Some Thoughts in Response to Terryl Givens on Doubt

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Last week, Terryl Givens published an article on Faith Matters entitled, “Can Stronger Faith Emerge From The Crucible Of Doubt?” The short answer to the titular question is yes — trials of our faith can strengthen our faith. This makes a lot of sense to me. As we press forward with faith during times when our faith is tested by uncertainty, competing worldviews, conflicting interpretations, etc., our faith can come out the other side more vibrant for having gone through the experience than otherwise. Like a spiritual muscle, our faith grows as it faces resistance. Our trust in God strengthens as we step into unknowns and grapple with hard questions.

And so we can see trials of our faith as part of God’s plan for us, part of the purpose of life itself. And one of Given’s key messages for readers is that they should not see themselves as less than for having such trials, for having questions that we grapple with and seek answers for. Such questions and moments of trial are part and parcel with morality itself, and we all have them (to varying degrees). We are not inadequate or weak merely because our faith is being tested. We are merely on a journey towards greater and richer faith, and we should have hope and trust that God will lead us through our trials of faith towards a place of conviction once again.

That was one of two central pillars of Given’s message, and the second is just as important: dogmatists within the faith need to tone it down. We need to embrace epistemic humility, and realize that we often don’t know as much as we think we do. Dogmatism is not the same thing as faith or conviction. Faith is humility and hope in the face of uncertainty, and dogmatism is pride in the face of uncertainty — a pride that asserts certainty where it’s not warranted. In this way, Dogmatism is a faux-certainty, an affection of certainty that is, itself, symptom of insecurity. People with an abiding conviction that can weather the steepest trials of faith tend not to be dogmatists. They exemplify humility and charity instead.

I completely endorse both these messages. But notice what I did not do in my restatement of Givens’ arguments: I did not valorize doubt, nor did I frame doubt as a virtue, as Givens does in his piece. And yet — in my opinion — I was able to traverse the same grounds and make the same arguments that Givens does. And that is my primary (well, only) quibble with Givens’ article — he uses the vocabulary of doubt (ostensibly to de-stigmatize doubt) when I don’t think he actually needs to. He can advance his goals (to provide comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling and to prescribe humility and charity for the dogmatists and absolutists among us) without it.

More and more, I’m seeing a rhetoric among Church members that treats doubt as a prerequisite to faith, or to define humility as a kind of doubt. For example, one online commenter (who goes by Brit) expressed this idea well: “Rather than doubt and faith being incompatible, I think that doubt is the required environment for faith to exist, for when there is no doubt (uncertainty), there is certainty (knowledge) and hence faith is no longer necessary.” Another blogger has written: “Doubt isn’t a sign of weakness, but of courage … It takes faith and courage to take steps when one cannot fully see the path ahead, and faith, in the true sense of the word (i.e., trust), can only be forged alongside doubt.”

I’ve seen a number of comparable statements elsewhere. (Terryl Givens may or may not share those views, but I think they are packaged up in the narrative / rhetoric of doubt that I’m addressing.) I think it’s actually easy to slip into this vocabulary, precisely because the word “doubt” is a versatile word — we can use it in a lot of contexts to mean a lot of different things. When used as a noun, doubt is often taken as a synonym of uncertainty. “Beyond a reasonable doubt,” for example, means “little or no uncertainty.” But when used as a verb, “doubt” is more often synonymous with disbelief. For example, “I doubt that story is true” means the same thing as “I don’t believe that story is true.” And that’s a fair bit different than mere uncertainty.

When taken as a verb, doubt and conviction are antonyms. We cannot both disbelieve and believe at the same time. We cannot doubt the Restored Gospel and also believe the Restored Gospel. This is almost certainly what President Thomas S. Monson meant when he said, “Faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other.” Belief and unbelief are competing states of mind, and the more we believe, the less we disbelieve, and vice versa. And so again, when taken as a verb, “doubt” is simply not compatible with faith and belief.

But what about as a noun? Well, uncertainty is a fact of life. As we mentioned above, it is a packaged deal with mortality itself. We are supposed to encounter times when we step into uncertain territory. But I think it’s more useful to talk about faith and doubt as diverging responses to uncertainty. We can respond to uncertainty with trust and fidelity, or with mistrust and cynicism. They are different ways of responding to times of uncertainty and trial. And I think we can talk about the importance of responding with faith instead of doubt — we can press forward with belief instead of giving ourselves over to disbelief.

In his defense, Givens makes a similar distinction: “There is a difference, after all, between “doubts” (cognitive dissonance we may experience over particular questions or issues) and “doubt” as a prevailing attitude we might bring to our inquiry.” And so in the end, my quibble is probably more one of vernacular than substance. I tend to think that there are better ways to talk about our grapples with uncertainty than using the word “doubt,” when we can get at the same constructs with more clarity by using other terms. Let me use an example from Givens’ article to illustrate:

Joseph Smith provides an example of doubt honestly acknowledged, honestly engaged, and powerfully profitable. He tells us that even after a heavenly vision, even after being told by Jesus Christ that his sins were forgiven, he again fell into doubt about his spiritual standing before the Lord. He sought assurance and clarity, and the result was an angelic visitation, a divine commission, and the start of his prophetic career.

Elsewhere, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Givens talk similarly about the First Vision (though I cannot find the source at the moment). I know I’ve seen others describe the First Vision as a journey of doubt — Joseph Smith doubted the various churches, doubted their various claims, doubted his own knowledge, so he went to God with questions (inspired by doubt) and started the Restoration. And while this is all technically true, it’s a bizarre twist of words to claim that it was doubt that led Joseph Smith to his knees rather than faith. Especially since his prayer (at least for his first vision) was prompted by the following version from the New Testament:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (NIV version, just for fun.)

It’s a weird flex to move from this launchpad and clothe Joseph’s journey with the language of doubt. It is absolutely true that Joseph’s journeys began with questions, and because “doubt” is a flexible word, we can treat those as synonymous, but I don’t find it useful or inspiring. I can just as well describe my belief in God as a disbelief in the non-existence of God, and then say that it is disbelief that drives my conviction. We can clothe everything in the language of doubt if we just frame our sentences right.

Let me share my own experience — I too have gone to God at various points in my life seeking forgiveness for my sins, just as Joseph did. I guess I could describe it as “doubt about my standing before God”, but in reality more often it was a conviction that I had wronged God and a conviction that He had the power to forgive and heal. It was conviction — a convicted conscience as well as a conviction that God responds to prayer — that led me to my knees. In the same way, I believe that it was conviction that led Joseph Smith to his questions that evening. It was trust that led him to prayer. It was belief that led him to knees — belief that God can answer prayer, for example. And none of those are synonymous with doubt (and are most often treated as antonyms of doubt).

To further justify using the rhetoric of doubt, Givens asserts, “To an apostle who was slow to believe, Christ proclaimed the blessings of believing over living in a state of certainty: ‘because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (John 20:29).” It’s true — those who press forward with belief in the absence of certainty are considered blessed and favored by God. We shouldn’t need certainty in order to believe. But it’s a weird flex to frame this “pressing forward with belief in the face of uncertainty” as giving us permission to doubt, when Christ’s words to James just prior were, “Stop doubting and believe” (NIV version — admittedly, the KJV version doesn’t use the word doubt here, but my point is the same).

However, is it permission to “have doubts”? (Using doubt as a noun instead of a verb.) Well, it’s certainly permission to give up the need for certainty. But it’s clear Christ is asking us to do what Thomas did not: to believe even without certainty. In a colloquial sense, “belief in the face of uncertainty” is not really the same thing as “having doubts”, unless we are in a courtroom using legal vernacular. Most would understand “having doubts” to mean having reservations about believing. But Christ is asking us to step into belief, and I think He would (given the context of this scripture) say that those who step into belief without reservation/hesitation are even more blessed than those who believe with reservation. (And note, this is not at all the same thing as stepping into belief without uncertainty.)

That Christ doesn’t condemn Thomas for having hesitations about believing is an important point (that Givens makes well). We should not condemn, judge, demean, or belittle people for having reservations about belief. Christ clearly did not. But here’s where I think Givens makes an error: he asserts (rightly) that we don’t need certainty in order to believe. But then he (implicitly) treats hesitation and reservation about belief as a way of rejecting the need for certainty and embracing uncertainty. But hesitations and reservations about belief are more often than not a symptom of the need for certainty. It’s a subtle, rhetorical bait and switch, and I’m not even sure he realizes he’s doing it.

As an example of where the scriptures condemn the need for certainty, Givens says, “Christ worked a miracle in response to a father who was caught between belief and unbelief (Mark 9:23-35).” Givens’ point is that we don’t need unfailing conviction to lay hold upon divine blessings and press forward with trust. God can respond to us wherever we are in our journey of faith. But there’s a difference between rewarding someone who asks for help believing (“Help thou my unbelief”), and putting a stamp of divine approval on unbelief. In fact, the very question the father asks of Christ is a question of faith: he is asking Christ, by working a miracle, to save His daughter and cure his unbelief. Again, this is a very far cry from saying that unbelief is a virtue, and I don’t even see how it serves as an example of how uncertainty is a virtue. It’s uncertainty that the father was asking to be cured of.

This brings us back, finally, the ministerial point and purpose of Terryl Givens’ article: to assure those who struggle and who are experiencing trials of faith that they aren’t sinners merely for having questions.(Now, I should note that Terryl has more experience ministering to those who experience trials of faith in his little finger than I do in my lifetime, and I have no criticism of that ministry.) Givens wants to destigmatize questions, to destigmatize uncertainty, to destigmatize the journey to conviction, which (by definition) starts with a lack of conviction. By doing this, we can have more honest conversations and better minister to those with questions. This is great! Those who face questions they haven’t yet answered should know that this is normal and that they should feel no shame for it — and that pressing forward with trust can eventually lead to conviction. Nobody should feel shame for being earlier on that journey than others.

My response is simply that I think it’s conviction that we should valorize, not doubt. When members struggle, our goal is to lead them through doubt towards conviction, and it’s a lifestyle faith, trust, and fidelity that lands them there, not doubt, disbelief or cynicism. And on this point, Givens completely agrees and has said so. (We really are on the same page on matters of substance, as near as I can tell.) My argument is simply that language matters and has consequences.

And I think that Givens and I would agree that conviction is not a consequence of rational persuasion or certainty, but a collection of ongoing encounters with God that, stacked together, simply outweigh our uncertainties. They don’t usually make the questions go away — they simply shine brighter than the questions  Where there aren’t answers to our questions, what we do know can weigh more to us than what we don’t (when it comes to making and keeping covenants with God). And I think it’s possible to have experiences where we walk away saying, as Joseph Smith did, “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JSH 1:25). Is this the kind of certainty Terryl Givens is warning us of? Certainly not — and yet, we would never describe this as doubt either. For this reason, I think that doubt is simply the wrong word to describe the kind of epistemic humility Givens is inviting us towards.

And that’s why I think our ministry towards those with questions can and should be clothed in the language of faith and a hope for conviction. Not only is it unnecessary to use the word doubt in the way Givens does (see my restatement of his arguments, which doesn’t use the term at all), I think our ministry has more clarity when we don’t. When we frame every question as a matter of certainty vs. doubt, we risk turning every question into an epistemological question. And in the philosophical world, epistemological questions are often the most intractable, so I’m not sure we want to do that.

And likewise, when members become dogmatists, it’s not because they lack doubt, it’s because they lack humility. They’ve become hard-hearted towards those who disagree with them. They’ve become stiff-necked, unwilling to look at things from a different direction. Humility and soft-heartedness is what we should promote, not doubt (or even necessarily uncertainty). The divine command is “be thou humble,” not “be thou uncertain.” And I don’t think uncertainty is a necessary ingredient of humility, even if it is a common one.

Think of Christ Himself as a resurrected being, who is the exemplar of humility, charity, faith, and hope (“plain humility”, as Moroni puts it) — it would be an abuse of language to say that His uncertainties (much less His doubts) make the rest of those virtues possible, as if being all-knowing makes it impossible to also be humble. Furthermore, I’m quite certain that the Book of Mormon is the inspired word of God — I have no reservations about my belief, no lingering doubts. But this does not keep me from embracing a posture of humility, soft-heartedness, or charity for those who haven’t arrived at the same conclusion (yet) — even if at times I’m imperfect about it.

I don’t think God is concerned about an overabundance of conviction among the saints. It’s pride that He’s concerned about, and I think that is Givens is also concerned about. In the end, what God is asking of us — and what Givens is in reality asking of us — is not to be “less certain”, not for less conviction, but to be more soft-hearted to our fellow human beings, more responsive to ongoing revelation, and more willing to trust God in the face of uncertainty. And I think framing it that way brings more clarity and rests the arguments on a surer scriptural foundation. After all, humility, soft-heartedness, and trust describe our comportment towards God and fellow man, whereas doubt and certainty merely describe our comportment with respect to our own beliefs. And it’s in our comportment towards God and our fellow man that we find abiding conviction — not in our comportment towards the content of our own minds.


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