than “certain” to be found in meekness. And the meek shall inherit the earth. An acknowledgement of, and respect for, everyone’s faith journey–all the while not dismissing those who express certainty–is a refreshing approach. It is also an approach that, in my experience, members of the church apply quite well on a micro level. And it is, I think, perfectly Christian.

    Thank you for your testimony of the Book of Mormon a few comments above. It expresses better than I can exactly how I feel.

  27. Steve, this—“the object of my faith and the focus of my doubts are not the same”—is an important insight. The gospel doesn’t ask us to have faith in anything or anyone other than our God. As we walk the path of discipleship, we may be called upon to provisionally believe certain doctrines or trust people, leaders, or institutions to greater or lesser degrees, but finding it hard to do so is not identical to a loss of the faith that’s essential in the gospel.

    That’s why having a little epistemic humility (which we could call doubt) about many of our beliefs and claims is 100% consistent with having faith in the gospel sense.

  28. Great post. I have always appreciated these words from Paul Toscano’s “The Sacrament of Doubt”:

    Doubt and faith are twin offspring of genuine spirituality. True spirituality is a free mind that practices irony and compassion. Without doubt, faith hardens into arrogance. Without doubt, we cannot doubt ourselves, our assumptions, aspirations, expectations and predispositions. Without self-doubt, we cannot question our righteousness; we cannot repent; we cannot forgive. Without doubt, we cannot tolerate the unfamiliar. Without doubt, we cannot criticize the power structures that serve us and afflict others.

    Perhaps faith is to give God the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps doubt is to restrain the narcissism of certainty. For me, the bread of doubt is as sacred as the water of faith. Together they form a Eucharist of hope, a wellspring of charity — a love that is neither partial nor sentimental, but simply the heart’s desire that God’s love falls like rain in equal measure upon the just and the unjust, that no one claim a blessing one would withhold from another or impose a burden one would not bear oneself.

  29. I hadn’t noticed before that he said to cultivate the seed of faith “sometimes in the sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.” Right there is an expression of the need for doubt and faith to exist together.

  30. I think the best way to make sense of faith & doubt as used in the church is as you’ve mentioned that doubt is a negative when it’s paralyzing and causes us to avoid taking positive action, and the corresponding meaning of faith would be a willingness to act despite doubts. That’s all good & well.

    The problem is when we are talking about faith in and doubt of facts. There are a whole lot of dubious claims church members and leaders have made over time, and I doubt the heck out of them. I downright disbelieve a bunch of them. That’s not, to me, a question of whether I should have faith or doubt but discernment, being able to tell truth from error, heuristics from reality, black & white naivete from nuance and areas of gray that are more realistic.

    Your post reminded me of a few Peter Enns quotes from his book The Sin of Certainty.

    “Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem. It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth.”

    And my personal favorite: “Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest.”

  31. There appears to be a division in the LDS community over whether faith is an expression of unwavering certainty or uncertain hope. Many in the rank-and-file see faith as the former, whereas the intellectual community tends to see it as the latter.

    Also in LDS discourse there appears to be a conflation of faith/doubt as confidence/lack of confidence in one’s abilities to succeed in life and faith/doubt as belief/disbelief in historical truth claims. Often times I hear believers think that because someone has doubts about the LDS truth claims that that must also mean that they have doubt in themselves. This doesn’t make sense. I have met many in the ex-Mormon community who comfortably dismiss that the Book of Mormon is historical while having high self-esteem.

    Lastly, isn’t doubt an inevitable fact of life? Don’t Mormons doubt teachings about reincarnation just as firmly as Southern Baptists doubt that the Book of Mormon is historical? “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

  32. I really appreciated this post. Thank you for sharing. It was good to be reminded of the context of Uchdorf’s quote.

  33. I know this is not the topic of this post, but I was a little surprised to see someone comment on here about the BOM and DNA. I guess I just assumed that most people who have taken the time to look at issues like this would have read enough to know that there is no credible way to make a connection between a group of humans alive today to another group of humans alive today by traveling back several thousand years, then forward again another several thousand years, etc., etc. (For one example, read “Finding Lehi in America through DNA Analysis,” by Ugo A. Pergo, in “A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History.”)

  34. The $64,000 Answer says:

    There lives more faith in honest doubt,
    Believe me, than in half the creeds….

    I falter where I firmly trod,
    And falling with my weight of cares
    Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
    That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

    I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
    And gather dust and chaff, and call
    To what I feel is Lord of all,
    And faintly trust the larger hope.

    Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” 1849.

  35. I like that. Thanks.

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