The Good Work of Doubt

               A hamster is running in a wheel. He is running because he has learned that whenever he runs for a certain amount of time he will receive food and water. He lives in a behavioral psychology universe, his home is an homage to B.F. Skinner, and he has been conditioned to know that whenever he runs in his wheel for a certain amount of time he will receive food and water. Now we can assume that the hamster cannot read the signs on the wall or that he has not read any of the recent literature on behavioral adaptation due to external stimuli, positive or negative. We can also assume that the hamster does not do a lot of deep, introspective thinking in-between his runs. There is a stimuli and a response and that is enough for the tiny hamster brain. But let us imagine, let us anthropomorphize for a moment and hear the inner thoughts of the hamster. He is running on the wheel and is excited for the food and water that he will receive, living the good life, when he has a thought – what if this is all there is to life? All of a sudden the life of the hamster on the wheel becomes pretty damn depressing as all he can think about now is how he is living the cliché metaphor of life, running in a wheel just to survive, and getting nowhere. And our hamster friend gets off the wheel, slinks into the corner, and falls into a deep, sad sleep.

            The next day, seeing the depressed hamster, the lab technicians realize that something must have happened, that the hamster must have had some kind of introspective, existential breakthrough that caused him to think about the purpose and meaning of life. So, in an effort to help, they give the hamster a very small copy of Nietzsche’s work, Will to Power, in hope that the hamster will find some help with the philosopher’s writings calling the hamster to fully exist as the best hamster that he can be. If that doesn’t work, they also have tiny volumes of Camus and Sarte.

            Note: I need to give credit to Shalom Auslander’s short story “Waiting for Joe,” from his collection, Beware of God, which takes the idea of anthropomorphized, pious hamsters to a wonderful and sardonic level.

            Now, we could look at our friend the hamster and say that the problem was that he had a moment of doubt. We could look at him and say that his life, up to that point, was fine. He got exercise every day. He had a steady source of nourishment. He did not have to worry about predators. He was living a sweet life until he began to question and doubt and that was the beginning of his problems. Some could look at this hamster and say that this is a great example of why doubt is so dangerous and harmful and why it is better to never doubt at all.

            What if we were to bring the faith element into the life of the hamster (which Auslander plays with in his story)? The hamster may have created a whole system of faith based on the notion that as long as he offers obedience on the wheel he will be taken care of and therefore must live a life of strict, literal obedience on his wheel so that he will be fed and nourished and can continue to live. Again, we might say this is fine because he is getting the basics of his life are being taken care of and that should be enough. The doubt and the questions only caused trouble and should have been avoided.

            But he is a hamster living a life of running and getting nowhere, in a cage, and we would say that this is not living. Maybe his doubt freed him.

            For many of us in communities of faith we have this notion that there is no place for doubt. We have a notion that all we need to do is just believe and accept and live with what we have. Doubt could sow seeds of unease, seeds of question and dissention. Doubt can lead to discomfort, to a loss of a good (or at least acceptable) life. Perhaps doubt should be avoided.

            Yet doubt is also the way that we question some of the basic premises of our faith and how we live out our faith. It is the way that we step back, look at how we are living, and ask if we like what we are doing. It is a way that we think about the basic assumptions that we have and push them. Many of our great reformers and leaders of different movements began with doubt, including Martin Luther, Roger Williams, and the Apostle Paul. Doubt, questions, and the urge to do and be better pushed their own thoughts and writings and beliefs, shaping and influencing generations. The work for freedom begins with a seed of doubt leading the oppressed and the oppressors to say that something isn’t right and needs to change. There is a good place and a positive role for doubt.

            On a personal level, it is not easy to allow ourselves to doubt. In the realm of faith it means looking closely at what we believe and asking we can really embrace that faith. It means questioning many of the basic assumptions of our faith and that can be scary and challenging especially if it is a faith that we grew up with. Yet it could mean a deeper and mature hope on the other side.

            The ironic thing about doubt is that when we embrace it in the religious arena, we do it with a radical faith. We look and question and wonder with a faith that calls us to trust that no matter what we question or push or examine, we will be ok on the other side. More than that, we may actually be better. So have faith and doubt. Get off the wheel and decide if it is worth running or if it is time to change. Let your doubt lead you to salvation.