In Praise of Doubt
As a kid, I craved certainty. This was partly an inherent personality trait, but was also reinforced by my religious upbringing.
From when I was a small child until I was thirteen, my mother was heavily involved in the Christian Charismatic Movement in Pennsylvania in the ‘70s. This was a nondenominational, grassroots movement that, among other things, emphasized being Saved and having a personal relationship with Jesus.
You really wanted to be certain you were Saved, because the alternative was eternal damnation in Hell.
To her credit, my mother was way more about Jesus than the alternative. But some scary pamphlets aimed at kids about what happened to people that weren’t Saved landed in my lap, and they left an impression.
So much so that, even though my mother told me I had been baptized as an infant, at twelve I asked to be baptized again by immersion. I wanted to be extra certain.
Entertaining doubt was not encouraged.
Having doubts meant you didn’t believe enough, and your eternal soul might be imperiled. Admitting so would likely bring a phalanx of believers to pray over you.
As a child and preteen, I stuffed down thoughts such as: If I have doubts, will Jesus go away? Will I not be Saved anymore? These thoughts were too frightening to even fully formulate, but I now know they were there.
We left Pennsylvania for Las Vegas when I was thirteen, and with it the Charismatic community and its particular hold over me. I never disavowed my faith completely, though — it evolved into more of an It’s Complicated relationship. But my aversion to doubt, and the fears that arose anytime I started to question my assumptions and beliefs, stayed with me.
They stayed with me through two engineering degrees and the first years of an engineering career, even though I had barely-conscious dreams of being a writer. If I admit that I don’t actually love engineering will I be a failure, and a disappointment to my parents?
They stayed with me through my relationship with my boyfriend/now husband, when even the slightest suggestion of conflict brought up feelings of panic. If I let myself have doubts about our relationship, will he go away?
They stayed with me through early parenthood and my barely-conscious feelings of overwhelm. If I admit that not every moment with the baby I so longed for is fulfilling, does it mean I wasn’t meant to be a mother?
So it seems fitting that, in the way life has of coming full circle, I recently received an unexpected gift in the form of permission to doubt from, of all people, my pastor.
As I mentioned in my last newsletter, we are now in the season of Lent in the Christian calendar, which is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In a meandering story that’s tl;dr for here, my husband and I ended up finding a church home over 20 years ago at a Lutheran congregation where we live. It has traditionally taken this season to offer a series of weekly soup suppers on Wednesday evenings along with a short, contemplative service and some kind of adult education opportunity.
We are still not back to in-person suppers, but this is the first year the adult education was back, and the theme was kind of an Ask Me Anything with our two pastors. This was apparently inspired by a recent congregant’s wish to go through confirmation as an adult. Usually, confirmation is a two-year process for 7th and 8th graders involving weekly education and retreats. As part of the process, the pastors and our youth director encourage the kids to wrestle with all the Big Questions they have about their faith, religion, and spirituality. At least that’s the way it works in our church.
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Due to my unconventional religious upbringing, I was never confirmed, and nobody encouraged me to wrestle with anything except Satan. So I eagerly attended the Wednesday gathering this year with my Big Question:
If being a Christian is based on belief, is there ever room for doubt? If I believe some things but have doubts about others, am I still Christian? If my belief ebbs and flows, do I start and stop being Christian?
What our senior pastor said, in essence, was this:
Congratulations. If you are wrestling, if you are doubting and don’t know what you believe, it means that maybe for the first time in your adult life you are in a serious conversation with the living God. It means you are in dialogue with God rather than accepting the childhood version that wasn’t to be questioned. Wrestling with faith is part of faith, not its opposite. The opposite of faith is apathy.
I felt a wave of gratitude and relief wash over me as she spoke. I could have faith and still have doubts. I didn’t have to have it all figured out. I’d been given permission in a way nobody had ever said to me directly before, and it was a true gift.
In the weeks since this happened, I’ve come to realize that the things I’m most sure of in my life — that I married the right person, that writing is my vocation, that I was meant to be a mother — I am sure of precisely because I once doubted them. And other things I believed in — the truth of American exceptionalism, capitalism as an inherently good system, that the Democrats are always right — I’ve come to doubt.
When I have been brave enough to question the most fundamental aspects of my life and face the fears those questions bring up is when I’ve had the most profound insights and, ironically, felt the most confident. Or —let’s be honest — when I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming by Life into that questioning and fear-facing. But hey, whatever it takes.
So on this Good Friday, two days before the biggest celebration of Belief in the Christian faith, I stand in praise of doubt, and I offer you the gift of permission to doubt as I was given. May you wrestle with the things you hold most deeply; may you be unsure and disbelieving until you come out the other end in confidence — or at least at peace with the unknowing.
What I’m reading
I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I took a road trip last month and wanted something completely absorbing to listen to. I ended up choosing The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones, and it did not disappoint.
Technically billed as horror — a genre I never read — I would describe it as more macabre than horrifying. It’s a fast-paced story with supernatural elements about what goes wrong in the lives of four American Indian men in the ten-year aftermath of an elk hunt that goes awry. The Bookshop description says fans of Jordan Peele will love this story, and I can see why, as Get Out is the only horror movie I have ever liked (okay, maybe the only one I have ever seen — I am a lightweight!)
I was also excited to be able to add it to the Native American Authors Challenge I recently joined on The StoryGraph. If you haven’t heard of The StoryGraph, it’s an independent, less-annoying version of Goodreads. I am becoming slightly obsessed with it. Plus it’s Black-owned and that makes me all kinds of happy. Please check out The StoryGraph and friend me there (username louisejulig) so you can see the other books I’m reading and reviewing that don’t make it to the newsletter, and I can see what you’re reading too.
So there you have it, my friends. I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. What is your relationship to doubt? Let me know in the comments. All respectful discussion is welcome.
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