Monday, October 5, 2009

Priests have doubts, too

I met doubt on Friday at the movie theatre.

It was my day off, and as I sometimes do, I went to the movies, seeing The Invention of Lying, a movie written and directed by Ricky Gervais, famous for the original British version of The Office.

In the movie, Gervais plays Mark, a screenwriter who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth, however hurtful and, at times, crude it might be.

Mark's mother is dying and is terrified of death. Mark, to console her, tells her not to be afraid of death, but to believe that she's going to a place we might recognize as heaven. The afterlife, Mark tells her, is perfect. Everyone is happy all the time. You're with all the people you've ever loved and lost. And it's eternal.

When the word gets out about this wonderful place beyond time and about"the big man in the sky," who supposedly represents God, Mark becomes a spiritual master to the multitudes. He ends up issuing the 10 spiritual teachings of the Big Man, delivering them not on the mount, but on the steps of his apartment building. Instead of stone tablets, the teachings are written on the backs of two pizza boxes.

The Invention of Lying is a humorous attack on religion, a kind of comic version of God Isn't Great or The God Delusion, popular atheistic works that caricature God and religious people. At times, I admit, I laughed.

But I also felt uneasy, doubtful. What if the whole notion of God, of heaven, of the Communion of Saints, and of all other truths of the faith is purely a human invention meant to lessen our pain or to scare us into being good?

I thought about that question most of the weekend. It's a serious question, if one raised by a silly movie.

I took my doubt to God early on Sunday morning. (On Sundays, I get up at 4.45 am or earlier and get ready for church, spending about an hour in prayer, Bible study, meditation, writing. ) In my journal, I wrote about my doubts. I offered them to God, and the thought occurred to me:

Although Mark makes up the Big Man and the afterlife--they arise from his imagination--does God not speak to us through our thoughts and imagination? What if Mark, who thought he was lying, was really telling his dying mother the truth about what awaited her when she passed from this life?

I ended my time with God, praying a phrase from the gospels: Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.

I've had periods of doubt during my spiritual journey: when I was challenged by my seminary classes, when I was watching my father die of cancer and undergoing horrible suffering, when a family member was struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome.

In times of doubt, however, I have still had faith. Faith enough to tell God my doubts. Faith enough to pray about my doubts.

And God answered me, I believe, not always in words, but always in grace--that strong current of loving assurance that rose from the depths and saved me from drowning in doubt and despair.
I will go on having my doubts, sometimes elicited by serious events, sometimes silly ones like watching The Invention of Lying. But without doubt, there is no need for faith in God.

I'm learning not to deny doubt and to run from it, but to embrace it and to offer it to God for His use and my good.

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.


  1. This reminds me of a book I read in college, L'immoraliste by André Gides. In that book the main character rejects religion, God, and social convention to live a self-indulgent life. I remember trying to understand this character's world view. For me, it didn't result in so much of an attack of doubt, but a brief realization that when you try to really think about what it must be like to look at the world as an atheist, nothing in the world fundamentally makes sense.

  2. Frank, that reminds me of Malachi 3:14: It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' ". I wish I had a good response to that. However, a wise priest once advised me that when experiencing doubt, or when you faith seems dry and lifeless, the best cure is to do something for someone else. I always experience God most vividly through encounters with other people and this advice has helped me many times over.

  3. An addition to my earlier post. Thomas Merton said: “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.” Good words confirming that doubt is not a sin, but a natural part of spiritual growth.

  4. Mark sounds like the man described in Psalm 14. "A man who believes in his heart there is no God is a fool. That is why April 1 is considered to be the atheists holliday.



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