March 27th, 2009

Generic Meditation Issues: Doubt

One of my favorite prayers, attributed to Francis of Assisi, asks that the pray-er may become an instrument of peace, to bring love where there is hate, justice  and pardon where their is injury, hope where there is despair, and joy where there is sadness.  It also asks that the one who prays may bring light where there is darkness and faith where there is doubt.

If "darkness" is taken to mean ignorance, or evil, or depression, then I am all in favor of "light."  I have tried to be a dispenser of "light" in the form of knowledge most of my adult life.  But darkness, in and of itself, is not evil and it is necessary.  A world without darkness (night) would soon become unbearable.  Actually, I have had a preferrance for the night nearly all my life, it is (or used to be) less crowded, less commercial, less rushed, and used to have its own culture, the rules being slightly different and slightly more relaxed.

Even more I have trouble praying for the dispelling of doubt.  Tennyson wrote that there is more faith in honest doubt than in half my creeds.  Trouble is, I don't know which half of my creeds he is talking about; so I have a tendency to want to advocate doubt in almost all cases.  Many years ago, I read Elizabeth Janeway's book, Powers of the Weak.  The book was long and a little disjointed but I do remember some of the "powers" she enumerated.  Among the several powers of the "strong" (powerful?) were awe, authority, and violence.  Among the powers of the "weak" (powerless?) were love, community, humor, and doubt.  Doubt, in my opinion, refuses to allow the pounding of the final nail into the coffin of my freedom, legitimacy.  I don't give you the right to tell me what to believe.  I'll believe it when I see it.  I will find faith in my own way, in my own time, on my own terms.

No doubt doubt can get one into trouble, even beyond that trouble the power can inflict when it is challenged.  Just as there are different categories of faith, there may be different categories of doubt ("good doubt." "bad doubt," "blind doubt"?), though these have not been illuminated as types of faith have been.  Perhaps there are "stages of doubt" corresponding to Fowler's stages of faith.  I only know that I have been an amateur doubter since childhood (probably starting with the "terrible twos.") and I became a professional in graduate school.  First in theological school where my favorite courses were Old Testament and Psychology of Religion, not because I had any special interest in those subjects, but because the instructors were professional scholars who could have taught in any secular graduate school.  Ten years later, when I took my M.A. in sociology, I adopted the scientific method as the word of wisdom (which served me well in many areas of life, but quite poorly in others).  From my undergraduate days I remember Hemingway's aphorism about every student needing a "failsafe crap detector."

One place where doubt has served both well and poorly has been in my spiritual life.  For a long time I had none.  Now I seek one but one that is befitting my idea of what a free human being with a working brain can embrace with enthusiasm.  All spiritual paths are based in faith; and faith has a somewhat different meaning in the east, in the non-scriptural religions, in the religions lacking a "moral high god" who can be mortified by the behavior of his human subjects.  The faith of the east is simple, simpler even than fundamentalist protestantism, but it does not include a set of specific beliefs, a creed, a theology and theodicy that can blackmail the believer into "foolish" beliefs.  Of course, I have a right to be a "fool for God.,"  and I may someday wish to be one.  In the meantime, I do not want my or anybody else's eternal salvation dependant on the acceptance of foolishness.

Rabbi David Cooper hates doubt with a passion, though admitting that a little bit is useful on the spiritual journey.  But the doubt he hates seems to me to be "bad doubt" based in ego and arrogance and a refusal to believe that there are realities that cannot be known by the intellect.  But if "good faith" can be distinguished from "bad faith" and "blind faith," so can a healthy skepticism be distinguished from nihilism.
In centering prayer, doubt is not a problem.  Sitting meditation deals with doubt the same way it deals with any "concept" or intrusion.
The meditator acknowledges that the doubt is felt, gently pushes it aside, and continues in physical (and hopefully inner) silence, trusting that in "soulful silence" the answer to doubts will somehow be found.