Doubt inspires growth by requiring us to persist, improve relationships, and “essay” our questions.
In the Church (and this is probably true of most religions) we tend to vilify doubt. But the opposite of doubt isn’t faith—it is sight. Paul writes, “For we walk by faith, not by sight”1; and in Hebrews and Ether we read that “faith is things… not seen.”2 I would go so far as to argue that without doubt (that sick feeling of thinking there is no God), without confronting what Jacob calls the “Monster of death and hell”3 (another way to say life without God), then it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to feel relief and to have gratitude for Christ that leads to a real change of heart. In other words, confronting the stark coldness of a world without God makes belief a heart-changing and life-changing event.
One of the clearest scriptural examples of doubt is found in the story of the resurrection in John, when Mary Magdalene goes to Christ’s tomb and discovers it empty. Despite the fact that Jesus had repeatedly taught his followers that he would rise up, she insists that grave robbers have taken the body: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him!” When angels ask her why she is weeping, she responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” Even when she sees Jesus, though probably looking through tears, she mistakes him for the gardener, pleading, “If thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”4 The most moving part of this chapter is that despite Mary’s doubts, despite her insistence that Christ’s body has been taken away, and despite her reluctance to believe or acknowledge the resurrection, Christ still appears to her, to this doubter, before appearing to anyone else! Only when the risen Lord calls her by name does she recognize him and embrace him. This is the miracle of grace played out in narrative: a woman who should have known about the resurrection has doubts, but Christ reaches out to her as an individual, calls her by name, and lifts her—as he will do with Thomas later in the chapter, and as he does with each of us, I think, in a similarly personalized way.
We tend to think that the only way to know spiritual truth is via transcendent emotional experience. When I was a missionary, I always quoted Moroni 10 as a model for knowing. I wish I had quoted Alma 32 just as often. Alma offers another way to come to faith and knowledge. He invites his listeners to try an experiment: live the gospel, plant Christ in your hearts, and watch.5 As you reach out in service to your neighbor, is your heart filled? As you go to the sanctuary, do you find some of your anger fading? As you recognize God’s mercy, are you less bitter about the wicked who prosper? Alma says, “live it,” live Christianity, and if your charity increases and your heart is filled, then you know it is good.
And this, really, is what happened to me. I remember sitting in a room where a young man was receiving a blessing. His family and neighbors were all there. After the blessing they embraced the young man, one by one. Then, if memory serves, we ate a lot of food. I remember thinking: “There is a lot I don’t know, but I know this is a good thing. Blessings, weddings, and committee meetings about food storage all allow people to be together, to share fears and hopes, to serve each other, to embrace each other as Mary embraced the Savior, to eat together as Jesus did with Thomas.”
By trying an experiment on the word, by practicing Christianity, and by studying sacred texts, I began to recognize goodness around me, to feel goodness, and to embrace faith.
So here is my theory: the presence of doubt implies that the doubter values faith! Someone who rejects God doesn’t think or worry about doubt. Doubt is faith’s partner. The more I experience doubt, the less I worry about it because I have experience with it. Each time I find an answer or work through doubts, I grow in assurance that I will be able to work through it the next time.
The famous passage in Doctrine & Covenants 9 is, I think, frequently misread. We tend to forget that Oliver’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t pray enough; it was that he didn’t think enough! “Study it out in your mind.”6 Reason and critical thinking skills are gifts from God, just like our emotions, and they remain equally important when seeking faith. Too much reason may lead to cynicism, but too much reliance on a burning bosom may lead to superstition.
I like the sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne for a lot of reasons. I admire his willingness to accept his limitations and embrace his weaknesses. Even though he invented the genre, I like that his essays don’t have a clear thesis and don’t repeat the introduction in the conclusion. I like that he courageously called out the hypocrisy of his own people when it came to colonialism and the religious war between Catholics and Protestants.
What I like most about Montaigne, however, is not his clever criticism of religious conflict, but his examination of certainty. He cites a number of examples and concludes: “Man is a marvelously vain, fickle, and unstable subject, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgment.”7
And if humans are constantly changing and unstable, they can’t fix something as great as an omniscient God.
In his essay on certainty and religious knowledge, “The Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne argues against both the senses or emotions and against reason: “Seeing the senses cannot determine our dispute, being full of uncertainty themselves, it must then be reason that must do it; but no reason can be erected upon any other foundation than that of another reason; and so we run back to all infinity.” He continues, “I do not believe that purely human means are in any sort capable of [attaining certainty of the divine].” And he quips that, “The impression of certainty is above all a certain testimony of folly and of extreme uncertainty.”8
And yet, despite our human weakness and over Montaigne’s warning, in the Church we insist on speaking of testimony and knowing. This stems, in part, I think, from the models provided by the three and the eight witnesses. But note that they use language of the visual to describe why they know.
We, have seen the plates which contain this record, wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God. An angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes.9
This testimony, this knowing, is based upon seeing. And since faith and sight are opposites, this is not faith. It is a very different kind of testimony than what we share on fast Sundays. Crucially, what saves us is neither knowledge nor testimony. Rather, the scriptures plead for us to have faith in Christ and, through this faith in Christ, to change our hearts, minds, and lives. I wish our culture of certainty were a bit different. I think if we spoke of faith and experience instead of knowledge, people with questions would still feel they had a place with us. And, based on the scriptures and Alma’s and Paul’s definition of faith, it would be more honest.
What I can testify of is a different sort of knowing: of knowing something in the way I know a friend or a family member. Christianity is about a relationship. Even though I am a changing and unstable human being, I can have a relationship with Christ. I can come to understand grace and know Christ by reading the Bible and Book of Mormon, and by experimenting on the word.
And who better to experiment on the word than students of the Humanities?
Corry Cropper is a newly appointed associate dean in the College of Humanities and professor in the Department of French & Italian. This article is adapted from an address he delivered at the 2018 Humanities and Belief Workshop for PhD candidates in the humanities.
1. 2 Corinthians 5:7
2. Hebrews 11:1 and Ether 12:6
3. 2 Nephi 9:10
4. John 20
5. See Russell Hancock’s discussion of this topic here: http://geoffsn.blogspot.com/2012/08/russell-hancock-on-testimony-and-church.html.
6. D&C 9:8
9. The Testimony of Three Witnesses, https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/three?lang=eng, emphasis added.