From My Bright Abyss
I am struck by this: “But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor / neither confirms nor envies.” What about these “laughing neighbors”? Surely we have all had the experience of having an intensely inward perception deflated within us by some non-reaction of the world, by pure indifference. (Disputatious rage or a kind of clock-minded logic – e.g., the “New Atheists” – is easier to take. Equally useless in terms of understanding and preserving your experience, but easier to ignore and move away from.) But the other, the laughing neighbor, this wounds us, and it does so because every genuine impulse of inwardness contains a little propulsion back toward the world and other people. In fact, as I’ve said, this is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself. This blankness to faith, this indifference that doesn’t even reach the level of resistance, it is simply one of those weakening influences that we must push through. And without ego, without thinking ourselves superior, for we don’t know all the ways in which God manifests himself or why some people in our lives, even some whom we most love, seem immune to inwardness. Perhaps we are the weak ones, and God comes to us inwardly only because we have failed to perceive him in the crying child, in the nail driven cleanly into the wood, in the ordinary dawn sun that merely to see clearly is sufficient prayer and praise.
There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.
You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, and assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which make it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward – or at least outward – even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful – more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms – but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.