Spiraling into Faith and Doubt
Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31
Doubt as a sin problem to be solved with piety
I want to share with you a series of short stories about my own milestones of faith, or as I think is apt for my stories, my milestones of doubt. Thanks to an early encounter with C.S. Lewis’s non-Narnia writings, I’ve come to see doubt as inherent to any kind of faith. Some of you have heard me talk about doubt before, or about my love of ambiguous contemplative prayers and spiritualities, but today I will share with you my changing relationship with doubt from early childhood to now, illustrating along the way the different phases I passed through. The first phase happened from about 5-12 years old. During these years of my childhood, I was a fresh Christian who had been given by the church and my parents the how-to steps of what it means to live a life of faith, hope, and love. Importantly, living a life of faith, so I was told, meant you needed to adopt an attitude of certainty. You should be 100% certain of God’s love and presence in your life. Anything less was suspect and perhaps an indicator of unspoken sin. I quickly developed feelings of inadequacy as a new Christian because I could never feel that high level of certainty. I constantly prayed for salvation and became obsessed as a child that I needed to say the perfect prayer with perfect words and perfect feelings in order to be worthy of salvation. I could never do this, and so I was afflicted with unending uncertainty about whether I could make it to heaven.
When discussing our lives of faith, one of the metaphors we often use at UP is the journey. Thinking in terms of journeys helps us realize that we are beings that are ever changing, ever moving, and, hopefully, ever growing. This morning I’m going to share some milestones of my journey with you. Thinking back over these waypoints, I was struck by how, in certain moments, it’s often felt that my journey was moving in circles, spinning and spinning but going nowhere. From where I stand now, however, I realize these weren’t so much circles as spirals. The trip was dizzying. There were many circles involved. But ultimately, I’ve landed somewhere different. At least for now, and that’s alright. The journey always continues.
As I share stories from this journey throughout the morning, I want you to think about Jacob wrestling with the man in Genesis 32. We also often hear this story told as one where Jacob wrestles with an angel. Jacob wrestles all night long with this man...that’s a long time if you think about it. And I always wondered what a person thinks about when they’re locked in a wrestling match for that long. It’s clear he felt determined not to lose—indeed he even asks to be blessed. By the end of the night, Jacob recounts the evening by saying he saw the face of God. And remember, throughout the Bible, it was very difficult to see the face of God—some might see impossible or even taboo to look upon God’s face. But, the man he wrestled never told Jacob his name. This is the part I find interesting. Jacob felt sure he was looking at God, encountering God, wrestling with God, but Jacob never received confirmation from the man that he was God. What does that mean?
When I was 5 years old living in Fort Worth, Texas, my Mom and Dad guided me into a prayer where I asked Jesus to come into my heart and save me from my sins. They taught me to how to pray, including how to confess my sins—the part I would become most pre-occupied with. After saying this prayer of salvation, I was shortly thereafter baptized in my church as a public proclamation of my choice to become a Christian. Everyone celebrated. When I was 9 years old, I would carry my giant King James Bible bound in a colorful book cover depicting Noah’s ark, and carry it outside in my backyard to an old tree stump. I’d set the bible down, open it to a random page, and start reading from it, preaching to the birds. I was training myself to have outward signs of my devotion. In these moments, I would always ask my mom and sisters if they wanted to come to my backyard sermons, to which they would invariably respond, “Nah.” No worries, I was on solid foundations as God’s backyard prophet of Arlington, Texas.
When I was 11 years old, I jumped on the trampoline thanking God for giving me salvation after I had asked him for the 100th time to come into my heart out of fear I wasn’t asking correctly in my previous prayers. But this time, I felt I got it right. Though, as I jumped on the trampoline and felt my body full of exhilaration, I started to worry that my joy and sense of freedom was artificially produced by that warm summer evening flying through the air with my sisters rather than by the grace of a loving God. I would try to mitigate this shortcoming by praying, sometimes in tears, every night for salvation. My prayers were obsessive. But all I could think was that I must be doing something wrong to feel so unsure. I couldn’t seem to force myself into this mold of what a good Christian girl was supposed to be. I mean, I did force myself, I did the right things, I mean I was a backyard prophet for the birds, wasn’t I?! And I prayed all the time. What else was a Christian child to do? But it didn’t quite feel natural or sincere. I always attributed this doubt, this uncertainty, as my own personal spiritual sin. What else could I do? Doubt as an intellectual problem to be solved with study Enter my teenage years and early adulthood—years might I add that are already brimming with angst for most people. Although I had many other sources of existential anxiety, the doubts of my childhood gave me less existential anxiety as a teenager as I realized, or at least I thought, at this time, I just needed to develop the right skills and the right knowledge to cope with my spiritual shortcomings. This didn’t need to be about sin, it was instead about needing education and skills.
Doubt was an intellectual problem, so I thought.
When I was 19, Chad and I went on one of our first dates and ended the night in a parking lot to argue about whether angels and demons are real. What else are you supposed to do in parking lots after dinner dates? During this year and the next couple of years, I would be taking my first undergraduate courses in theology and biblical studies. I would be learning about the possibility to see metaphorical biblical truths over the literal readings of my upbringing. I would have days where I wanted to throw all my Bibles in the trash, and I would have days where I couldn’t get enough of the biblical commentaries in the library.
When I was 21, I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I found what I thought was a beautiful illustration or re-interpretation of the meaning of childlike faith. C.S. Lewis asks his reader to think not of a child as stupid or gullible, but as inquisitive: children never quite stop asking questions. He says a childlike faith isn’t blind acceptance, but rather incessant questioning. We’ve all seen the child who never stops asking why. I took on this newfound interpretation of childlike faith and it carried me through the rest of my undergrad years and into grad school where Chad and I would continue to argue about religion and theology, trying to get to the bottom of things.
Doubt as a legitimate response to the ambiguities and complexities of the world
It took time, but as I emerged from my undergraduate college experience, I realized that perhaps doubt didn’t need to be a problem at all. I had seen it as sin, I had seen it as an intellectual or educational shortcoming, but now I felt that perhaps it was just a normal human experience. Perhaps doubt could even lead to some beautifully creative things—texts, art, poetry. I no longer suffered from fear of doubt, but rather saw it as a challenge or push to find new forms of meaning that could fill in the ambiguous gaps in the world of gray.
When I was 21, I went to Ireland on a class trip to learn about Celtic spiritualities, which included a whole other world of contemplative forms of prayer that opened me up from my former understanding of prayer as a straightforward conversation with God that always included a confession. I chose the picture of the spiral this morning for a couple of reasons. It’s a picture I took when we had visited Glendalough in Ireland to see the remains of an early Medieval monastic settlement. Our tour guide, who was a Roman Catholic Priest, had us walk this spiraling labyrinth as a group and contemplate the question, “Where do you come from?” It was reflective, quiet, and very green. He might have read a poem at the end as well. That moment didn’t last very long in our 2-week trip, but it stuck with me as a brand-new experience of how one can commune with the divine. Out in nature, with other people, appreciating the ground we walked upon while feeling the togetherness of our group. This seemed to be a very normal human experience—but it felt sacred in that moment somehow. I since have loved the image of a spiral, which I see as someone beginning at an origin in the center and journeying outward, expanding, discovering, learning, seeing anew. We try along the way to figure out what it means to be human and to be in relation to the rest of the earth, and we do this with other people. Everyone does this, but we carve out our own way doing this in a way that is most meaningful to us, in a way that makes us feel most connected to one another.
Doubt as an openness to the unexpected sacred
In more recent years, I’ve begun to feel a deep comfort with the uncertainty that has come to define by own spirituality. The doubt was no longer sin, no longer a problem, no longer a neutral human experience of the world—it was now a central element of my own experiences of the sacred. Doubt and the ambiguities it fostered were for me...inspiration, an invitation to learn, an invitation to take risks, an opportunity to build. I see it not just as the destructive force we tend to associate with it, but also as an urge to construct, create, make anew.
When I was 22, I moved to Boston to start a masters in theology, and one of my first discoveries was a writer and theologian called Pseudo-Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius calls God by many names in his writings: God, the Light, Wise, Eternal, Existent, Mind, Wind, Spirit, Cloud, Sun, Star, Righteousness, Sanctification, Redemption, Creator of Ages. He has many more than what I can share with you today. But he says all these names are inadequate. He believes in God, but doesn’t think we can pinpoint God with a name. Where some feel his descriptions were akin to a gushing over the boundaries of what should constitute “God,” I felt an opening—where light can dispel shadow. Or an unfolding—like the petals of a rose that eventually unravel to reveal the delicate center that anchors the whole of the flower. It’s an image of God that tells a story of discovery, of stillness and being, of appreciation for what is.
When I was 23, I not only found a home at the United Parish of Brookline, but felt great relief at Kent’s invitation to say amen whether you believed a little or a lot because I only had a little in me to give.
I’m now 27, and each time I step into UP and hear Kent ask me to say amen whether I believe a little or lot, I consistently feel an openness, a curiosity, an invitation to lean in. I feel an openness in sacred texts, a built-in ambiguity that begs for listeners to parse out the messages of love, hope, and justice so that their readers may feel inspired to act boldly and love fearlessly. It looks a little different for each of us, which is why I think the ambiguity is necessary.
When Jacob wrestles the man, Jacob knows by the end that he has seen the face of God without the man or angel telling Jacob his name. Jacob did not need the certainty of a proper introduction because he felt the sacred in his experience. Sometimes those experiences come without words, and sometimes people write or paint or sculpt great works of art to depict those moments. I challenge us today to think about the faces of God we’ve seen and to think about how those faces of God have urged us to share beauty, practice stillness, lend a compassionate hand, or do something else in the name of love and in the name of God. And if you doubt along the way or sometimes feel like you’re going in circles, that’s quite alright. It’s all part of the journey.