Writing in an Age of Doubt

Writing in an Age of Doubt

by Aaron Brown October 20, 2016 1 Comment

"A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight" —Agha Shahid Ali, from “Tonight”

I was reminded of a word recently, a word that is essential to contemporary faith, but a word nonetheless that seems to come in and out of the discursive limelight: doubt. It seems to me that doubt, for all those initial negative connotations we feel with the word—perhaps because of the conservative ways in which we may have been raised—is very much in vogue. “Doubt is hip, sexy,” I tell my students. You cannot open up a spiritually-minded book of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction without the writer dwelling in some sort of liminal space between belief and unbelief, faith, and doubt.

I was reminded of all this because I’m currently teaching a seminar of graduating college seniors, navigating through such books as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss. I’ve been voraciously looking for passages—or in these books “meditative riffs,” as I like to call them—that can provide some further clarity for my students, even if that clarity is a comfort in unknowing, as much as I hate the word, as they move on into the next stages of life.

But I’m beginning to speculate whether we’ve missed the mark, and by we, I don’t simply mean my class, but in many senses, the literary community, and more specifically, the faith-based literary community. “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” as Eliot puts it in Four Quartets. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve sacrificed doubt for something else. That we’ve had the experience of it—reveled in the existential anxiety we seem to worship in the postmodern age—but have lost the reason for doubt, the overarching purpose of it, if we can even begin to speculate what that might mean.

It’s one thing to wallow in the valley, to amuse yourself in a season of spiritual winter or the mystically arid desert—and indeed, life often brings us to these low points just as we see them throughout biblical literature: Abraham, Job, David, Christ. But what we often forget is that for every season of life there is a corresponding season that acts as reversal—for every winter there is spring, for every valley there is that elusive and clichéd mountaintop.

What I am saying is that doubt comes from something just as it leads to something. To treat doubt as an end in itself is to sacrifice faith, life, love, and God for a state of struggle and, dare I say, self-pity. Please understand that I am not saying that doubt is wrong. In many ways, the contemporary church has created this illusion to the rest of the world that it is perfect and is built on an unshakeable foundation of belief. The admission that I don’t know the answer for suffering, or that I am willing to dwell in the tenuous uncertainty that is the humanity and divinity of Christ, may ruffle feathers in certain bible-thumping communities. At the same time, however, we must recognize that giving ourselves fully over to a state of unknowing, or more accurately, to a state of doubt in which we entertain the alternatives to belief, to God—we run the risk of never quite believing in something.

If there is one criticism leveled against the millennial generation, it is that we are a generation that lacks commitment to things, or that we are committed to something only as long as it is beneficial to us. We are looking always for a better option. But is this stereotype not a representation of the symptoms of what it means to be human? Is a lack of commitment to belief a universal characteristic and not simply a generational one?

Is it enough...
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
—John Ashbery from “At North Farm”

I am reminded of a sermon my father once preached, years ago when I was a teenager. My father, a missionary doctor (another story for another time), was dealing with a difficult passage from the Psalms, trying to articulate for a small group of Christians going through trials of their own what it means to dwell in doubt, to come through it: “If the foundations are destroyed, / What can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). When life’s circumstances crumble around us, when even the bedrock of belief is shaken, how are we to continue forward, to keep going on?

The Psalmist’s response, as my father pointed out, is equally perplexing: “The Lord is in his holy temple” (11:4). We are not given a logical argument for the answer to suffering, to frustration, to seasons of doubt. Instead, we are redirected. Our eyes, given to looking horizontally, are urged to look upward. And by nature of looking vertically, everything around us is recast in a different hue. The vertical heals the horizontal. We are not speaking of a separate axis. The axis is the same. Only, one direction must happen before the other. To see doubt in a new light is a result of first restoring the world to that Augustinian notion of divine order. Each within his or her place beneath God, though we are also most assuredly invited to be with God, to participate in how the world can be redeemed. (And shouldn’t I add, that only one Psalm—Psalm 88—ends in doubt. Shouldn’t that tell us something?)

...apparently we believe
in the words
and through them
but we long beyond them
for what is unseen
what remains out of reach
what is kept covered
with colors and sizes
we hunger
for what is undoubted yet dubious.
—W.S. Merwin, from “Rainment”

So should our preference for doubt be abandoned? Is doubt in any way redeemable, or is it simply a signpost pointing down the path to deeper internal turmoil, collapsing in on itself? Though so much of our literary tradition speaks otherwise—that doubt is a good and necessary break from the divine—I happen to think that doubt can and should be incorporated into our spiritual literary lives, recognized for the new perspectives it gives us, though seeking it out and intentionally dwelling within it should, of course, be treated cautiously. Wiman speaks to this concept of a tempered doubt, or “honest... devotional doubt” as he calls it, and I think this is a very helpful way of thinking about it—to think of doubt as measured, self-contained, limited rather than limiting.

Honest doubt, according to Wiman, is marked by three qualities: humility, insufficiency, and mystery. Humility, in that our destitute state reminds us we have no cause for celebration in the present moment. Insufficiency, in that we recognize a need; it is, as Wiman puts it, “impossible to rest.” But mystery, and here I think Wiman is saying something particularly special, in that doubt that dwells in—pursues, even— the mystery of faith begins “to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments.”

Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,
I will praise your madness, and
In a language not mine, speak
Of music that wakes us, music
In which we move. For whatever I say
Is a kind of petition, and the darkest
Days must I praise.
—Ilya Kaminsky, from “Author’s Prayer”

This is a way of thinking about doubt that is “active rather than passive,” as Wiman puts it, a purifying force that arrives at clarity through pain or at the very least provides a lens that is now semi-transparent, no longer opaque and clouded. “God’s absence is always a call to his presence,” writes Wiman, and I think this is a necessary and difficult truth for the Christian life. Doubt can be and, dare I say, should be a necessary process of redirection. We all need our time in the desert. But we also know we are there only for a time, and that much more awaits us outside the desert. Let us see doubt not as an end, then, but as an opening—let us not forget where we come from and to which we return. And by God, let us write out of it.

Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown


Aaron Brown is the author of the poetry collection, Acacia Road, winner of the 2016 Gerald Cable Book Award (Silverfish Review Press). He has been published in World Literature Today, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Cimarron Review, and Transition, among others. Brown grew up in Chad and now lives in Kansas, where he is a professor of writing at Sterling College. He holds an MFA from the University of Maryland. More can be found at www.aaronbrownwriter.com

1 Response

Katherine M James
Katherine M James

November 30, 2018

Thank you for this! Similarly, I’ve been thinking recently that doubt seems to have been romanticized to the point of losing its true meaning, and that in worshipping it we’re missing its transforming power. Dwelling “in the tenuous uncertainty that is the humanity and divinity of Christ,” in light of that word ‘dwelling,’ ultimately describes faith like the faith of Job, not doubt.

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