“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet. If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.” — Woody Allen, Without Feathers
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we all had so clear a sign, and gazing at our carpet never hurled us into existential grief? Alas, such things don’t seem to happen, and my version of the Swiss bank deposit—the resurrection of Notre Dame football—is probably hoped for in vain.
But though doubt will remain, our attitude toward doubt is another matter. Doubt, one might say, is underappreciated. Allen satirizes doubt as a disease, and believers often treat it similarly. A “threat,” an “abyss of nothingness,” and a “void that seethes”: These are the descriptions used by Pope Benedict XVI in his Introduction to Christianity.
Regardless of position or age, doubt in God’s existence or in a related article of faith usually greets us like a grave diagnosis: something to prevent, resist, or bravely abide. However, without denying that doubt can ravage our interior life, it need not always mortify. Doubt can also be a source of grace, a reflection of God’s love and mercy.
When we doubt, we are reminded that we are the creatures and not the creator. While this sounds like a truism, the consequences are huge.
To have the certainty we crave, to truly know everything about the mysteries that leave us on edge, this would impose a burden and responsibility that would crush our psyche. It’s a fair assumption that doubt often arises because we don’t have answers to certain hard questions, questions like “Does God exist?”; “How did the universe come about?”; “How can a loving God allow evil?”
But once we demand those answers, it becomes arbitrary and selfish to try to limit the responses to only the information that would satisfy our specific, narrow inquiries. We cannot act as if we are students who, when reviewing gaps in our notes, want to know only what will be on the exam. In other words, if we are going to seek peace of mind from answers to really hard questions, we have to be willing, both logically and morally, to accept the implications of those answers and the hard truths they convey.
This means that we can’t desire to know merely the good things, the things that confirm the optimistic narratives about our lives and fortunes that we unthinkingly craft. I can’t seek to reconcile evil with a loving God and expect a response that is communicable on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, I have to be willing to know what evil truly is. I have to be willing not merely to be watched by the abyss, but to awaken it. As allegorized by Dante in The Divine Comedy, I have to be willing to be led into hell.
What this entire experience, this seeing, might look like may be indicated by Pope Benedict in his haunting homily from Holy Thursday of this year. Speaking of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the pope said that, in Jesus,
something more is at work. His gaze peers deeper, into the nights of evil. He sees the filthy flood of all the lies and all the disgrace which he will encounter in that chalice from which he must drink. His is the dread of one who is completely pure and holy as he sees the entire flood of this world’s evil bursting upon him.
We now ask ourselves: Are we prepared for this? Are we prepared to enter into the filthy flood of lies and disgrace that awaits us at the depths of evil? Are we willing to undergo this encounter to win the knowledge we think would eliminate our doubts?
And perhaps more importantly, would it?
I think not. Were we to see in its fullness the horror that Christ carried to the cross, I can’t see how we’d be anything other than destroyed—not because of the knowledge itself, but because we would be unable to resist being transformed by it, like a child too soon thrust into adult concerns. Mercifully, God has spared us the long night of Christ. So long as we are the kind of beings who can doubt, we are the kind of beings who do not have to take upon, know, and absorb the full flood of this world’s evil.
Holy week, with its return to a garden, recalls creation week and reminds us that our role as humans is to be really good at being the kind of thing that comes from dust. In Genesis, we are given the relatively simple tasks of marrying, making babies, and overseeing plants and wildlife. Moreover, commentators have noted that in placing man in a garden, the sacred authors allegorically affirm the freedom to be at leisure—the freedom to be the kind of creatures that watch Woody Allen movies and philosophize; creatures with the freedom to say, “There are things I cannot, and do not, have to know.”
And therein may lie the supreme trait of reason: its power not to expunge mystery, but to enlarge it; to bring us to value, with its every achievement, the unforeseen delights that rush upon us with the thrill of falling in love.
Matt Emerson is the director of admissions and instructor of theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, California, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Matt Emerson, Easter Season and Mysterium Tremendum
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