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

by Dan Collison,  guest contributor

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."

Timothy--I have studied some of the history on this and agree that Descartes is "over-attributed" and perhaps unfairly characterized in the way you describe. I wonder if that is the burden of being near the front of the line in a series of enlightenment conversations aspiring to discern empirical certitudes?

Dan--Very much appreciate the dialogue, and enjoyed and agree with much of your piece, by the way. Francis Bacon was an English empiricist who preceded Rene Descartes by a generation, yet he seems largely quoted in approving terms. Descartes isn't primarily known for empirical work, but rather for developments in mathematics (e.g., Cartesian coordinate planes), and of course, pure philosophy. Descartes writings have been available for centuries, so it is not clear why they should have any extra burden to bear. It isn't as if he was a prime mover in empircal science.. On the other hand, don't the scholars who quibble with Descartes' body of work (and who should know better) have a responsibility to inquire carefully into what he actually wrote? One hopes that Descartes hasn't become too much of a "whipping boy" or his writings a happy hunting ground for those seeking a foil for their own perspectives.

Respectfully, isn't any notion of "empircal certitude" an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? This has been common scientific knowledge since the time of physicists such as Planck and Heisenberg.

Empircal knowledge is only ever tentative and subject to modification if not outright rejection and replacement. In a word, to quote the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, knowledge must be "falsifiable." Faith is not falsifiable because it is categorically not the same as knowledge. Therein lies the distinction between faith and knowledge--and to get the two intertwined could easily become a source of anxiety. Faith seeks strength and reinforcement--entirely natural and fine, whereas honest seekers of knowledge realize that their entire edifice of tentative understanding may crumble. To make a bold claim, the only means by which the scientific enterprise advances is by theorizing and falsification of theories by empirical testing over time. Anyone who would assert that science is after certainty is perhaps being disingenuous, careless, or erecting a straw man argument. There is no certitude of "knowledge." That is something that science teaches, from neuroscience to quantum physics and everything in between. Here's the point: faith may not be falsifiable, but it doesn't have to be, because that's not its nature. It may not be certain, but then again, it doesn't have to be, because it were certain, by definition, it wouldn't be faith. Might it be the case that wishing for faith to be on a par with knowledge is some cause of the anxiety? Once one understands what knowledge actually is, and what faith really is--and how they don't conflict--might grasping that insight potentially bring some relief? To put faith on the same par as knowledge is to acknowledge that its entire edifice may crumble, but that is not a warranted, necessary or, I submit, even categorically correct exercise to undertake. Knowledge can crumble but faith can still remain!

WOW! An thoughtful essay unto itself. Love it. At the risk of being pedestrian in my thinking: Perhaps Descartes suffers from misunderstanding and over-attribution for the fact his famous latin "cogito ergo sum" phrase is catchy and memorable and therefore unwittingly idiomatic to Enlightenment thinking and preponderances? Of your writing the following stood out to me: "Here's the point: faith may not be falsifiable, but it doesn't have to be, because that's not its nature. It may not be certain, but then again, it doesn't have to be, because it were certain, by definition, it wouldn't be faith. Might it be the case that wishing for faith to be on a par with knowledge is some cause of the anxiety? Once one understands what knowledge actually is, and what faith really is--and how they don't conflict--might grasping that insight potentially bring some relief?"
Well said! I emphatically agree!

I love this conversation. I just wanted to throw out a couple of quotes related to doubt and certainty:

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one. --Voltaire

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt: It’s certainty. –Anne Lamott

I raise my glass and toast to those two quotes! And, for the sheer fact you placed Voltaire next Lamott. I love the 21st century!

I refer anyone interested in a thought provoking sermon relating to the relationship between faith and doubt to Presbyterian pastor Ann Palmerton"s 6/15 sermon entitled "Riddled", found at bspc.org. I am also reminded of Meghan Mckenna's statement: "Certainty is.heresy."

Thank you for the reference. I see there is both an audio of the sermon and a transcript.

Some of Montaigne's thoughts on doubt:
“Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!” ― Michel de Montaigne

“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known.”
― Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

“How many things were articles of faith to us yesterday that are fables to us today?”
― Michel de Montaigne

“Que sçais-je?" (What do I know?)” ― Michel de Montaigne

Faith and knowledge are not identical.

DOUBT

In the widening light he opened his eyes, stretched, and leaned East.

Mary, his faithful one, nudged him to keep on keeping on.
He felt a python wrapped ‘round his chest.

So much suffering. So much injustice.
So much good in the nucleus of it all.

He thought he led, but did he let down?
The Voice was commanding, compassionate and true.
He chose to follow.

Today was the day. Judas would have his say.

You know the story.
But they never told his last words -

“Father, did I make a difference?”

I just submitted a poem. But a better last line came to me. So for what it's worth if you were going to post it, could you post this one?

DOUBT

In the widening light he opened his eyes, stretched, and leaned East.

Mary, his faithful one, nudged him to keep on keeping on.
He felt a python wrapped ‘round his chest.

So much suffering. So much injustice.
So much good in the nucleus of it all.

He thought he led, but did he let down?
The Voice was commanding, compassionate and true.
He chose to follow.
Today was the day. Judas would have his say.

You know the story.

But what they didn’t say,
when the python loosened its grip
he was heard to say,

“Father, did I make a difference?”

Ok here's my last attempt at refining this in a timely manner. Don't know how your blog works, but hoping that you will pick and choose or neither....

DOUBT

In the widening light the Savior opened his eyes, stretched, and leaned East.

Mary, his faithful one, nudged him to keep on keeping on.
He felt like a python wrapped ‘round his chest.

So much suffering in the world. So much injustice.
Yet so much good in the nucleus of it all.

He thought he had led, but had he let people down?
The Voice was commanding, compassionate and true.
He chose to follow it.

Today was the day. Judas would have his say.
You know the story.

But what they didn’t tell you was that on the cross
when the python finally loosened its grip
he was heard to say,

“Father, did I make a difference?”

Dan --
I'll submit that doubt enters in for those of us that are mostly-faithless too. By way of explaining, I'll simply state that while my spiritual journey is currently full of wonder in the natural order of things (without a supernatural influence), I believe the scientific community has been quick to dismiss heightened conscious states or transcendence. Claims of pseudoscience are the doubt of the skeptic, rhetorical napalm against the challenges of fringe scientists like those at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, that hope to collect real evidence on consciousness transcendence amongst other important, but very biological human wonders. Our connection to the universe is in no doubt, but the processes' meaning still is. We have a flawed language here where words like transcendence, God, the multiverse, and the Way all merge and devolve depending on if we are retaining the principle of doubt, essential to the scientific method and your article's thesis for the faithful, or the rules of dogma, of whatever ilk.

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to post this reflection. With humble gratitude,
Justin

I would like to point out that the link to Catesian Anxiety above takes one to a very conservative and judgemental commentary regarding abortion and homosexuality. I believe these views would be opposed to the thoughtful dissertation of ideas you are proposing.

Denise--Thank you for this observation. FYI: I did not suggest that link, but I am guessing that the On Being Staff chose the link for its opening framework and not for the more sub level application points that caught your attention. I will send them an email to consider an alternate link, etc. Best, Dan

Truth and Beautiful Absurdity.

The longer I tread this world, the more I think that beautiful absurdity is as close as humans can ever get to truth. Religion asks us to believe in beautiful absurdity – and is much mocked for it. But the patient labor of the scientific method leads us to a similar place. In this regard, science and religion are on a convergent path.

The sciences have pushed the bounds of knowledge beyond anything the human mind can intuitively grasp – scales of time and distance that are literally incomprehensible – even as cosmology re-writes the fundamentals of existence every few years. None of my readers can do the mathematics or conduct the experiments that form the bases of these postulations. We take these beautiful absurdities on faith, in a process that, for most, is little different from the process that leads to belief in vanished golden tablets, virgin births, or reincarnation.

Indeed, taken at face value the belief that we are occupants of a holographic universe, or that universes such as ours are born in the wells of the very black holes that our astronomers can indirectly detect, or that everything that ever existed ceases to have ever been the moment we die, would seem at least as absurd as the fables of religion.

My point, though, is not that science is bogus – far from it! Or that religion is, either. My point is that the more diligently we search for truth, in whatever forum we choose, the more truth’s horizons blur into things that intuitively seem like untruth, even (as is often the case) they become more beautiful.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats knew what he was speaking about, at the end of Ode on a Grecian Urn, but still it is not quite so simple as that. Doubt is necessary to make any of this work: the disciplined, orderly experimentation that is the foundation of the scientific method; the trials and debates by which we test ideas in the courtroom and on the hustings; the necessity of questioning “authorities” and dogma (wherever they are found) which, if they don’t keep their promises (and sometimes even if they do), might do real harm. And doubt’s partner – humility – is just as essential: humility before the incomprehensible awesomeness of an Everything that we inhabit and can sense, but cannot know.

Indeed, in the face of such majesty the greatest absurdity is certainty.

apples