Doubt: The UU Virtue - presented by Judy Osborn
Reading: #650 (Cherish Your Doubts)
Hymn: #143 (Not in Vain the Distant Beacons)
Reading by Carl Sagan from The Burden of Skepticism
Hymn: #145 (As Tranquil Streams)
Message: Doubt: The UU Virtue
This sermon was suggested by the CLF Month of Sundays sermon Doubt by Rev. Brian Eslinger, by the books Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht and In Praise of Doubt by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld.
Doubt is the reason I am here today. When I was growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, doubt was a mortal sin: the sin of pride. How could you, created being – and young, to boot, begin to question the wisdom of two thousand years of theological pronouncements from those who were closer to God than you were?
It all began for me in second grade, when Sr. Mary of the Blessed Sacrament stated that anyone not baptized in the Catholic Church was going to hell. My father was not baptized by Roman Catholic holy water. He had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church. Of course, I did not object in class and challenge her to a debate she undoubtedly would have won.
I mulled over it for a long time and decided that the love and mercy of God were his primary attributes. Therefore, this loving God would not condemn my kind, gentle Dad to an eternity of damnation. This began my journey of doubt.
In Christianity, doubt is a sign of weakness and a threat to salvation. Faith accepts no doubt. The only acceptable doubt is that you may not be able to live up to God’s image in your own life, a mark of human frailty.
The Catholic Church still has problems keeping the faithful faithful to the pronouncements of its leaders. A prominent US Catholic nuns’ group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing 80% of the 55,000 American nuns, said on Thursday it was “stunned” that the Vatican reprimanded it for spending too much time on poverty and social justice concerns and not enough on abortion and gay marriage. According to the Washington Post on April 14, “Many bishops and theologians would hasten to add that accepting Catholic teaching is not simply about being persuaded – it’s about obedience and submission of the intellect.”
This is an example of institutional rigidity. Anytime any belief becomes established, history has shown, that institution solidifies its dogma and any deviation from the norm becomes a sin or a crime. Institutions with their foundation in accepted behavior, unreflective, habitual behavior, have a built-in quality of inertia. (Poor Socrates ran into that in Athens, when he was condemned to death because his questions were disrupting civil life.)
There is always a tension between the accepted ways and the new ways. This is not usually a problem in homogeneous societies where the doubters are few and focused on different aspects of traditional ways of being. But when migration occurs, the increased pluralism challenges the ideas of both the natives and the migrants.
A sociological study was done shortly after the Second World War in Muncie, Indiana, an industrial city of the Midwest which had not experience much change. It revealed that the residents’ beliefs were relatively uniform. There were many “of course” responses to statements by the researchers.
Decades later, with access to modern travel and communication and after the Midwest experienced migration from other areas of the United States and from other cultures, there were fewer points of agreement on life views. There had been more relativization: there was more doubt of the “correct” way of doing things, more acceptance of other ways of being. Pluralism does that. Options in behavior are presented rather than arising from the questioning of the residents. There is a softening of expectations as variations become acceptable.
The responses of those in this situation can differ. It may include an increase in the strength of traditional beliefs, a rise of fundamentalism, among some people. Often those “true believers” work devotedly for their ideals. They have nothing else to do, and the threat to them of not doing what they can is severe. Meanwhile doubters have many other things to occupy them (family, job, hobbies, etc.) and are not focused just on one aspect of life. As Berger and Zijderveld say “Compared to persons wrestling with doubt (often multiple doubts), true believers have a considerable advantage. Doubters tend to hesitate, to deliberate. True believers, on the other hand, don’t have to do anything but act”.
Under these circumstances, those people have to decide what religious beliefs are central and which are marginal and, therefore, not essential. The exclusivist, who rejects these incursions, may become antagonistic to the thrust of the culture and retreat. If you want to avoid changing ideas, avoid contact with those different than you. In this situation, the responses remain “of course, …” Everyone knows how things should be.
A pluralist tends to accept that a variety of values is possible. But the pluralist may encounter implausible or repulsive ideas that must be rejected. As St. Therese of Lisieux said in The Lives of the Saints “We should not say improbable things, or things we do not know. We must see their real, and not their imagined, lives.” There is a great deal of excitement and flux. It is a stimulating, but dangerous time.
Many accept the ideal of tolerance in these circumstances. But tolerance can be either positive or negative. Positive tolerance is characterized by genuine respect and openness in the encounter with individuals and groups that hold values different from one’s own. Negative tolerance is expressed as indifference. Most Western cultures practice inclusivism, where positive tolerance is accepted. But even there, some cultural practices are so heinous that they must be rejected, e.g, killing for honor crimes, cannibalism, or slavery. This is seen as intolerance by the traditional believers in such practices.
In addition, the interests and prejudices of any observer get in the way of rationality, but that is no reason to give up on the attempt to be objective. By being aware of your own interests and prejudices, you are better able to overcome them. These biases can possibly explain the angry reactions to infamous statement by Hilary Rosen this past week that Anne Romney never worked a day in her life. Those whose definition of “work” in that statement means “paid employment” could accept the statement as true. While others felt that the statement disrespected mothers who remain at home. The flap obscured the intent of the statement to both sides. It deflected attention from whether Anne Romney could reflect the interests of women who had to be employed outside the home, to talking points that confirm polarized views.
So, why do I say that doubt is a virtue? It can be disruptive of the established order. But it can have a benefit: new thoughts, new methods, arise as old ideas are rejected. The time of change can be frightening. But it is only because of doubt that any change arises. Progress is due to someone questioning the current methods of doing or thinking. When you ask if something might actually be different than you were taught, you are in good company.
Each historic era was afflicted by questions that led to changes. As a Catholic, the Protestant Revolution (you may know it as the Reformation) arose as clerics and scholars questioned the practices of the Catholic Church. That event prompted the rise of even more questioning as reason became the source of answers, not Holy Writ. These same kinds of events occurred in other cultures and with other institutions. Hypatia of Alexandria (circa 400 C.E.), the inventor of the hydroscope and a type of astrolabe, was killed by a Christian mob for promoting belief in mathematics and inventions that others did not understand and regarded as magic. During her lifetime, intellectualism gave way to fundamentalism, and to religious dogma replacing science.
Doubt can be a tool or a roadblock. It can be a candle that lights the dark or a barrier to decision.
When can doubt be a vice? If you only doubt, you are a cynic, someone who cannot believe any new thing – or any old thing. When doubt is a reaction rather than a rational process, it does not provide new insights, it does not lead to progress. It devalues both the old ways and the new. There is a story of the Buddha resting under the bodhi tree after achieving enlightenment. A man passes by and notices an odd look in the Buddha’s face. The man asks “Are you a God?” When Buddha replied “No, I’m awake”, the man replied “Huh? We’ll see.” And walked away. There was no wonder, no questioning, no seeking an answer. The man simply doubted that the statement had any significance.
Brian Eslinger sees doubt as an integral part of his faith, a way of being in the world, that isn’t dismissive but engaging. “Doubt can be a tool that will lead us to deeper places, deeper understandings, deeper insights, into how we can live in the world in the midst of life’s uncertainties.”
For each of us, I imagine, doubt has been an influence. Even born UUs have to struggle with what they believe. But a UU has our values to support us in our questioning. UUs believe in a free and independent search for truth and meaning while at the same time believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. But even in our history, there is a reaction to new views replacing the old. An example of that arose when the established views of early Unitarian theologians like William Ellery Channing were being replaced by those of the transcendentalists. They got much of their inspiration from the introduction of new ideas (to them!) from Asia. Pluralism once again causing problems to the exclusivists!
Our UU principles encourage this respectful seeking. Doubt is a distinctly UU virtue. We are allowed and expected to challenge the accepted ways of being in our world. We are accepted while we are challenging the ideas of our world. We are encouraged to invest our energies in investigating new ways of being in our world. All of this with an eye to promoting justice, equity, and compassion.
I contend that doubt is a virtue in personal life and in society. What do you think?
Questions for reflection (suggested by Kelly Weisman Sprooth-Jackson):
Where do you draw the line between gullibility and skepticism? Have you lost anything by favoring one over the other?
What are you sure of – what truths do you never doubt? What questions may never be answered or to which an answer is not expected?
Each generation has certain “givens”. When has doubt caused you to question the givens of the generation before? Can you think of a time that this has caused conflict with a respected elder? Has someone younger than you questioned your certainties? What was the result?
Hymn: #287 (Faith of the Larger Liberty)
Closing Words # 563 by Ralph Waldo Emerson