Doubt and Bodies

Teaching a first-year course at Seton Hill entitled, Faith, Religion, & Society, it’s always interesting when students volunteer the opposite of “faith.”

Almost always they say “doubt.”

Of course, they’re not thinking of Bl. John Henry Newman’s careful distinction between difficulties— which Newman thought standard in the life of faith—and doubts, which Newman found seriously threatening to a religious life. For Newman, faith and doubt are opposites. Faith and difficulties are not. Newman is part of a longstanding theological debate about the relationship of doubt to the theological virtue of faith.

Students, however, pick up on a more general cultural sensibility that faith and doubt are opposites. I’m confident that they would also say that faith and difficulties are opposites. The faithful, they think, are the ones who ask no questions or who, at least, never let those questions touch their own hearts.

Generalizing about such things is always dangerous, but I think that this cultural sensibility is related to our general tendency to reduce religion to belief. If religion, or faith, is only about belief, then when belief wavers or struggles, one simply no longer has it. In this view, faith isn’t in your bones, it’s merely in your thoughts about the world, or in your morals.

Further, my students often describe the great pressure of having to be “on” all the time and express being worn out by always having to market themselves on various platforms. They respond favorably to Dorothy Fortenberry’s description of Mass as a relief from the pressures of daily life, an article Fritz linked to on this blog some time ago. And my students are typically about 35-40% Catholic.

Some theologians want to respond in kind. At a recent conference, I heard a younger theologian stand up and inveigh against teaching theological nuance: “We’re on the front lines; this is a time for clarity!” I understood him to mean that complex shades of nuance in Catholic belief and practice, when introduced to young people result merely in confusion and doubt in Catholicism as a whole.

I think that’s the wrong approach. To walk his suggested path would be to capitulate to the cultural dynamics. Neo-Scholastic theology in the late 19th and early 20th century did this. As a reaction against Modernity, it turned out to be a mirror image. If René Descartes wanted clear and distinct ideas, neo-Scholastic manual theology gave us clear and distinct Catholic ideas, catalogued so there was no shadow of doubt. From that angle, I guess it’s not surprising that some Catholic theologians want to return to the manuals.

I can understand the desire for clarity, but it just doesn’t support a full religious life. As Louis-Marie Chauvet has suggested, that response capitulates to the human “temptation to immediacy.” We want to get out of our human skin, to grab hold of Truth definitively, as Moses tried to do when he asked for God’s name in the burning bush. God didn’t ignore Moses, but gave him something of a riddle.

So often, I’ve seen young faith shattered by some well-placed questions. We need intelligent responses to those questions, but we also need room for struggle and we need to catechize about that room. Failing that (as I think we’ve largely done), in the classroom, I try to help students see the ways in which faith can be in your bones, how it’s at least as much practice as it is belief. It’s difficult.

Maybe the truth is that young Catholics suffer from a combination of unfinished catechetical formation, which brooks no uncertainty, and a social culture, which brooks no complexity. The former serves rather like a house of cards, and the latter, with its cultural and political enclaves, an echo chamber of surety. By “unfinished,” I mean that, whether its heavily cerebral or more emotional, catechesis doesn’t get around to setting up young people for struggles with belief. Granted, this might also be because they’re just no longer around when they get old enough to broach such topics. Yet, most youth groups and adolescent retreats I’m familiar with are more about pumping up Catholic enthusiasm then with, for example, introducing great saints who famously struggled with belief (e.g. John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Calcutta).

Nevertheless, as I alluded to above, this is about bodies, about practice, about liturgy. How do we help Catholics to see the liturgy as allowing precisely the space for difficulty, doubt, and struggle? What to do in a context that sees ritual, yes, as mere expression, but also as just hopelessly boring? It does seem that the latter two problems can (though not “must”) be connected: if we expect expression, we’re disappointed with “going through the motions.” Perhaps the solution is not more enthusiasm.

This brings me back to another key point from Chauvet. Because one is not participating in one’s own actions or expressing one’s own religious feelings in the church’s ritual, even if one’s deepest convictions seem to be floating away and

anguish grabs them by their throats as the idea runs through their bodies that perhaps there is no God, what remains for them, so that they are still able, in spite of everything and if it is possible, to communicate with ‘God,’ if not their bodies? What else remains for them but their bodies taking in hand what the Church takes up—a little bread and wine—and saying what the Church says—‘my body given for you’—taking and saying these as the gestures and words of him whom the Church confesses as its Lord?

(Symbol and Sacrament 375-76)

Chauvet’s emphasis is ritual. The body “performs” certain ritual actions, which sustain, shape, and inform religious belief. This is faith in one’s bones.

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One comment

  1. I have long tended to think of certainty as faith’s opposite. Certainty is more mechanical, and does not rely on trust. Faith is, of course, trust – it assumes a gap in mechanical certainty. Trust is the oxygen in which love can live. And hope is, in the poem of Charles Péguy, The Portal of The Mystery of Hope*:

    “Hope is the little girl, nothing at all.
    . . . .
    The little hope moves forward in between her two older sisters [Faith and Charity] and one scarcely notices her.
    On the path to salvation, on the earthly path, on the rocky path of salvation, on the interminable road, on the road in between her two older sisters, the little hope pushes on.
    . . . .
    Faith sees what is.
    . . . .
    Charity loves what is.
    . . . .
    Hope sees what has not yet been and what will be.
    She loves what has not yet been and what will be.”

    * Written circa 1911 and published in 1929, translation by David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Eerdmans 1996)

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