“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – Rene´ Descartes
What if you woke up today and found out that everything you thought was true was instead a carefully constructed fantasy, a dream-sequence from which, while still in your bed, the alarm clock screeching Here Comes the Sun, you actually took the first waking breath of your life? How would you possibly know? That was, minus The Beatles, essentially the question that Rene´ Descartes asked in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Or maybe it really did include The Beatles, since it was they, after all, who sang, “nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about?” (Of course that was from Strawberry Fields on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so maybe it was real. But they were dropping a ton of acid then, and nothing really was real. Or was it?)
Descartes believed that the only way to prove that reality exists is to doubt it. In fact, he even tried to prove that he didn’t actually exist but was only the construct of some infinite Other, probably Evil, Being, but he ended up slamming his head against an existential wall: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). His very doubt, he said, proved his existence, since he could not doubt if he did not exist. (Unless the infinite Other was really screwing with him.) From that inauspicious place, he clawed his way back towards some “foundational beliefs.”
Still, as Jimmy Buffet pointed out, you just may wind up being wrong. It requires faith in doubt to actually doubt faith. Or just a lysergic-acid soaked sugar cube.
Since it’s Lent, Day 3, and I’m sure you went to the 7:00 AM Penitential Rite and you heard the Exhortation, which counseled you to go to confession “that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith,” because that’s what you do during Lent, right?
I kind of doubt that, actually.
What’s up with getting rid of doubt? I have no scruples about getting rid of scruples, which are pretty silly anyway, since they are even more imaginary sins than the imaginary sins that religious people lay on the rest of us, but doubt seems of a different order entirely. It actually exists, after all, in the Cartesian sense, at least. It seems to be that if we can doubt, then doubt must have some usefulness. Why would anyone want us to get rid of it?
There’s a story about Jesus, who once came upon a fig tree that didn’t have any figs on it. The story doesn’t say if it was fig season, but it probably was, since he was not very charitable towards its figlessness and proceeded to cuss it out. The fig tree, in turn, was so shocked at his language that it shriveled up and died. His disciples were pretty impressed, though the story says it was by the speed of the withering, I can’t help but think they were blown away by his cursing skills. I know I would have been. I’m always on the lookout for a new curse word or two.
Jesus chuckled at them. “Listen, if you have faith, and don’t doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you told this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it would be done.” Jesus spent a lot of time telling people not to doubt, before he exorcised the demons in their teenagers, or cured their birth defects, or raised their brothers from the dead.
But when his ultimate moment to be absolutely faithful came, even Jesus doubted: right before he died, after a long night of torture at the hands of the Imperial Army, and finally to be lynched by it, nailed hands and feet to the trunk of a tree, he screamed: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Doubt has a purpose, even as Descartes tried, more or less, to show. It focuses us on what is actually true, what is real, what there is to get hung on a tree about. You can doubt that the world was made in seven days, or that dead people come back to life. You can doubt that Noah put all the animals in a huge, football stadium-sized boat, or that Moses turned the Nile to blood or that the walls of Jericho fell when Joshua fit the battle thereof. You can doubt that Mary was a Virgin or that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are really the body and blood of Christ. You can doubt the Trinity, predestination, or whether, based on historical ratio of total market cap over GDP, the stock market can still keep rising. You can even doubt that there is such a thing as human-caused global climate change, though you might want to sell that waterfront property in Miami, quickly. Doubt is good, even if some well-meaning priest doesn’t think so, for it is only doubt which allows us to see the truth. Doubt is the seed of faith and brings us, kicking and screaming, to the foundations of reality.
And so, you cannot doubt that love is. You cannot doubt that the arc of the universe, while slow, bends towards justice. You cannot doubt that good is and that it triumphs, however fitfully, over evil. You cannot doubt that you are, for you can think.