How Madeleine L’Engle is helping me understand Doubt

For quite some time now I’ve been grappling with some pretty serious doubts and questions in regards to my religion (I’m Mormon). This has been particularly difficult because in our religious culture we tend not to be very open about our doubts and questions. Its a bit of a taboo subject really, we just don’t really talk about it. I think we’re afraid that by talking about our questions openly, by giving a name to our doubts, we give them more power. Aside from my husband, there aren’t many other people I feel comfortable even admitting to that I have such doubts and questions. Not only have I felt alone in my doubts, but I’ve also felt a little bit guilty. I’m doing all the right things- I study my scriptures pretty deeply on a regular basis, I say my prayers, I attend church, I am genuinely trying to increase my faith. And yet I can’t overcome those very persistent doubts, they’re always there, nagging away, holding me back. I wish I could be child-like and accepting in my faith, like others around me who I look up to. I wish I could just believe, without my doubts getting in the way.

Its a hard and lonely place to be.

Meanwhile, I’ve found some solace in the words of Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve been reading her book, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art and absolutely loving it. You probably know L’Engle as the author of books like A Wrinkle in Time (an old fave of mine), but aside from writing children’s and YA books, she’s also written quite a lot on theology and her beliefs as a Christian. As someone herself who has grappled with “faithlessness” and questions, she addresses this very topic:

Now we are often taught that it is unfaithful to question traditional religious beliefs, but I believe we must question them continually- not God, not Christ, who are at the center of our lives as believers and creators- but what human being say about God and about Christ… We must constantly be open to new revelation, which is another way of hearing God, with loving obedience.

The great artists keep us from frozenness, from smugness, from thinking that the truth is in us rather than in God, in Christ our Lord. They help us know that we are often closer to God in our doubts than in our certainties, that is is all right to be like the small child who constantly asks: Why? Why? Why?

I’ve often felt that my faith was lacking because it wasn’t child-like enough, but I had never considered another aspect of childrens’ natures. Sure, children are quick to believe, but they also have an insatiable curiosity about the world. They are constantly asking questions about how things work, why things are the way they are. Perhaps there’s another side to that oft quoted scripture (Matt. 18:3) that asks us to “become as little children, (or) ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Children are not only believing, they are also questioning.

L’Engle also says while talking about her own time spent grappling with questions:

I had yet to learn the faithlessness of doubt. This is often assumed by the judgmental to be faithlessness, but it is not; it is a prerequisite for a living faith.

Francis Bacon writes in De Augmentis, “If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt. If we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.”

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes, “By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought or understanding, never.”

Love, not answers.

Love, which trusts God so implicitly despite the cloud (and is not the cloud a sign of God?), that it is brave enough to ask questions, no matter how fearful.

(She actually goes on to say that it wasn’t the theologians who converted her, but the scientists, with their “awed rapture over the glory of the created universe.” I think this is beautiful and worth mentioning, although outside the point I’m trying to make.)

What a breath of fresh air to get such a different perspective on doubts than what I’m usually surrounded with. A perspective that believes that doubts are not only okay, but even encourages the questioning. In times of doubt I can cling to these words, and to love. I will never lose my belief in a loving God, I believe love is His very nature. The resolution to my doubts and questions won’t change this, His love will always be a constant. Although this doesn’t make the loneliness of my doubt or the persistence of questioning go away, it does make it easier to bear.

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