A trinity of honest doubt

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“Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward–or at least outward–even in your lowest moments.  Such doubt is painful–more painful, in fact, that any of the other forms–but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying.  Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

9 thoughts on “A trinity of honest doubt

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I would add that honest belief, and not just honest doubt, can and should have the same three marks: humility, insufficiency, and mystery. Strong subjective certainty becomes a vice when it overrides this threesome.

  2. I can see what the difference between honest and dishonest belief might be. I’m less sure about the distinction between honest and dishonest doubt. Maybe the latter is when you pretend to leave the door open for belief, but actually have closed it tight, I think my doubt is honest by the above definition, but also more complacent than he describes. I’ve lived with it so long that it’s not really painful, just something I’ve learned to quit fighting and accept as a companion on the journey of faith. I don’t feel “passive,” just resigned to a lack of certainty. I still think, so I still doubt. I still experience grace, so i still believe. I’ve grown very much during the struggling stages, but long ago I decided that I didn’t want to live that way every day. There are serious limitations to my ability to reason OR believe that are never going to be resolved, so I choose to embrace the ambiguity rather than constantly to struggle.

  3. I do think Wiman would call your doubt very honest doubt. I think he’s responding in part to those for whom doubt has become almost a religious faith in and of itself. He speaks a “religious commitment to doubt” and finds such doubt dubious, dishonest. Your doubt, my doubt, I think, is simply an attempt to be honest about realities too big for us.

  4. I’ve read Wiman’s book with much conviction — underlining some piece of wisdom on every page. That said, it was a gift to see this quote standing alone in all its stark truth. Thank you. I think it was G.K. Chesterton (but don’t hold me to it because it could have been Flannery O’Connor) who said that any faith worth believing in had to allow for a large measure of doubt. Also, I’m not certain how to embrace ambiguity WITHOUT struggle. My relationship with God/Jesus is the most tempestuous of my life. I’m so grateful for God’s patience. So grateful for my resilience. So humbled by faith steadily taking root.

    Thank you for posting this quote. xoxo

  5. And thank YOU for introducing me to Wiman and his wisdom through your gift of his book to me! I’ll add to the wisdom of Chesterton (or O’Connor) with the wisdom of Gomes (think I’ve passed this piece on to you some time ago): “…we should be reminded with a painful poignancy that we too can, and often do, get it wrong. That is why the most profound of all religious sentiments should not be certainty, which inevitably leads to arrogance, but modesty, which, because of a generous God, leads to mercy and forgiveness.”

  6. This is very interesting. I have to keep reading it because I am not sure I really get it.

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  7. I, too, Fran, come back to this again and again, as Wiman’s words are profound. The older I get, the more I realize how much faith is just that–faith, accompanied by all kinds of questions and uncertainties. I’m always happy when someone like Wiman affirms “honest doubt,” and I so appreciate his vision of faith, “durable faith,” steadily taking root even in the midst of all our uncertainties. Faith is always stronger, I believe, when it leaves room for questions and doubts.

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