Krista's Journal: Celebrating Doubt

January 8, 2009

Is doubt an absence of faith? Or is it an essential and enlivening purifier to human certainty, religious and otherwise? Historian of science and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht says doubt and its virtue of questioning, amidst the collapse of what seemed given, has always driven human life and faith itself forward. This conversation with her, interlaced with the words of the original "cynics" and "skeptics," of St. Augustine and Benjamin Franklin, is a perennial listener and staff favorite. We've updated it and offer it to you again, in a moment when all kinds of certainties are teetering around us.

Jennifer Michael Hecht's reminder of Job's "howl at the injustice of the world" is resonant in new ways in the present. And there is a strange consolation in her description of the wisdom of zen, a spiritual practice with doubt at its core: "It says when you're in the state of doubt, that's the end point you're going to. And that's the closest to seeing reality, as it really is, that you can get."

Or consider her sense of the "graceful life philosophy" of Epicurus, whose legacy has been flattened out in the course of time to be synonymous with something like gluttony. "Really," she says, "Epicurus more suggested that we refine our hungers rather than the food. You know, learn to love the things that we have. Learn to recognize that there is nothing better than cold water when you are thirsty, and so to remember thirst. He's one of the absolute great heroes of the history of doubt. He doesn't only negate, he doesn't only question the overall ideas of religion and of meaning that were handed to him by the rest of society. He makes these amazing suggestions for how we should live in the absence of a religious world or of a world guided by gods. And that's why he's so important and so beloved. His biggest claim is that, that fear is what ruins our lives, and that the big fears are fear of pain. And he says, 'Forget about fear of pain. It's usually much worse than the actual pain.'"

This program is bracing and nourishing for the religious and the non-religious among us. And, it may remind us of our own doubts about the economic and social ideas we were once so certain about before the economic downturn. For our ongoing series Repossessing Virtue, we reached out to our listeners, readers, and former guests — asking them how they summon collective courage and wisdom as they think about living in community with friends and family, colleagues and peers.

Recommended Reading

Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History is a grand, sweeping account that moves across the entire history of ideas from the beginning of recorded history to the present day. Hecht is a poet as well as an historian. The tone and texture of her writing is lyrical and even playful. "We have an almost violent desire to understand things," she writes, "and our brains seem to take the whole of life as a puzzle." Reading this book stirs a sense of life as an intriguing puzzle. It is at once an educational and joyful exercise.

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teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at The New School in New York City. She has written two volumes of poetry and three books of non-fiction, including Doubt: A History.