Faith, Doubt, and Spiritual Growth

From our service on August 1, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

Imagine that your faith is so strong that you never have any doubt. You know, with absolute certainty, that your religious beliefs are correct. The possibility that you could be wrong, or that some other religion might be true, never crosses your mind.

That’s some mighty strong faith — isn’t it? Actually, no, that’s not faith at all.

To have faith means to believe in something that you can’t be sure about. You may have good reasons to believe, but your belief is a choice. You see the various possibilities, and despite not knowing which one is correct, you choose the one that makes the most sense to you, or which moves you in a way that for whatever reason, you don’t feel that other belief systems can.

That’s the mystery of faith. We don’t always know why we believe what we believe. And even if we can identify and articulate the reasons, we can always second-guess ourselves — because there are always reasons why we could choose to believe in something else. Nobody really knows. And that’s why there are various religions, sects and denominations, and probably always will be.

Now the question we should ask ourselves is how are we going to live with this uncertainty? That’s the human condition. We find ourselves living in a world we can’t fully explain. Science can give us many facts about the what, but it can’t tell us the why. Why are we here? Why does anything exist at all? Why am I a human being living in a middle-class neighborhood in America instead of a starving kid in Africa… or a tiger?

And finding myself to be a middle-class American, what am I supposed to do with that situation? That’s another thing that religion can help a person to decide — if, and only if, a person chooses to have faith.

Here’s the challenge: For the first time in human history, the average person has access to an incredible abundance of information. Maybe you grow up in a particular religion and church, but when you’re old enough to use the internet, you can start discovering a whole world out there of all kinds of other ways to believe about God and the meaning of life.

A hundred years ago, the average person really had no idea what all the options are. Most people only had an elementary school education. They didn’t travel much and hardly ever came into contact with people of other faiths. Back then, it was easy to just go with whatever you were brought up with — you didn’t know any better. But for people living today, we actually have to choose. We can see the full menu of religious options, and there is no excuse not to look into them and question whether one’s own religion really is the right one, for oneself or for humanity in general.

This means that people’s faith is being tested today perhaps more than at any other time in history. It’s easy to doubt your beliefs when you know about so many different possibilities. Ironically, though, this also means that today we have the opportunity to develop a truly powerful and mature faith, in a way that the average person of the past would have had a much more difficult time to accomplish.

Compared to the simple farmer, laborer, or continually pregnant housewife of centuries past who never left their village and never encountered people whose beliefs were radically different than their own, we who live in advanced societies of the 21st century have an amazing gift of knowledge that can empower us to make informed choices about our faith. We still can’t know which religion, if any, is true, or to what degree each of them might be an accurate view of reality. But we can explore them and experience them in a way that was possible for only a few of our most fortunate ancestors.

We who live in advanced societies of the 21st century have an amazing gift of knowledge that can empower us to make informed choices about our faith.

Because of this, many people today have complex spiritual journeys and grow and develop as souls in ways that would have been unimaginable to all but the most devoted seekers of truth in past generations. For example, a person may have a conversion experience to a particular faith, a deconversion experience or conversion to atheism, a period of dabbling in many different faiths and spiritual traditions, and an integration of pluralistic knowledge into one’s chosen religious commitment. Some people experience all of these things in one lifetime — a rapid and robust process of spiritual growth that was extremely rare throughout most of human history.

Although these experiences do not always happen sequentially, they often do. To illustrate how spiritual growth typically occurs in phases, let’s consider a hypothetical man we’ll call “Seeker John.” John grows up in a non-religious household, and as a young man, he indulges excessively in the pleasures of the flesh. But he feels vaguely unsatisfied with life and yearns for greater fulfillment — especially as he gets a bit older and the constant partying, drinking and fornicating produces less and less of a high.

At some point, perhaps after an especially intense bender, Seeker John has a spiritual experience and becomes convicted of his sins. He goes down for the altar call at an Evangelical church and prays for forgiveness from God through the power of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Now John is a new man in Christ — filled with tremendous religious zeal. He reads his Bible every day and believes every word of it literally. He sees his new life in contrast to the irreligious world around him and feels a surging pride rising within his breast, as he contemplates how he and his fundamentalist Christian brethren are saved to eternal life in heaven while most human beings shall perish in a fiery hell.

But as time goes on, Seeker John gets less and less of a high from the feeling of being one of the chosen elect in God’s sight. Just like the high of the drinking and the screwing wore off and eventually became a malaise of vague dissatisfaction, so too do John’s sessions of Bible study — especially as he realizes that many of the stories in the Bible seem just as far-fetched as the stuff from his Hindu friend’s religion. He had been trying really hard to convert him to the Only Way, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but the immigrant from India was stubbornly happy with his own religion, and he seemed like a really good person — better even than some of the sinful-but-arrogant people in the Evangelical church. “Could my Hindu friend really be headed for hell, just because he believes in a different set of ancient religious legends?” John begins to wonder. “What if none of it is true; what if religion is just a sham?”

Seeker John was able to repress these doubts for a while. But when his best friend in the church died of cancer, and some other members of the church started saying it was because he hadn’t been praying and tithing enough, John was plunged into a dark night of the soul. He began reading atheist websites and was filled with a fierce anger against the fundamentalist Christian God.

Now, John found excitement returning to his life. The adrenaline rush he had once felt from partying, and then from severely conservative religion, he began to feel from identifying as a hard-core nonbeliever. Pretty soon he was making snarky comments all day on social media about the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and all the absurd contradictions in the Bible. He began to revel in bashing Christians for their prideful corruption and the evil of their imaginary god who condemns everyone else to hell. Once again, Seeker John was a new man — this time a new man in Atheism.

But eventually, as always, the high began to wear off. Seeker John gradually settled into an indifferent materialism, focusing on making lots of money in his career and not thinking so much about religion anymore — until he met Seeker Jane. She was a smart and attractive woman who had grown up in a devout Mormon family but rebelled against her faith. In her youth, she got lots of tattoos and piercings, worked as a barista where she served and drank lots of coffee, and later became a marketing executive in the wine industry — pretty much the exact opposite of the religious rules she was raised with. Instead of becoming an atheist, though, Seeker Jane had become a New Ager. She was into yoga, chakras, auras, spirit guides, crystals and tarot cards.

Seeker John thought a lot of that stuff was nonsense, but Jane convinced him to come with her to the Unitarian Universalist church. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of atheists there,” she assured him. “It’s basically like a social club for ex-Christians.” At the UU congregation, John found lots of rationalistic secular humanists like himself, along with various ultra-liberal people exploring every type of religion imaginable. Before long, he started taking an interest in Zen Buddhism. You didn’t have to believe in God, but it was a way to seek a deeper meaning in life.

John and Jane grew old together. In their retirement years, their youthful anger against dogmatic forms of Christianity having lost its grip on their psyche, they both started feeling attracted to Christian mysticism and progressive views of Christ. As John put it, “Jesus was basically like the Buddha in a Hebrew cultural context.” In Jane’s words, “He was one of the greatest ascended masters — maybe the greatest of them all.” Neither of them believed in all the conservative Christian doctrines about Jesus, but they believed it was important to follow his teachings for living a moral life and connecting with a Spirit of Love beyond ourselves — and that if we do, we will find peace in this life and the hereafter, whatever that may be.

The story I’ve just told about these hypothetical 21st century Americans and their spiritual journey is a typical one, almost stereotypical actually. For each individual, the story will differ in the details, but the general pattern tends to be similar. Many people fall away from a rigid, fundamentalist religious path at some point in their life, and become skeptics, nonreligious, or much less committed to their faith than before. Many people, later on, rediscover religion with a more open-minded perspective.

Many people fall away from a rigid, fundamentalist religious path at some point in their life, and become skeptics, nonreligious, or much less committed to their faith than before. Many people, later on, rediscover religion with a more open-minded perspective.

The challenge, I think, is to move beyond just a wishy-washy pluralism — a very common place for people to end up today — and to recommit oneself to a serious life of faith, while remaining open to the insights and value that can be found in various religious traditions. It’s not easy to do this, especially because there are few organized communities of faith that encourage people to be both devout and open-minded.

It can be a lonely place, reaching the level of spiritual growth where you have a strong faith again after integrating the insights you attained through times of doubt and wide-ranging exploration. But this, I believe, is what every human being is ultimately called to do.

Any serious seeker will go through periods where they question their beliefs, even reject some of what they used to believe in. Any serious seeker will replace some of their old beliefs with new interpretations and ideas based on insights gleaned from the study of world religions, history and philosophy, as well as personal spiritual experiences. And any serious seeker will come to realize that it’s not enough just to have an open mind about spiritual matters, but that we should also take meaningful actions on a regular basis according to a committed faith.

A spiritually mature person can keep an open mind about many religious doctrines — but we shouldn’t be equivocal about such things as whether to have a devoted practice of prayer and meditation; whether to practice moderation instead of excessive self-indulgence, and humility instead of overweening vanity and pride; and whether to be charitable toward the poor, compassionate to those who are suffering, and kind to our neighbors, including those who are different than ourselves.

Indeed, we can do these things even though we may at times doubt whether our religious beliefs are true. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” [John 18:38]. In a sense, he was speaking for all of us. He wasn’t sure what to believe, and none of us ever can be — that’s what faith is all about.

It’s easy to live without faith — to shrug our shoulders and wash our hands of the big questions we face in life. If we choose to have faith, we might not know if we’re right, but we should do the things that seem right to our conscience. For the true path of faith is to choose, each and every day, to live with integrity. It might not be exciting, but it’s “spiritual adulting” — a maturity of spirit that comes only when we wrestle honestly with our doubts rather than suppress them, when we seek truth wherever it may be found, and commit ourselves to act according to the good that we discover.

Watch on video (starting at 8:24):