The issues addressed by religious and spiritual teachings are so vast and so complex that anyone who does not have a crisis of faith from time to time is either in a state of grace or a state of denial. The doubt attack might be over God’s existence; fear that you’re nothing more than a biochemical accident; misgivings about your tradition or chosen path; suspicion that your beliefs are really hogwash. The possibilities for doubt are endless, and the discomfort can be so intense that many of us do everything we can to avoid it, from stuffing our impertinent thoughts deep into our unconscious to clinging to some dubious doctrine that purports to have all the answers.
The avoidance strategy is encouraged by many religious teachings, which treat doubt like a demon to be exorcised or a sin for which we should atone. That is a shame, for at least two reasons. First, feeling guilty about your doubts, or being afraid you’ll be punished for having them, is as bad for your health as spiritual practice is good for it. Second, doubt can be a magnificent blessing; if you handle it well, a crisis of faith can be a steppingstone to higher truth, stronger conviction and even deeper faith.
Our faith gets challenged when something we hold to be true doesn’t match our experience. When our own observations collide with a religious doctrine or spiritual teaching, we’re no different from a child who’s waiting for Santa and sees Daddy put on a red suit and a fake white beard. Something has to give. Such moments are inevitable on the spiritual path, because growth brings with it new insights and experiences that challenge our certainties. If that doesn’t happen from time to time, you are simply not growing enough. The challenge is to face it head-on. If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined belief is not worth believing. If we’re willing to follow the truth wherever it leads, doubt can be a sign of spiritual strength, not weakness; a sign of maturation, not regression.
Ironically, however, it takes a certain leap of faith to tackle a crisis of faith honestly and courageously. You must have faith that you can resolve the impasse, and that you have the wherewithal to stake a claim to the truth even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. You also have to trust that the universe is, deep down, a friendly place, so you can feel safe to follow your inquiry wherever it leads. Above all, you need faith that the rewards of the spiritual pursuit—however you conceive of them—are real and attainable. That’s the faith that wraps us in warmth even when the fabric of belief gets a bit tattered.
Faith and doubt are not polar opposites like darkness and light. They are more like dance partners, a dynamic duo whose mutual push and pull keeps you whirling to the music of your soul. When you see doubt coming, instead of putting up your dukes or running away, take it by the hand and boogie. Here are some suggested dance steps:
- Draw on the past. Chances are you’ve survived crises of faith before. What can you learn from those periods? How did you get back on track?
- Get some help. Is there a spiritual guide who can treat your doubt with respect instead of trying to talk you out of it?
- Look at other teachings. Spiritual truth is not contained within the walls of any religious compound. You might gain valuable insight by reaching beyond familiar borders.
- Read about the great ones. If you’re having a crisis of faith you couldn’t ask for better company. The enlightened ones of every tradition struggled with established doctrine or their relationship with the Divine (or both). Treat the sages like experts in any field who shed light on things you haven’t experienced yourself.
- Lean on your spiritual family. Trusted peers who may have had their own crises of faith are in the best position to empathize with your doubt.
- Lighten up. Wrestling with doubt may be necessary, but it does not have to be a fight to the death. Have fun with it.