Reaffirming Doubt

Take a look….

I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists.
The more of doubt, the stronger faith, I say,
If faith o’ercomes doubt. How I know it does?
By life and man’s free will.

— Robert Browning, “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” 1855

He published it in 1855 as part of a collection called Men and Women. When did he write it? I don’t know. Surely it was after 1845, when John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest, abandoned the Church of England after considerable inner struggle and converted to Roman Catholicism (he was ordained priest a little over a year later and later was named a Cardinal). Newman returned from Rome to an England still beset with negativity toward Catholicism. It was probably rather like Arkansas in 1960 or the chic philosophical-literary salons of our own day. Whoever said that anti-Catholicism (maybe even anti-Christianity) is the last acceptable prejudice absolutely nailed it.

When I read “Blougram” in 1970 for a Victorian literature graduate course paper, it was little short of electrifying.  I know the usual Browning’s Greatest Hits, but this poem, with its tight logic and almost percussive rhetoric, showed me more than I’d expected. I’d never thought much about religion, just about a God of whom I was deathly afraid: and here was the portrait of an urbane and cultivated churchman dismembering by language alone an annoying little Fleet Street journalist with a wonderfully terrible  name: Gigadibs. And Gigadibs, 38 years ago, reminded me a bit too much of myself for me to be entirely at ease.

I would not have wanted to argue faith with Bishop Blougram. I still wouldn’t.

The good Bishop taught me about doubt. Indeed, the entire poem–over 800 lines–is about the tension between faith and doubt, and how doubt, far from being a flaw or sin, is absolutely critical to building and even reinforcing faith. Faith without doubt is childish and parroting. Faith supported by doubt, doubt that leads to faith, is muscular and able to withstand personal challenges.

And so yesterday.  I was not thinking of Robert Browning when I wrote about doubt and despair.  But I am now.  I have never regretted less anything I’ve ever written. The stated belief that punishment never ends may in fact have been part of some deeper spiritual healing–because God knows I need it now. Simply the ability to say those awful words, to pronounce God a capricious bully…like the MasterCard ad says, “Priceless!”

If I am compelled to renounce skepticism in favor of “drinking the Kool-Aid” of any doctrine, I simply will need to leave the room. The revival meeting can go on without me.


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