Krista's Journal: Celebrating Doubt

May 3, 2007

Up to now I have resisted interviewing Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, who have coined best-selling battle cries like "the end of faith" and "the God delusion." They validly critique religious distortions and excesses. But Harris and Dawkins aren't content to simply critique religion. They decry the entire religious enterprise — in which most of humanity is engaged in some way, and has been forever. They are polemicists — secular extremists. Much of the news business excels at highlighting polemics. By contrast, Speaking of Faith creates a space for nuanced and open-hearted views left, right, and center between the poles of competing certainties that narrow our public imagination about religion and so much else.

I will continue to ponder this. And as I do so, I am drawn to revisit my conversation with the less famous, but luminous and non-polarizing Jennifer Michael Hecht. Her celebration of doubt clarifies some of what is limiting in the Dawkins/Harris approach to life. There is no doubt in them. They have the answers for themselves and for all the rest of us too.

Hecht defines "doubt" generously — broadly addressing the human impulse to question what is given in order to invest one's days with meaning. She demonstrates the graceful and illuminating role doubt has played throughout history, beginning with the original Skeptics and Cynics, who we now remember only for what they might reject.

She has changed the very way I think about history — religious or otherwise. We tend to chart historical milestones by way of great beliefs and civilizing certainties. But she traces a shadow history of doubt that has driven the world forward. In fact, it has often helped energize, renew, and purify religious beliefs and traditions. Take Job, who railed against God, or the very essence of Zen Buddhism, which asks its practitioners to question every certainty — even the disciplines of Zen.

Hecht also traces a lively historic strain of questioning within classic Islam. And she describes how Christianity, born into Greco-Roman cultures in which philosophies of doubt had already taken hold, assumed doubt as an element of faith. This, Hecht says, was a religious stroke of genius.

In this, Hecht emboldens my sense that simply decrying religion as an antidote to its failings can not be a powerful or even practical answer. Real change will only come, as it has in the past, from ferment and critique inside religious traditions themselves — from the questioning, doubting spirits at the core of a faith that pundits can not touch.

At the same time, Jennifer Michael Hecht was one of the first to stretch my thinking about the boundaries of "speaking of faith" in our time. From the first, we've had an avid response from listeners who appreciate this program — sometimes to their own surprise — and say they are "atheist," "agnostic." I love that.

I'd long been aware that labels like "religious" and "spiritual" have become loaded and narrowed in our culture. But Jennifer Michael Hecht — along with our listeners — has helped me understand that labels like "atheist" and "agnostic" are restrictive as well. For example, such categories seem to renounce the very idea of mystery, a common human experience. She revisits the world of the original Cynics and Skeptics — words we use glibly today — and finds that they weren't negative postures of critique and nihilism. They were what she calls "graceful life philosophies," quests for meaning just as religious faith is a quest for meaning.

I like it when our programs can suggest ideas and vocabulary for enriched dialogue between people of different traditions. I hope this conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht might bridge some of the disconnect — between the extremes of denunciation — between doubters and people of faith in our culture. Perhaps, even more importantly, it encourages friendship between the doubt and the faith that can coexist within each of us.

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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