Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity

· Essays · ,

by Kathleen Norris

I find it sad to consider that belief has become a scary word, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to.” Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our heart to, then we will know what it is we believe.

But the word “belief” has been impoverished; it has come to mean a head-over-heart intellectual assent. When people ask, “What do you believe?” they are usually asking, “What do you think?” I have come to see that my education, even my religious education, left me with a faulty and inadequate sense of religious belief as a kind of suspension of the intellect. Religion, as I came to understand it, was a primitive relic that could not stand up to the advances made in our understanding of human psychological development or the inquiry of higher mathematics and the modern sciences. 

Yet I knew religious people who were psychologists, mathematicians, and scientists. So I had to assume that religious belief was simply beyond my grasp. Other people had it, I did not. And for a long time, even though I was attracted to church, I was convinced that I did not belong there, because my beliefs were not thoroughly solid, set in stone.

When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed—I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.

I soon learned that the fledgling joys that came to me on rare occasion in the abbey choir—when a psalm would seem to speak to me, or when a hymn and gospel reading would coalesce with my random thoughts in a striking way—were harder to sustain when I was at home, trying to pray alone, or with the Presbyterian congregation whose services I had begun to attend. Despite all of the encouragement the monks were giving me, it took me a long time to recognize that the desire to worship is in itself a significant form of belief. And it took admitting my private agonies over churchgoing to a pastor, who astounded me by saying, “I have no idea why people are there on any given Sunday; it seems a miracle to me. I have no reason or right to know why they’ve come. All I can do is accept their presence gladly. And, together, we worship God.”


Praise Of God is the entire reason for worship. It is the opposite of self-consciousness. But when a person is struggling mightily with conversion, anguishing over issues of belief and doubt, worship can become impossible. When I first began going to church, I was enormously self-conscious and for a long time could not escape the feeling that I did not belong there. My alienation was such that for weeks at a time, my attempt to worship with others on Sunday mornings would trigger a depression lasting for days. More than once, the pastor suggested that I give it a rest for a while.

Gradually, over several years of fits and starts, I was finally able to feel that I was part of a worshipping congregation. But I still had a tenuous hold on belief, and any number of the powerful words I might encounter during church—commandments, creeds, resurrection—could send me reeling.

Worship itself thus became the major instrument of my conversion.

Remembering helped; it helped enormously. Believing in God, listening to Bible stories, and especially singing in church on Sunday mornings had been among the greatest joys of my childhood. And when I would remember that, a modicum of faith would enter my heart, a conviction that the God who had given me all of that would be likely to do so again. But if I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be “repetition.” Repetition as Kierkegaard understood it, as “the daily bread of life that satisfies with benediction.” Repetition as in a hymn such as ‘’Amazing Grace,” or the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between. Over time, it was the ordinary events of life itself, coming “in between” the refrain of the church service, with its familiar creeds, hymns, psalms, and scripture stories, that most developed my religious faith. Worship summed it up and held it together, and it all came to seem like a ballade to me, one that I was living.

Worship itself thus became the major instrument of my conversion. This is an old, old story. But I have come to wonder if I have become an anachronism in my own time, even among other Christians. I recently read an article that depicted a heated exchange between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The theologian had given a talk on the history of the development of the Christian creeds. The student’s original question was centered on belief: “What can one do,” he asked, “when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?” The priest responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.”

To learn something by heart is a concept more in tune with the ancient world than with our own, and the student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, “What am I to do…when I have difficulty affirming parts of the Creed—like the Virgin Birth?” And he got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.” The student raised his voice: “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?” And the priest replied, “It’s not your creed, it’s our creed,” meaning the Creed of the entire Christian church. I can picture the theologian shrugging, as only the Orthodox can shrug, carrying so lightly the thousand-plus years of their liturgical tradition: “Eventually it may come to you,” he told the student. “For some, it takes longer than for others….”

What the Orthodox theologian had said made sense to me. It reflected my own experience in the years when I had been trying to make my way back to church, and I felt fortunate to have found my process of conversion conveyed so well and succinctly: the years of anguishing over creeds and the language of belief, a struggle that I had endured only because I dared hope that eventually the words wouldn’t seem like “theirs” but also “mine.” It was the boring repetitions of worship language, and even the dense, seemingly imponderable, words of the creeds that had pushed me into belief. And, yes, it had taken a very long time.

I was saddened and a bit surprised, then, to find that the article elicited mostly angry letters to the editor. One writer equated the Orthodox theologian’s advice with “just keep repeating ‘the earth is flat, the earth is flat’’’; others read his remarks as suggesting that people not think for themselves. Clearly his statements had hit a nerve. He had directly challenged the notion of Christian faith as a bona fide intellectual endeavor. (It is an incarnational one, and there is a big difference; the flesh consists of not head alone but heart as well.)


I Feel Blessed To Know from experience that it is in the act of worship, the act of saying and repeating the vocabulary of faith, that one can come to claim it as “ours.” It is in acts of repetition that seem senseless to the rational mind that belief comes, doubts are put to rest, religious conversion takes hold, and one feels at home in a community of faith. And yet it is not mindless at all. It is head working inseparably from heart; whole body religion. Much thought, prayer, questioning, and pondering go into the process, flowing like currents in a river, steering us in directions we might not have chosen for ourselves.

As a poet I am used to saying what I don’t thoroughly comprehend. And once I realized that this was all it was—that in worship, you are asked to say words you don’t under- stand, or worse, words you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject—I had a way through my impasse. I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.

Photo by Dennis Wilkinson

Photo by Dennis Wilkinson

And when doubts still assailed me, when what I believed or didn’t believe flew around in circles in my mind, buzzing like angry bees, I would recall the wise words of William Stafford, who once said that he never had writer’s block, because when a poem failed to come, he simply lowered his standards and accepted whatever came along. So, I lowered my standards. And I began to carry in my notebook another great koan of Stafford’s: “Successful people cannot find poems, for you must kneel down and explore for them.” I decided that this applied to religious belief as well as to poetry: I became an explorer. And with the words and concepts that seemed most suspect, that were impossible for my intellect to grasp head-on—the Virgin Birth is a good example—I learned not to rush to judgment but to be attentive and vigilant, not absenting myself from church but participating as much as possible. Particularly on the liturgical feasts that might give me more of a hold on the big words—Pentecost, Annunciation, Assumption—I tried to keep a keen eye and ear on what the scripture readings for the day might have to say to me, or the hymns, or the sermons, or readings in the Breviary. Any or all of it might contain a helpful clue.


Above All, I Waited. And most often, not much happened. With some words, I failed utterly. But gradually, others came to life. Fortunately, believing, like writing, is more process than product, and is not, strictly speaking, a goal-oriented activity. There is no time limit. And if some words remain “theirs,” words or concepts that I recognize as part of my Christian heritage but which I may never comprehend in any meaningful way, I can live with it. And even call them “ours,” without fully understanding the how or why.

Perhaps my most important breakthrough with regard to belief came when I learned to be as consciously skeptical and questioning of my disbelief and my doubts as I was of my burgeoning faith. This new perspective also helped me to deal with my anger over the fact that churches, as institutions, so often behave in polarized and polarizing ways. I found an unexpected ally in Fr. Martin Smith, an Anglican monk, who wrote in an issue of Cowley, his monastery’s newsletter, that ambivalence is a sacred emotion. Restating in spiritual terms Keats’s definition of “negative capability,” he wrote that he finds

a widespread need in contemporary spirituality to find ways of praying and engaging with God, our selves, and one another that have room for simultaneous contradictions, the experience of opposite emotions. We need to find the sacredness in living the tensions and to admit how unsacred, how disconnecting and profane, are the attempts at praying and living while suppressing half of the stuff that fascinates or plagues us. . .

Smith does not mince words in characterizing the way that contemporary churches appear to many people, as harboring “decay, confusion, blundering, and sterility.” But he challenges the reader, who may find personal religious belief wavering in the face of all of this, to admit to a similarity with his or her own personal clinging to old systems, old identities. “We can connect our own fear of death and the unknown,” Smith writes, “with the institution’s dread of the new.”

I think that Smith is on to something; if nothing else, a new way to think of the church, and each individual Christian, as a part of the body of Christ, an entity that must face up to the reality of many deaths in order to find a new life. But his words are not easy to hear: “How can my rage and sickening disappointment in so many manifestations of ‘Christianity’,” he asks, “cease to be a poison which depresses and paralyses me, and be traced back to its source in my longing to be fully alive in God?” It no longer surprises me that a devout monk can ask such questions, or that his anguish might lead him straight to prayer, which is not the result of belief so much as its source and guardian. “Only prayer,” Smith concludes, “is a crucible strong enough for this kind of transmutation.” There is much at stake when belief and doubt go into the crucible; despair might emerge. But with luck, faith and hope appear. A gospel prayer perfectly sums up the ambiguity that rages in the human heart: “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.”

Kathleen Norris is a poet and writer whose work explores the spiritual life.

From Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Copyright © 1998 by Kathleen Norris. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books.

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