The Muse of Doubt, Cartesian Anxiety, and the Winding Path of Faith

Sunday, June 22, 2014 - 6:05am
The Muse of Doubt, Cartesian Anxiety, and the Winding Path of Faith

What would happen if, rather than "making an idol out of certainty" and shunning uncertainty, we leaned into it? A pastor wonders whether doubt might make us more empathic and less anxious society.

Commentary by:
Dan Collison,  guest contributor
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Credit: Jean-Jacques Halans License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Parker Palmer’s recent musings captivated me as I was preparing a sermon for my Christian congregation titled, “Doubt is a Friend of Belief.” Mr. Palmer sparked my imagination when referencing Wendell Berry’s “Two Muses of Creativity” because, in my experience, the dialectic of the muses is a part of the creative writing process for sermons that aspire to enliven conversation and not merely reinforce status quo thinking. While I was crafting my sermon, it seemed obvious that, just as Mr. Berry asserts there is a “Muse of Obstacles” that refines us as we journey toward our visions, there is also a “Muse of Doubt” that refines those who seek faith as a meaningful part of the human experience.

It was the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich who said,

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”

These are life-giving words, and, when put into play with Mr. Berry’s “Muse of Obstacles” (where "the baffled mind is the one employed and the impeded stream sings"), it is important to see doubt as an essential friend as many of us walk on the winding path of faith. Like a lead scout, doubt exposes our fears and tells us what we don’t know. Could there be any more important voice in our lives? But whose side is doubt on? And, down what path will we be led? Is doubt on the side of belief or unbelief?

I probably need to re-title my sermon, “Doubt Can Be a Friend to Faith” since doubt is ruthlessly impartial and “The Muse of Doubt” is a helpful scout for us. But doubt is neither friend nor foe to religious particularities. Perhaps this is why many faith communities rarely welcome or speak well of doubt. Or, if they speak of it, some unscrupulously call doubt a sin and tragically shame congregants for entertaining such a muse. Such condemnation of doubt denies a healthy and human response to uncertainty and slams the door on a potentially transformative passageway to deeper spirituality.

Why are so many given to such thoughtless causticity? One reason may be “Cartesian anxiety,” a term first coined by philosopher Richard Bernstein, who references Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes' assertion that humans have the ability to completely comprehend a perfect system of firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the cosmos. Postmodernism and the information age have been blunting Descartes' assumptions for decades, but Western Christianity, to its own detriment, has not been paying attention to this important transformation.

Interestingly, those claiming “faith” as a central tenet have adopted Cartesian thinking and seem to be making an idol out of certainty. Cartesian anxiety flows unabated in many Christian systems of thought. Tragically, this approach has encouraged anti-intellectualism and uncivil rhetoric in the arena of public discourse, all the while burdening Christian tradition with needless anxieties about the Bible, God, and the human experience.

I wonder what would happen if, rather than shunning uncertainty, Christian tradition leaned into it? Would Christians be more transformed and less ideological, more compassionate and less judgmental? Thinking beyond Christian tradition: What would our world be like if everyone listened to the “Muse of Doubt” as an important voice on the way to our pursuits?

It is highly probable that listening less to the voice of Cartesian anxiety and listening more to the refining voice of doubt (as it sifts our certainties) will help us become a more empathic civilization. I am certain we would be less anxious!

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Dan Collison is lead pastor of First Covenant Church in Minneapolis. A research fellow at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research Fellow and an organizer of the Minneapolis Multi-Faith Network, he received a doctoral degree in ministry from Fuller Seminary. Before becoming a pastor, Dan and his wife, Holly, ran an adult foster care home for men with developmental disabilities where he learned the importance and rewards of servanthood.

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“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” - Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” - Frederick Buechner
Doubt - a springboard to authentic faith - see the Apostle Thomas

These are fantastic quotes! Thank you!

Thank you.

I am impressed with all of the thoughts expressed here this morning. There is truth in searching through doubt. Certainty should always be suspect and I personally view as different than faith if faith is to be a living and growing system of belief. Note how similar these thoughts are to Unitarian Universalism.

The opposite of "faith" is "certainty".
Faith is the act of living in the face of fundamental uncertainty, and anxiety, regarding our knowledge, our abilities, and our responsibilities.

Reza--That is well put! Your choice of the word "responsibilities" is an interesting one because it speaks to existential reality and the fact we have to make choices about what to do or not do all the while living with components of unknowing. Much to ponder!

I never thought of doubt this way .... I am going to explore this idea in my own life, with my own doubts. Instead of seeing them as weaknesses I am going to explore the idea that they can strengthen my faith.

Chris--thank you for voicing your consideration. As you can tell from my reflection--welcoming and exploring the dimensions of doubt has helped me awaken to a deeper and more generous faith experience.

Might "Cartesian Anxiety" go away if one simply rejected the notion of mind/body dualism? Could this be the crux of the issue?

In my opinion poor Rene Descartes, who lived in the 17th century, has been getting a bum rap for some time now. His formulation of ego ergo sum, "I think therefore I am" was intended to serve as an indisputable underpinning of his philosophy, not to assert an epistemology of how comprehensible the world is.

It would be interesting to see a footnote indicating where Descartes asserted "that humans have the ability to completely comprehend a perfect system of firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the cosmos." Descartes may have been brilliant and ahead of his time, but he wasn't notoriously grandiose. His epitaph, translated from Latin, read, "He who hid well, lived well."

To paraphrase Shakespeare, with apologies, perhaps the fault lies not in Descartes but in ourselves.

Correction: The above should have read "Cogito ergo sum." The French version of that phrase appearing in another work is "Je pense donc je suis."


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