November 2012

On faith, doubt and certainty

What role do certainty and doubt play within a mature, adult faith and in one’s allegiance to the Church, asks Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

“The only certainties in life are death and taxes.” So said Benjamin Franklin way back in 1788. In the life of faith, of what can we be certain? This perennial question came to the fore for me last Easter. Over some days of quiet and reflection I read two books, the juxtaposition of which set me thinking, questioning and wondering about the role certainty and doubt play within a mature, adult faith and in one’s allegiance to the Church.

The first book, Gateway to Resurrection, was the last book written by English Benedictine nun, author and theologian, Maria Boulding. At the prompting of a friend, Maria commenced the book after she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She completed the manuscript three days before she died.

Maria knew that she was dying and she writes from that poignant, “let’s cut to the chase” place of reflection on the meaning of life and anticipation of what lies ahead. Then and now I marvel at the certainty of Maria Boulding’s profound faith, and her ever-deepening identification with the Church. “I could understand my vocation only as somehow ‘being the Church’,” she writes.

This pulled me up. Could I say that, I who seem to get ever more disillusioned with an institutional Church that, despite synods and Years of Grace, seems ever more removed from many of the realities of my life?

I then read the second book, Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway, which I have to admit engaged me more and has stayed with me longer than Boulding’s book. This autobiography documents Holloway’s journey from the poor Scottish town of Alexandria, north of Glasgow, his entry at a very young age, and for a short period, into an Anglican religious community, his ordination as a priest, his consecration as Archbishop of Edinburgh and Primate of the Anglican Church of Scotland, and finally, his resignation from these positions.

In a recent interview on ABC Radio’s Conversations with Richard Fidler, Holloway reflected on the journey of “Leaving Alexandria”, his metaphor for leaving his position in the Church. He has, he says, become a spiritual nomad and an agnostic Christian who now sits uncomfortably on the edge of the Church. He tries to live by the values of the historical Jesus, but lives with “expectant uncertainty” in regard to the Christ of faith.

Two journeys vis-à-vis the Church: Maria Boulding, claiming her ecclesial identity with clarity and loving conviction, and Richard Holloway, agonising about his post-ecclesial and post-Christian stance. Journeys of two honest mature thinkers, each challenging my faith and my own ecclesial identity.

As he did in a previous book, Doubts and Loves, Holloway organises his thoughts around a poem by prominent Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Holloway and Amachai are repelled by that certainty which invariably says, “I’m right”. The place where we are right is hard and life-denying; nothing can grow there. I find myself recognising and reacting to such certainty when I see it in the influential shock jock, the adversarial politician, the ideologue of whatever hue and the fundamentalist of whatever creed. And surely, this is my own projection at play. The particular egoic patterns that I react to most strongly in others invariably are the same patterns also in me.

The words of the poem stay with me, inviting me to reflect upon the “sin” of my own certainty, my own personal experience of being “right” and that of the Church into which I was born and, yes, love.

In my mid-teens I recall my darling father saying to me, “The trouble with you, young lady, is that you think you know everything,” and me vehemently denying that was the case, while clearly thinking to myself, “Well, at least I know more than you”. Yes, the arrogance and ignorance of youth!

I have grown up a little since then, but the certainty malaise persists. Certainty, as Holloway expounds, is the greatest obstacle to real dialogue and genuine communication. It is a most inhospitable place. When I think I’m absolutely right, I don’t need to listen. I’m not interested in the truth of other opinions; I’m only interested in defending my own. I stymie my own curiosity and wonder, my creativity and wisdom. I close myself to mystery and paradox. “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning,” says Erich Fromm.

There was a time when I naïvely equated certainty with intelligence and religious faith, and conversely, doubt with ignorance and a lack of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. “Faith and doubt are Siamese Twins,” says Baptist Minister, Tim Costello. For him, the opposite of faith is indifference. “Clearly faith is not needed where certainty exists,” claims T.S. Eliot, “but only in situations where doubt is possible, even present.”

Of course, there is a place for dogma, but like Richard Holloway, I am wary whenever I encounter dogmatism in the Church. When the Church is so precisely certain what God and Jesus want in regard to women, divorced people who remarry, homosexuals and married clergy, any semblance of fruitful dialogue on these issues, for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the world, is impossible. Church documents continue to invoke God to justify the exclusion of those who are not male, clerical or celibate in full participation in the life of the institutional Church.

I react when my Church seems more concerned with institutional maintenance and clerically defined codes of exclusion than with Jesus’ vision and passion for humanity and the individual. The Sabbath, Jesus said, was made for “man”, rather than “man” being made for the Sabbath. Jesus always gave precedence to the individual over the institution. If the Church were less certain and more open to doubting itself and questioning its motivations, it would privilege dialogue over decree, listening over lecturing and the Gospel over hierarchical governance.

My Church, the Catholic Church, with evidence of creeping infallibility, is particularly vulnerable to the certainty mindset. A case in point. This year marks not only the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Papal Birth Control Commission. Pope Paul VI, as we know, rejected the Commission’s majority report in favour of a minority in writing his encyclical, Humanae Vitae. What is less well known is that the reasoning of the minority report was not on moral, ethical or theological grounds, but that any change in the Church’s “official teaching” regarding birth control would call into question the basic authority of the “official teachers”, who, it would seem, had to be seen to be right. In the current “stoush” with religious women in the United States, I don’t see evidence that the Vatican’s stance has changed.

A humble uncertainty and honest doubt is, recalling the poet, Amichai’s image, fertile ground. Holloway writes with piercing authenticity and reserves his greatest doubts in regard to himself. He is gentle with his opponents, regretting the pain his position has caused many in his Church. He simply pleads with his opponents to have “a generous certainty” by being less bullying and more kind to the victims of unbending ecclesiastical rubrics.

So, how do I square off these two writers? Maria Boulding’s writing is not a naïve, uncritical optimism and Richard Holloway’s is not a critical polemic. Both are serious searchers. Both experience a life-long search for God, one leading to the heart of the Church, the other leading to the edge. And haven’t we all known people whose honest-to-God and honest-to-themselves search has led them away from commitments made previously to spouse, Church or religious congregation?

Holloway tentatively believes in “a strange love that haunts the universe”. I differ from him, believing that this “strange love” is the God of Jesus Christ. If I was less certain of myself and more certain of this “strange love”, maybe, I too, like Maria Boulding, would have a deeper understanding of my vocation within the Church.

Paradoxically, I believe that the only way for me to find my own vocation as a Good Samaritan Benedictine woman at the heart of the Church, like Maria Boulding, is to follow the path that questions and critiques, as championed by Richard Holloway.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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