Richard Rohr, a Franciscan take on Doubt & Faith

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Week Twenty-Two: An Evolving Faith

An Evolving Faith Includes Doubt

In my mind, one of the markers of an evolving faith is an ability to integrate doubt—to hold the tension between what we’ve been taught and what we’ve come to know as true. When grounded in an experience of Love, doubt does not represent a step backwards, but is a necessary condition for any movement forward. CAC teacher Brian McLaren speaks of his personal journey with doubt as the essential ingredient in the evolution of his faith from “orthodoxy” or right belief to “orthopraxy” or right way of life.

Before doubt, I thought that faith was a matter of correct beliefs. My religious teachers taught me so: that if I didn’t hold the right beliefs, or at least say that I held them, I would be excommunicated from my community, and perhaps, after death, from God’s presence. They taught me this not to be cruel but because they themselves had been taught the same thing, and they were working hard, sometimes desperately, to be faithful to the rules as they understood them. I tried to do the same, and I would still be doing so today if not for doubt.

Doubt chipped away at those beliefs, one agonizing blow at a time, revealing that what actually mattered wasn’t the point of beliefs but the clear window of faith, faith as a life orientation, faith as a framework of values and spirituality, faith as a commitment to live into a deep vision of what life can be, faith as a way of life, faith expressing itself in love.

For all those years, when I said, “I believe,” I thought I understood what I was doing. But more was going on, so much more. . . .

Looking back, I now see that underneath arguments about what I believed to be true factually, something deeper and truer was happening actually.

For example, whether or not the creation story happened factually as described in Genesis, I was committing myself to live in the world as if it actually were a precious, beautiful, meaningful creation, and as if I were too. . . .

What mattered most was not that I believed the stories in a factual sense, but that I believed in the meaning they carried so I could act upon that meaning and embody it in my life, to let that meaning breathe in me, animate me, fill me. . . . Whether I considered the stories factually accurate was never the point; what actually mattered all along was whether I lived a life pregnant with the meaning those stories contained. To my surprise, when I was given permission to doubt the factuality of my beliefs, I discovered their actual life-giving purpose. . . .

Doubt need not be the death of faith. It can be, instead, the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding faith that can save your life and save the world.

Brian D. McLaren, Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It (St. Martins: 2021), 206, 207, 212.

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Rather than regarding DOUBT as the opposite of FAITH; Father Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan theologian, here explains the seeming necessity of doubt before faith can take on a reality that holds – even in the face of contrary and changing cricumstances.

He explains that the Church teaching he received as a young person – in common with most other Catholics of his day – seemed to present as FACTS stories that are often apochryphal rather than historical – a situation calculated to be prepare God’s people to be able to to think for themselves – in terms of logic and common sense, together with a sense of the Divine Mystery – which is necessary in order to be able to come to terms with all that is unknown about the God of All Creation.

It doesn’t take long for a growing individual to realise that the probablility of the world being only a few thousand years old is no longer feasible to believe. Any modern study of basic astronomy opens up the reality of millions of solid objects floating around the cosmos, and that the planet earth is only one of many visible through the medium of a decent telescope. These objects in space can now be proven – even from a geological study of our own planet, Earth – to have been in existence for a lot longer than the millions of years the human mind can imagine as being possible.

When Jesus entered the scene in the New Testament Scriptures, his method of teaching about God the Creator was condensed into a situation of a divine family in which he, Jesus, was intimately involved, and had been clothed in human flesh in order to reflect the Image and Likeness of God in which all humanity has been created. His stories were not so much about the immensity of Creation, as they were about the behaviour of the human beings that had been placed on earth to reflect – if they would only understand it – the Love and Dignity of the One who had brought them into being.

The parables of Jesus, mentioned by his immediate followers the disciples; were stories that were not necessarily of historical happenings – although some of them relating to the people he was talking to would be recognised as factual by them – but rather of the sort of behavioural attitudes that each human being ought to have towards God and towards one another. Jesus’ deeper understanding of the origins of life and death (realities common to all of us) led him to relate how it was possible for we humans to best show forth in our lives the sort of attitudes and behaviour that had been designed by our Creator/God to serve the purpose for which we were designed: To Love God, and to Love our neighbour as we ourselves were beloved of God.

On course the theologians of our world have cogitated among themselves and alone, about the nature of God and of the Creation, and have bult up a formidable body of theological speculation that fits in with their, then current. understanding of how Creation came into being and how we humans differ in nature from the rest of the creation – animals, birds, plants, etc.

In their belief – expressed in the Scriptures – taught by Jesus during his lifetime of 33 years in Palestine, God can be described as present to us in 3 separate modes – as Father, Son, and Spirit – but with a UNITY of Personhood that can be distinguished by their actions: Father – Creator; Son – Incarnate Redeemer; and Spirit – the enigmatic partner in the God-Head that empowers enlightenment and empowerment to human beings who seek the Truth about God’s-self.

(n.b. is can be noted that the human conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary was by the express action of the Spirit of God. Jesus was also raised from the dead by the action of the Holy spirit)

Different people may have different understandings of these realities; but each one, according to their capacity for Faith, Jesus promised would come to understand all that would be necessary to live peacably here on earth, and then to achieve eternal presence with God after the death of the body.

Doubt is a human capacity for disbelief. The paradox is that, only through doubt – and the engagement of our human faculty for the discovery of Truth – can we reach beyond our human doubt, to discover that; as Mother Julian and English Mystic once said: that in God, “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well”. FAITH IS A GIFT, TO THOSE WHO SEEK IT.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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