Doubt and faith and nihilism, oh my!


Where there is doubt, faith;

Faith must be the most written-about subject in human experience. Faith asks us to trust in the unseen, and we may see it as a hallmark of holy people, too rarified for most of us. And yet, faith is both cause and effect. It flows from the willingness to be an instrument of the divine, while at the same time, is a way of courting that willingness. It’s easier to be faithful when rewards come and also turn to it in times of great crisis and despair. And what about all the other, more quotidian, times in between?

“Faith is not a cushion for me to fall back on. It is my working energy.” ~ Helen Keller, from Let Us Have Faith

While faith is an active choice, it is also a passive outcome of devotion. In Helen Keller’s words, it is fuel. Energy. All energy on Earth comes from the sun; everything alive draws sustenance from it. Faith, at its most primal level, then, is knowing that the sun will rise each morning. Trusting that this spaceship we’re riding on will once again turn its face to the great star that powers all life.

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth
“You owe me”
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky

~ Hafiz, translated Daniel Ladinsky (from The Gift)

As someone who has wrestled often with doubt, I resonate with this kind of faith; it calls on me to trust in that love and know that I am worthy of it, just by virtue of being alive on this planet.

Practicing faith is no small thing. It is light in the darkness of doubt, yet it is not about negating or denying doubt. Tapping our prodigious powers of imagination, faith creates space for doubt and welcomes it with compassion.

Having said all that, I feel compelled to address nihilism, that strain of belief that that life is without meaning, purpose, pattern, or value. Every era tends to assume that theirs is the worst in human history, and ours is no exception. Superstorms, extinctions, genocide and burning rainforests, among other dark events, fuel the feeling of momentum towards apocalypse, zombie or no.

In a fascinating exploration of culture’s embrace of nihilism, Brooke Gladstone suggests that nihilism is the flip side of faith. Of course! It’s a fancy word for doubt, a particularly vivid, even hip, strain of it. Maybe nihilism is the secular rationalist’s version of doubt, which itself is burdened by a long spiritual lineage and sounds rather dowdy by comparison. Like all rationalists, the nihilist looks for proof in the physical world, evidence that there is meaning and value. And of course, the world is far more complex, contradictory, and paradoxical to be captured by a reduction to mechanics and matter. Finding nothing definitive, then, the nihilist must, by virtue of his own internal rules, conclude there is nothing to be found.

Of course nihilism is with us, and will be with us always. As faith’s trendy opposite, it reminds us that we have a choice of what to align with: trust in the unseen, in the magic of intuition, or insistence that only the material and rational are real. Life is short and precious, and its very paradoxes teach us that things are never as black and white as we sometimes insist. Why not admit that doubt and faith are present together in every human heart?

I recently learned that the Sanskrit word for “faith” is shraddha, which also means, “Where we choose to put our heart.” I love that faith relies on choice, which suggests to me that it must be cultivated each day, and with the love of my heart. I have a daily ritual of listening to the inner voice, inviting a relationship with faith through my journal. I commit to honor it by being present to my own longings and intuition, and doing what it tells me to do each day. I tend to leave those sessions feeling humble and grateful, and also supported in a very real way.

Faith is a celebration of life and imagination, the confidence that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, things will work out. I can trust that my trials, challenges, failures and weaknesses are part of a larger pattern that I will understand in time. And even if I never do fully grasp it, as long as I trust my heart, I know I am on the right path.

Read St. Francis’ prayer here.

One thought on “Doubt and faith and nihilism, oh my!

  1. Pingback: Prayer is an expression of reciprocity | Thriving on the Threshold

Leave a Reply