It is a commonplace in Zen that three things are necessary for liberation. If you want to wake up from the slumber of self-absorption, if you want to live your life outside the suffocating confines of that mason jar that is your own head, you need (1) great faith, (2) great doubt, and (3) great effort.
As Mormons, we’re famous for valorizing the third. We’re also often good at promoting the first. But when was the last time you heard a talk extolling the need to cultivate great doubt?
The Zen masters were likely right to see all three as essential. It is not enough to trust and build. Ground must also be cleared.
In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer makes a similar point in relation to reading scripture:
We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, “merely” poetic. We then try to discover the propositional content (doctrine) that we assume is lurking behind or implicit in those poorly expressed or poetic expressions and to disentangle the relations of those propositions. (63)
In short, we try to cheat and take the scriptures simply as an object of faith or a guide to effort.
But that approach misunderstands scripture. Instead of a poetic expression of implicit propositional truths, it is an inspired resource that allows us to question ourselves and our world through reading and reflection. (63)
Sometimes scripture answers our questions. But – perhaps more often and more powerfully – it questions our answers.
Scripture comes to us as a call, as a call to repent, to rethink, to turn around, to be different, to respond. It comes not simply as an answer, but as a question. In particular, it comes as a question that calls me into question.
Scripture fills me with doubt. Not banal religious doubt about the existence of God or the appearance of angels, but real religious doubt – doubt about me, about my actions, about their justification, about my grasp of the world, about my adequacy and sufficiency, about my comfort and my consumption, about my faithfulness or lack thereof. This great doubt pulls my self-understanding up by the roots and, with a wild swing, shakes loose the dirt.
To survive (and even thrive) in the face of these doubts, you must have both great faith and great effort. In fact, you must have great faith in the very call that thrusts you into doubt.
It is scary.
You will have hold to that rod with which you’ve been struck. You will have to press forward, with great effort and in great faith. You will have to shed the skin of what you thought you were and what you thought you knew. You will have to unscrew that hermetic mason jar from off your head and, for once, breath in God’s green air.
The scriptures are a crow bar: a tool meant not just to hammer us home but – just as surely – to pry us loose.
You must work and trust. But don’t forget to doubt.
[Picture: Hakuin Ekaku’s “Two Blind Men on a Bridge”]