Doubt, I’ve learned, is a facet of life and of learning.
When I was an active member of the Church, I wrestled with doubt in relation to my testimony. As a teenager (like many Christians throughout the ages) I wrestled with trying to reconcile the wrathful God of Exodus and Deuteronomy with the loving Christ of the Gospels. I wrestled with the question of how a Good, Omnipotent God could preside over a creation full of pain and evil. As a young BYU student, I wrestled with new facts that I began to learn about Church history that didn’t seem to fit with what I’d learned in Sunday School.
As a missionary, and after my mission, I struggled to incorporate my emergent awareness of my homosexuality with what the Church taught about homosexuality. The Great Question for me (as for so many young gay men and women in the Church) was: “Am I wrong, or is the Church wrong?” It’s painful to have to choose between your own experience of yourself, and the characterizations made about you by the family and community you love and given so much to.
Leaving the Church and becoming a gay rights activist didn’t eliminate doubt for me, however. I have lots of friends who act as if becoming a secular humanist/atheist eliminates the problem of doubt. I cannot speak for them, but I can speak for myself. For me it did not. In my life I have had a number of very powerful spiritual experiences that shook my belief in the nonexistence of God. Even as an atheist I had to wrestle with doubt.
Part of this, for me, is a question of becoming an integrated person, of weaving our souls together. I’ve had very powerful spiritual experiences that led me to believe in the reality of God and the truthfulness of the Church. This I could not deny. But I also have a reasoning faculty, the capacity to use logic. And I’ve been confronted with facts that seemed to undermine at least certain aspects of my faith.
A lot of the debates over belief and unbelief focus on the degree to which our senses or human logic are trustworthy, or whether human beings are capable of accumulating enough evidence (or the kind of evidence) that would prove or disprove the existence of God. Sometimes I hear people say, “You can’t trust spiritual experience because it’s subjective.” Other people will say, “Human logic is fallible and self-serving, and you can’t trust it.” But ultimately, we wound ourselves to the extent that we undermine our trust in our ability to figure things out for ourselves.
My problems were not solved through unthinking obedience to Church leaders. But neither were they solved in simplistic rejection of the Church. That is not to say that the time I spent away from the Church was not an important stage in my spiritual journey. It was. I needed that time away to think clearly, to figure out what was just “voices in my head” and what was real.
People need to be allowed to discover for themselves how to incorporate their spirituality, their rationality, and their moral sensibilities into one integrated, living whole. We come to terms with doubt by trying it on for size, seeing where it leads us. Doubt is one side of the coin of faith. Doubt is an aspect of faith. Denying it doesn’t serve us, because doubt is actually the way in which faith is tried, perhaps the central lesson of the opening chapters of Job, in which God entertains Satan in his celestial courts.
Any given fact set is always incomplete, and an iron-clad case in support of any argument can be undermined by a single established fact. Still, we have to make decisions, even without all the facts. That takes faith. That is why for me, it makes the most sense to think of life as a time of probation, of trying.