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Over the years as a hospital chaplain, I have talked to many patients, family members and hospital staff about their faith. Faith, at least in part, is about what we believe in, or simply what we believe to be true, trustworthy and eternal.
While giving witness to her long, agonizing journey from unbelief to faith in her book, Amazing Grace, poet and essayist Kathleen Norris comes to the conclusion that the word belief has become an “impoverished word.” It has come to mean heart-over-head feeling that leaves the intellect behind. To say we believe in something, especially if it is a religious belief, too often involves a kind of suspension of the intellect – something that could not stand up to the rigors of rational judgment. So when Norris came to realize that there were religious people who were psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, she could not just assume that religious belief was simply some anti-intellectual wishful thinking. All this time she thought that the opposite of belief is doubt. And since she had many doubts, then how, she wondered, can she believe.
She finally came to the realization that belief was not as scary an activity after all, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to.” Thus if we can determine what it is we give our heart to, then we will know what it is we believe.” Still it was not until she immersed herself as an oblate in a Benedictine monastery, that Norris came to embrace her doubts as a necessary element of faith. Or as an old monk told her, “doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and well.” Actually, I prefer the way Fred Buechner expresses it: “doubt is the ants-in-the pants of faith.”
The most important breakthrough with regard to belief for Norris came when she learned to be as consciously skeptical of her doubts and her disbelief as she was of her blossoming faith. There comes a time when you just let your doubts be nothing more than a few blemishes on the landscape of your faith. “Instead of focusing on the roughness of the terrain, you gaze upon the horizon.” There comes a time we you simply decide that you must (or cannot) believe – that you can do nothing more than give your heart (doubts and all) to “the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Parker Palmer the influential educator and mystic, wrote this about the dynamic of faith and doubt.
“The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love.”