Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, True Believers, and then there were the Doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.
I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.
True some religious people desire certainty— and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect– fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers.
Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.
In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts — about reincarnation, for instance—but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.
Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism”.
Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.
The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.
A version of this article appeared on Washingtonpost.com.
I’ve written a book about my “spiritual journey,” fully aware what an oft abused, dangerously clichéd term it is. The problem with “spiritual journey” (one of many, actually) is that it is usually used aspirationally. We venture far from home, in search of something, and so we convince ourselves we found it.
Just because we label a journey spiritual, though, doesn’t make it so, and the fact is: sometimes we’re better off staying at home. “The farther you travel, the less you know,” warns Lao-Tzu, the Taoist sage.
Yet this was the same sage who gave us the wonderful aphorism: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Was Lao-Tzu conflicted? Was he deliberately trying to confuse us?
I don’t think so. He knew that it’s not whether we travel or not, but how that matters. Travel, done properly, disorients us, and it is through this disorientation that any spiritual journey actually lives up to its name. This is the sort of travel Henry Miller had in mind when he said that “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”
If different places didn’t evoke different feelings, different ways of experiencing, we might as well stay at home, especially now, given the enhanced interrogation techniques that pass for air travel these days.
But we must choose our places carefully. Many supposedly sacred places disappoint. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness.
Such a fate has befallen many a shrine or temple. Whatever spiritual essence once existed there has long evaporated, siphoned off by opportunists and posers. Today they possess all of the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. They are dead places.
Then there are places like Tzfat, in northern Israel. There, the air is soft and plush. It is no dead place. Ever since the 16th century, Tzfat has been a center of Kabbalah, the mystical arm of Judaism, and it still attracts those looking for taste of the ein sof, or infinite.
The denizens of Tzfat are spiritual free agents, cobbling together a bit of this, a bit of that, and somehow making it all work. It is one of those places that the early Celts called “thin places,” locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and, for perhaps the first time, we can taste the divine.
I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.
One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.
There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”
“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”
Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.
“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”
Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”
“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”
“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”
Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.
At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.
Or are we? Do we ever fully change?
I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”