Oh say, what is doubt?
This guest post is from Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Mason is the author of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt and editor of the new collection Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.
I’m always reluctant to provide Merriam-Webster’s definitions to key words when I write or give talks but sometimes it can make all the difference. In my recent book, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt
, I candidly discuss doubt and faith, but nowhere in the book do I offer a single takeaway phrase, sentence, or even paragraph to precisely define those terms. Instead, definitions of doubt and faith emerge gradually and contextually over the course of the book.
In retrospect, I could (and probably should) have done more to anticipate differing perspectives by providing my own straightforward definitions. These can be hard things for people to talk about, especially considering the way we Latter-day Saints tend to prize spiritual knowledge. It takes courage to discuss these issues with people we care about. I think it helps at the outset to be on the same page about what exactly we’re talking about when we say “doubt” and “faith.”
So, how do I think about doubt?
At the most general level, I understand doubt to be a lack of certainty. It might suggest incompleteness—something yet unfinished. But it is not merely about lack
; it can also connote a kind of interrogatory questioning and searching. This might take on a skeptical, deflating air for some, but in my experience it doesn’t have to. Instead, it can be a spur for growth, seeking, and in fact, it can foster greater faith. As I say in Planted
, doubt is simply a reality for many people. As a spiritual condition that a person finds themselves in, it is not inherently good nor bad. Like all things that constitute our mortal condition, it can be consecrated to God for our benefit or it can work against us. As a fundamental condition of mortality, doubt is, in this sense at least, morally neutral.
One tendency I’ve seen is for some people to want to lionize doubt as an end in itself. Planted
may even gesture in that direction a time or two, but for the most part I tried to resist that pull. In an earlier draft of the manuscript I wrote of the “gift of doubt,” but the more I thought about it, the less inclined I was to think of doubt as always being a gift—though I do think it operates that way for some people at times. I settled instead on referring to the reality
For many people, doubt is the heaviest cross they bear. It would seem unkind—even patronizing—for me to talk of Mother Teresa’s struggles with doubt, for instance, as simply being a great “gift” in her life (see Planted
, pp. 34–38). So I’m not inclined to think of doubt as a naturally good thing that people should seek out; it is not one of the spiritual gifts listed in the scriptures that we should “covet” (see 1 Corinthians 12:31
; D&C 46:8–9
). As I say in Planted
, I don’t think doubt is a required waystation on the path to enlightenment—some people come to know God in very real ways having never gone through a serious period of doubt.
So it’s true, I have a more positive view than some church members of what doubt is and does. However, my point in Planted
is that even if you have a very dim view of doubt, the fact is that it’s a reality experienced by many of your brothers and sisters. So based on our baptismal covenant to “mourn with those that mourn” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9
), rather than judging, marginalizing, or shaming those who express doubt in private or public, we can react with compassion, understanding, and fellowship.
How do I understand faith?
I think about it as being much more than mere intellectual assent or “belief.” Faith is the substance of things hoped for but not seen (see Hebrews 11:1
). So in that sense, faith is partly a product of doubt in the way I defined it above as a lack of certainty; it is a lively hope
for something that has not
been seen. Acting in faith—and real faith always compels real action—means acting with hope and trust, yet without absolute assurance. So my notion of faith is more about trust and faithfulness—fidelity in a relationship, like being “faithful” to your spouse—rather than getting an answer right on a multiple choice test.
According to this view, doubt can become destructive when it compromises fidelity. But it can also be constructive when it deepens our yearnings and bolsters our efforts toward creating authentic relationships with God and others. Depending on what we do
with doubt, which itself usually comes unbidden, we can strengthen or weaken our faith.
Most Church members are familiar with the idea that doubt and faith cannot co-exist at the same time in the same mind. This seems to suggest the basic idea that a mind can’t simultaneously believe and
disbelieve some particular thing. For example, I can’t believe that the grass I’m looking at is green while at the same time believing it is not green. One of those propositions is more accurate than the other and will win out if I’m careful, rigorous, and fair.
Perhaps church members and leaders who warn us about doubt are thinking of the term in this propositional sense, which is a slightly different approach than I take in Planted
. Such warnings against propositional doubt stem from sincere and reasonable concerns about doubt extinguishing faith, which by implication is a fragile thing. A negative, skeptical, actively destructive type of doubt could well prevent someone from cultivating or acting in faith.
At the same time, I recommend not ruling out other dimensions of doubt, viewing it in a more generous light as the very thing that propels some people up the path of discipleship, spurring them to greater growth. By seeking greater light and knowledge about certain propositions, those who encounter doubt continue to negotiate (and ideally strengthen) their relationship with an unseen, and sometimes unfelt, God.
Although my personal faith in the core tenets of Mormonism is strong, I confess I’m not attracted to absolutist language when applied to matters of faith. If faith was something we either had or didn’t have, how would we make sense of the scriptural and prophetic language about the importance of growing or building faith? How could faith be like the little seed described in Alma 32—plant it, nourish it, watch it grow—if we imagine it only as a fully mature and utterly solid redwood?
We should also remember that even in terms of faith as assurance of propositional claims, it is entirely possible for someone to have more faith in one thing and less faith in another. Someone might have strong faith in Christ’s atonement but have doubts or questions about some of the things that Brigham Young taught. A “whole package deal” approach to Mormonism—or virtually anything: politics, friendships, and so forth—is generally not helpful, let alone intellectually (or spiritually) sound, because it can forestall our ongoing conversion.
We would all do well to remember that some of those whom we consider spiritual giants have wrestled with these things before us. I’m fond of this quote
from Elder Hugh B. Brown, who served as an apostle and a member of the church’s First Presidency:
“Would you be surprised if I should tell you that I, too, have had periods of perplexity, uncertainty, and doubt; that I, too, have known the darkness, fogginess, and chill of the valley which lies between illuminated peaks of faith and confidence, and that only the memory of the hilltops along the road over which I have come coupled with the somewhat misty vision of others still ahead has given me the courage to plod on when I was tempted to ‘chuck it all,’ to wrap myself in the comfortless blanket of doubt and self-commiseration and just quit the field. Well I have had that experience. But this I can say positively, that each peak which I have climbed has seemed higher and more inspiring than the last, due at least in part, I think, to the dark background of the valley through which I came. Sharp contrasts are sometimes most revealing.“
A full discussion of faith and doubt requires far more than what I can do even in a long blog post. I will close simply by saying this:
I’m not sure that the idea of “doubt” is a hill worth dying on. But I have little doubt that doubters
are worth it. And I’m sure of that because of my faith in what Jesus did for all of us unfaithful doubters—those who are not always faithful in our relationship with him, often living without full assurance of that which we do not see—on the hills of Gethsemane and Calvary. Indeed, if there’s one thing I “know,” that’s it.
Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt by Patrick Q. Mason is currently available at Deseret Book, Amazon, and in various local independent bookstores. Print, ebook, and audio versions are available.