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Doubt: A Necessary Tool for Growth

Monday, February 1, 2021


Doubt: A Necessary Tool for Growth
Monday, February 1, 2021

My good friend and colleague Brian McLaren’s recently published book, Faith After Doubt, shows how doubt and periods of unknowing are necessary for spiritual growth. Brian proposes a four-stage growth process of Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. He writes:

Doubt, it turns out, is the passageway from each stage to the next. Without doubt, there can be growth within a stage, but growth from one stage to another usually requires us to doubt the assumptions that give shape to our current stage. . . .

At the Center for Action and Contemplation, one of our core teachings is “the path of descent,” the idea that the spiritual life will eventually require us to descend into a dark tunnel, to descend into unknowing and doubt, to descend into a loss of certainty, to descend through a process that feels like dying. As with Jesus in the Gospels, we find ourselves crying, “Let this cup of suffering be taken from me” [Matthew 26:39] and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46]

This deep anguish characterizes what Brian calls Stage Three: Perplexity. Brian continues:

When I studied the mystics . . .  I learned that they spoke often of purgation (or katharsis) as the portal to illumination (or fotosis) and union (or theosis). They saw purgation as the painful and necessary process by which we are stripped of know-it-all arrogance, ego, and self-will. Perplexity, I realized, was working like an X-ray of my soul, exposing much of my so-called spirituality as a vanity project of my ego, an expression of my arrogant desire to always be right, my desperate and fearful need to always be in control, my unexamined drive to tame the wildness of life by naming it and dominating it with words. The doubt of Perplexity, the mystics helped me see, was just the fire I needed to purge me of previously unacknowledged arrogance. In this way, self-knowledge was another gift that came, unwanted, during my Stage Three descent.

[Through the Christian mystics,] I was exposed to “the dark night of the soul,” a period of desolation in which God feels absent, a period in which one can’t see or understand what is going on, a deep valley during which one feels abandoned and lost. To my surprise, the mystics believed this was not something to be avoided, but rather it was a passageway into something deeper and greater. In fact, only the path of descent into spiritual dryness and soul-darkness could lead the soul to a deeper experience of union with God (or theosis).

Richard again: Ironically, one of the few things I can say I truly know is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors. It is the essential transitioning.

Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 43, 72, 78.

Story from Our Community:
My calling in my retirement years has not been my choice—I am sole caretaker for my husband who is physically disabled, has dementia and multiple medical diagnoses. Some days are good and some days I have less patience, stamina and hope. Reading Richard Rohr’s words first thing in the morning helps keep me fortified. There is such beauty in this world and small miracles and blessings occur each day if we quiet our minds enough to notice them. —Eileen A.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
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