Sense and Nonsense: Doubting and Believing

What is striking about scripture, often, I think, is its sense that what we have is first given to us. Isaiah, for instance, will say, “The Spirit of the Lord is given to me…” (61, 1). Paul will say to the Thessalonians, not merely that they should “think before they do anything” — which seems like rather good advice on any grounds — but that the Lord may “keep them safe and blameless” for his coming. (I Thess., 5, 20-23)

Likewise in the Gospel of John, we read, about John the Baptist, that he was not the light, but a witness to speak for the light, pointing out someone “unknown to us.” John was a voice in the wilderness who told us about what we do not know (1, 6-28).

At first sight, of course, this seems very “unautonomous.” Ultimate things we must await, not command. In a book called, happily from Isaiah, And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together: The Theology in Peanuts, there is a sequence which illustrates our not-knowing capacity, which can either lead us to the doubt that encloses us in ourselves, or to the not-knowing that can open us to what is given to us, not of our own self-making.

Sally, it seems, is giving a lecture in class. She begins, “My topic today is the purpose of theology,” needless to say a topic we have all been wondering about these days when the most common answers to this question seem to be politics or economics. She continues, seriously and gravely, “When discussing theology, we must always keep our purpose in mind.” In the third frame, however, she reminds her classmates that, “Our purpose as students is understandably selfish.” Then, she pauses, cautiously, to add, extra forum, “There is nothing better than being in a class where no one knows the answer.”

This is, no doubt, a commonly shared sentiment. But if in the class of the world, about which theology is supposed to have something to say, no one knows any answers, we are led more to doubt than to faith.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently carried an interview with the English novelist Graham Greene, on his eightieth birthday, while about the same time, Mr. Larry Henderson, in the Canadian Catholic Register, conducted a good conversation with Malcolm Muggeridge, who has been received into the Church of late and is about the same age as Greene. The contrast between the two is rather striking.

Greene remarked that he became a Catholic at the age of 23 initially to figure out what the blazes his future wife believed. He thought it might make them happier and, besides, the argument for Catholicism seemed closer to truth than his “lack of belief.” “I felt no emotional attraction to Catholicism,” Greene reflected,

until I went to Mexico in 1938. There the Church was prohibited and believers had long been persecuted. I saw the Indians come down the mountains and go into the churches, where they tried to remember the old rites. I found that very moving. But I must say, my faith is declining as I get nearer to death.

Death, as we know, remains the ultimate test of our faith.

Muggeridge, on the other hand, was asked about the relation of action and prayer, faith and works, whether the contemporary temptation of religious people to preach ideology will suffice. “Yes, faith and works is a good combination,” Muggeridge observed,

but again one has to say, what works? I mean the whole idea on which the 20th century is destroying itself is that if man would only sit down and try he could create a situation in which human beings could be happy and prosperous and live happily ever after. And such a thing will never be.

Thus, the great temptation is not to doubt the existence of God, but involves belief in the capacity of man to do all things by himself and to provide a paltry substitute for what he is to be given.

Recently, Professor Jonathan Spence of ‘Yale University published a book on the 17th Century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, in which he recounted Ricci’s famous methodology for teaching about memory (The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Viking Press, 1984). In one of the passages, Ricci is trying to teach the Chinese scholars and officials about his method. In it, he uses as an example the story of Peter walking on the water. Here is how Ricci told the story, in which Peter becomes one “Bo-do-lo,” which is the nearest Ricci could come to “Pietro” in Chinese:

After the Lord of Heaven was born on earth, and had taken human form to spread his teaching to the world, he first shared his teachings with twelve holy followers. The first of these was called Bo-do-lo. One day Bo-do-lo was on a boat when he saw the distant outline of the Lord of Heaven standing on the seashore, so he said to him, “If you are the Lord, bid me walk on the water and not sink.” The Lord so instructed him. But as he began to walk he saw the wild wind lashing up the waves, his heart filled with doubt, and he began to sink. The Lord reached out his hand to him, saying, “Your faith is small, why did you doubt?”

A man who has strong faith in the Way can walk on the yielding water as if on solid rock, but if he goes back to doubting, then the water will go back to its true nature, and how can he stay brave? When the wise man follows heaven’s decrees, fire does not burn him, a sword does not cut him, water does not drown him. Why should wind or waves worry him? This first follower doubted so that we might believe; one man’s moment of doubt can serve to end the doubts of all those millions who come after him. If he had not been made to doubt, our faith would have been without foundation. Therefore we give thanks for his faith as we give thanks for his doubts.

Thus, as Ricci told the story to the Chinese scholars, faith and doubt are not so far apart. Yet, as we see in the account of this Bo-do-lo, this Peter, the solution is somehow rooted not in his own power, but in that of the Lord of Heaven who had “taken human form.”

Whether, as we get older, our faith “declines,” as Graham Greene tells us, or whether we see clearly that all our man-concocted alternatives, as Muggeridge tells us, “will never be,” we can be grateful to Ricci, in the China of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, who taught us that to doubt our own powers is the root of the faith which we are given. John the Baptist’s remark seems worth recalling: “I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” This is said by a man of whom this same Lord of Heaven said that no one greater is born of woman, that he is not a reed shaken in the wind.

It remains indeed true, then, that, as Sally said, “there is nothing better than being in a class in which no one knows the answer,” if all of our own answers are inadequate, if the answers we want and need are given to us by the Spirit of the Lord, as Isaiah tells us.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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