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Dealing with the common discourse on doubt

Posted: 27 Jan 2019, 09:10
by Reuben
I want to expand on something Curt posted about the word doubt on another thread without derailing it.
Curt Sunshine wrote:
18 Jan 2019, 11:35
We tend to equate doubt with questioning or not believing fully - of keeping an open mind.

Church leaders tend to equate doubt with sign seeking - which is seen as having a closed mind. "Doubting Thomas" wasn't criticized for questioning; he was criticized for rejecting the other disciples' testimonies and demanding to see for himself. (Ironically, Jesus is recorded as granting that sincere request, so criticizing Thomas for it is a retroactive judgment in and of itself.)
I've been curious about this mismatch before, so I took the opportunity to study it further.

The etymology of doubt is interesting. It started in Latin, where it meant little more than uncertainty - being of two minds. (Compare duo.) It took two routes into English, arriving from both around 1200-1300. Its direct route from Latin is seen in the word dubious, which connotes just uncertainty. Its indirect route was through Old French, where it picked up the additional connotation of fear or mistrust.

If faith is trust and confidence, then with the additional connotations from Old French, doubt is obviously its opposite.

It's more complicated than that, though. Doubt never lost its neutral meaning from Latin. Even the KJV uses it to mean just uncertainty, as in the phrase "no doubt," or when Peter "doubted in himself" the implications of a vision. The Old French meaning of "fear or dread" shows up almost as-is in the KJV too, when Jesus tells the disciples that someone would betray him and they "looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake," and when Jewish leaders "doubted [...] whereunto this would grow."

These days, doubt still often carries the connotation of fear or mistrust when used in the context of religion, relationships, and capabilities (e.g. "self-doubt"). It seems to have been shifting meaning, though, possibly beginning with the rise of science, in which even intentional doubt is a good thing. Now, we often use it to mean just "uncertainty," and the Old French meaning of "fear or dread" seems to be completely gone.

As far as understanding each other, where does that leave us?

Most leaders and members seem to have settled into a dichotomous mode of thought and speech where faith is always pitted against doubt. (I appreciate the fact that some buck the trend, such as Elder Uchtdorf.) With the most common scriptural definitions, that's perfectly fair because the dichotomy is definitional. There is still plenty of room to talk about their strength (i.e. strong vs. weak), and to apply them in a fine-grained way. Some people here, for example, have faith in God but doubt the Church's claims to exclusive authority (i.e. mistrust the claims for what they judge as good reasons).

The most glaring omission from the discourse is the idea of faithful uncertainty. ("Having questions" doesn't cover this.) To a lot of leaders and members, that state of mind or spiritual orientation either doesn't make sense or is undesirable - or at least, staying in it is undesirable. But without it, the "faith vs. doubt" dichotomy sorts all members into "faithful" and "doubter" buckets based on how strongly they believe or the direction their beliefs move. There's no apparent way to be both faithful and epistemically humble, and everyone who becomes less certain of the Church's claims is judged to have also become less loyal.

I suspect that trying to argue the definition of doubt isn't going to help, at least in the short term. The scriptures can too easily be used to argue against it. Further, for now, Church leaders have fixed the definition at "uncertainty with connotations of fear or mistrust" by so consistently contrasting it with faith.

Maybe we need to use a different word. I like "uncertainty," with and without the modifier "faithful."

Re: Dealing with the common discourse on doubt

Posted: 27 Jan 2019, 09:47
by dande48
Words are tricky, and I appreciate you looking into this. But the thing is, I do have a lot of mistrust, and to some level, "fear" in Church leaders. I don't like what they have done, don't feel honestly dealt with, and am afraid of what they will continue to teach and do to my family. Church leaders using "doubt" by this definition still doesn't alleviate my concerns, and if anything makes them worse.

Telling someone who distrusts you that they should trust you, and that their concerns are over-exaggerated and not a big deal feels like gaslighting. It's not very effective at helping "doubters" in any case.

Re: Dealing with the common discourse on doubt

Posted: 27 Jan 2019, 10:02
by Reuben
I hear you, dande. That describes me pretty well, too. I think the rest of what I found is applicable. In short, the scriptures don't justify condemning us at all.

Like Curt, I've noticed the retroactive judgment of Thomas before.

In my searches to try to understand the senses the KJV uses the word "doubt" in, I came across a couple of topical guides that point not just to passages that use the word, but also to passages where characters are exhibiting doubt. If I remember right, even when they're showing fear or mistrust, Jesus typically doesn't rebuke them. In the two cases I remember a rebuke, he doesn't express anything close to condemnation - at most, it's exasperation. And I think in every case, he gives them a reason to trust.

Being human is hard. Fear and mistrust are understandable.

The most difficult passage that uses the word "doubt" is Romans 14:22-23, which has been used (by St. Augustine no less) to condemn all actions under conditions of doubt:
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
It's important to understand that Paul is taking the perspective of someone with the false belief that God regards certain foods as being inherently sinful to eat. He's saying that because they think it's sin, they would only eat in a frame of mind of estrangement from God. Whether he's using a general principle to explain why it's wrong for them isn't at all clear from context.

I think there's enough uncertainty in the interpretation of that passage and enough lack of condemnation elsewhere that it's safe to say that the scriptures don't say that doubt is sinful, much less that it can be evil.

Re: Dealing with the common discourse on doubt

Posted: 27 Jan 2019, 10:15
by Reuben
To sum up, here's what I think my approach to pushing back on the common discourse will be.

1. There's currently no room for faithful uncertainty. This is bad because it doesn't leave room for epistemic humility, or respecting the many members who react to counterevidence by believing less strongly. They need to be free to pivot to having faith based on experiencing goodness. It's very difficult to do that when they find themselves condemned by their church.

2. The son of God himself never condemned anyone for not trusting him or his witnesses. When members doubt the Church's claims or its leaders, intentional or not, good reasons or not, Jesus's response would be to give them reasons to have faith.

I think I'll probably stop short of saying that recent messages about doubt are themselves clearly motivated by doubt (uncertainty with fear or mistrust) instead of faith.

Re: Dealing with the common discourse on doubt

Posted: 27 Jan 2019, 11:20
by DarkJedi
When I speak of my own doubt in talks and lessons I rarely use the word doubt, generally I use uncertainty or questions in it place. In my mind I'm saying the same thing, to the hearer it takes away the negative connotation of the word doubt. FWIW, it was Curt who turned me on to that way of doing things several years ago (hat tip).

Sometimes I can be a little more forward depending on the company, and I do use doubt. Today in priesthood we did Holland's talk. I did use the occasion to dispel the myth that everyone who is inactive was offended, and I also dispelled that myth that doubt leads to faith crisis. While it can, in my experience and from listening to people here and elsewhere, it is usually quite the other way around.