On doubt and identity

Leigh Sales has written a helpful little monograph, ‘On Doubt,’ in which she interrogates the experience of doubting, and traces the emergence of an approach to journalism – her own.

Presumably, this approach is one reason she is an excellent interviewer; she remains open to unexpected responses, and doesn’t assume that she knows the answers.

Her experience of doubt extended to the Christian faith; as a young adult, she attended a Pentecostal church for several years.

She writes, ‘from almost the first day, my questions started… Ultimately religious faith eluded me.’ She could not believe in something for which there was no irrefutable truth.

‘The only thing in which I found faith was doubt.’

I find value in her reflections, not least that people do not immediately arrive at hard and fast answers. There is always a process that precedes them, a process replete with uncertainties, with roads not taken.

Moreover, for many, even after such a process, the result is not certainty.

At a personal level, this observation applies to our sense of identity. Oddly, there is little certainty about this most important reality. Questions and exercising doubt help us to face the provisional nature of self.

Applying Leigh’s insights to the gospel reading this week, the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:18-22), spurs us to ask some uncomfortable questions.

After he was baptised, Jesus heard a voice, ‘You are my son, the beloved.’

Traditional theology reads this account as a confirmation of Jesus’ identity. I read it differently – I suspect (though can’t prove!) that his baptism was a significant moment on a long journey of wrestling with the question, ‘Who am I?’

I imagine this journey was filled with doubt and unknowing as much as it was with insight and affirmation.

Such a pathway of discovery is more revealing of our human reality. A view that posits a static identity will likely cause us to deny what we know of ourselves and others.

(Often, it also leads to tyranny, whereas an evolving sense of self is more likely to inculcate compassion.)

Unlike Leigh, while I value doubt, my faith is not centred on it.

There are insights and experiences which give rise to a new appreciation of truth and self which can never be proved. (Undoubtedly, they can be interrogated but not proved.)

I regard Jesus’ baptism this way.

No evidence could irrefutably prove the reality of the love he experienced that day. Nonetheless, it formed and shaped his ministry.

I imagine that Jesus went back to this moment many times, for reassurance, to interrogate it, to see if there was more to it. No doubt at other times, the memory was dim and left him feeling foolish.

Such seminal insights rarely make life easier, often the opposite. Their very existence causes a new round of doubts.

Nonetheless, this pathway is the most honest approach that anyone, including Jesus, can take.