Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #072. First published in the St. Cloud Times July 23, 2013

A week ago, Times Writers Group colleague Peter Donohue let us eavesdrop on his reflections about faith as he turned 65 (“Faith in God rids all doubts,” July 16.)

I know — believe me, I know — that columnists don’t write their own headlines, and I suspect Donohue winced when he saw himself credited with a declaration more extreme than was warranted by what he actually wrote.

Not only way

Still, Donohue presents an account of how faith works that isn’t my experience.

I don’t challenge the authenticity or sincerity of his column, and I definitely don’t claim that my being nearly a decade older than he makes me wiser.

But I do want to make the case that expelling doubt is not necessarily the only authentic way to be Christian.

Donohue is certainly not stuck.

He reports movement and change across the narrative of his life, from youthful indiscretions that hardly rose to the level of mortal (or maybe even venial) sin, to the revised perspective that comes with having a family, through a Zen Buddhism fascination, to his current confidence that several central matters of the creed are fixed.

Then, with his theater-lover’s sense for the dramatic twist, he wonders whether the Big Bang might have been an accident — but, “Somehow that seems unlikely. I choose to believe it starts with the action of a benevolent God.” Right at the end of the column certainty gives way to “seems” and “choose.”

'Absence of doubt'

The claim of Donohue‘s at which I balk is this: “I was truly amazed at the beauty of the absence of doubt.”

I do not question his amazement, and I have immense respect for his appreciation of beauty. (His support of the arts is exemplary.) But “absence of doubt” does not abide in the category of beauty for me.

My mind has long been teased by a distinction drawn in Robert Browning’s 1855 poem, “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.” The bishop, speaking to a journalist, Gigadibs, sets “a life of doubt diversified by faith” over against “one of faith diversified by doubt.”

Gigadibs has tried to get the bishop to flat-out say he disbelieves. But the bishop declares that the journalist doesn’t get to set the rules — if Gigadibs will count as faith only what is “fixed, absolute and exclusive,” then the bishop does not believe, but that is hardly faithlessness.


A mentor of mine, the late George Buttrick, used to say that the problem with dead certainties is just that — they’re dead.

You can cite plenty of biblical passages that imply absolute conviction about this or that doctrinal or moral point, but the Bible also shows us the prophet Jeremiah sure that God is playing tricks on him, includes the entire book of Ecclesiastes, which declares that “all is vanity,” and, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, tells us that the 11 remaining disciples “went to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them,” then “saw him,” and, often overlooked in sermons about this moment, “some doubted.”

For me, beauty is not in fixity, absence of doubt, ducks all in a row. That is certainly one way of being Christian, but there’s too widespread an assumption that it’s the only genuine way.

West of St. Joseph on Stearns County Road 75, a billboard informs you that “Jesus provides the only worldview that offers forgiveness.” This kind of arrogant and preposterous claim makes a mockery of Christian humility and hospitality. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and many other traditions offer either forgiveness or its equivalent, and Christians are often stingy with it.

The other side of the billboard warns that “With atheism, there is no hope, only despair.” Once again, a demonstrably false claim is a poor excuse for evangelization. Plenty of Christians despair, plenty of atheists hope.

No way do I think Donohue would endorse either billboard. But I do insist that all ducks in a row is not the only beauty. I prefer watching them fly all over the place.