Doubt is the motor of the modern mentality, the indefatigable engine that drives the spirit of our age. Such doubt was honored with an early recognition in the essays of the Renaissance courtier Michel de Montaigne: “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the result that we do not believe what we believe, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”
During Montaigne’s time, religious wars of unbearable cruelty rent Europe. The absolute certainty of the raging antagonists began to taint conviction itself with bad odor. But Montaigne saw deeper. He descried the doubleness within the very certitude of the religious partisans. He recognized their zeal as a kind of cover up, overcompensation for a hidden, an unacknowledged, lack of faith: “We do not believe what we believe.”
In modern times, disbelief has so far entered into the essence of our existence, that both faithlessness and faith have become fundamentally two varieties of faithlessness.
It is the secret unbelief of true believers that energizes the armies of the night in Mathew Arnold’s poem of 1867:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Others, of course, celebrated unbelief—it bestows liberation—and proselytized it. Leave it to Friedrich Nietzsche to push it as a jagged little pill: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” (Aphorism 483, Human, All Too Human: 1878 )
So it happened that, as a child of the times, and all too human, I swallowed the pill. I served at the altar of doubt. Unbelief became my credo.
It took half a dozen years in academia for me to recognize that unbelief—skepticism, relativism, nihilism—had itself become dogma. Departments of religion were pledging themselves en masse to the hermeneutics of suspicion. To confess any conviction other than mistrust of all convictions was to court anathema.
All joined in choir to hymn unwavering faith in faithlessness. This dogmatism began to rankle me. Something was wrong. I brooded, irritably.
And then, my breakthrough: We doubters were failing at doubt. We had failed to take our doubt far enough. If we are going to be thoroughly skeptical, then we must be also skeptical about our own skepticism. If all things are relative, then so must be our relativism itself.
I stated my case at an informal religion department gathering.
“You must feel like you’re walking a tightrope over an abyss,” responded a fellow grad student, only recently a nun.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure there’s a rope either,” I said. Everyone laughed.
Let us be bold enough to remove the very ground we stand on and miraculously levitate on nothing.
And so we come full circle. Doubting our own doubting, we find a surprise awaiting us: a tiny crack opens for the possibility of faith.
Just the possibility. Even less—just the openness to the possibility.
This turns out to be a crack even God can squeeze through.
One thing led to another. Several years after the manifestation of the crack, I joined—to my permanent amazement—a high-demand “organized religion.” A religion committed to preaching. Labeled by one academic as “evangelical Hinduism.” (For a systematically misleading expression, this is spot on.)
Then came a time, fifteen or twenty years later, that I realized that I was utterly and completely certain that, as they say, “God exists.” (For a systematically misleading expression, this is spot on.) I did not merely hold that a feasible case for divine existence could be made, that “God exists” can be reasonably affirmed, that the assertion is true with (of course) the possibility that it just might be false. Not at all. I was absolutely, totally certain.
This upset me.
I’m still a modern person. I assailed my own conviction: How could I be so sure? What right did I have to be so certain? How was it possible? How was I entitled to such a degree of certitude? What was wrong with me?
I attacked my own faith, and it repelled my assaults. I couldn’t shake it. It was as if it were simply there of its own accord, an irrevocable fact; it really didn’t depend upon me.
I put the matter before some judicious devotees. “It’s Kṛṣṇa’s causeless mercy,” said one. “It’s a gift,” said another. A Ph.D. who once taught Christian theology to divinity students, she cited the distinction between certainty and certitude.
These conversations relieved me of my anxiety and allowed me to accept the gift wholeheartedly.
Yet—not to look the gift horse in the mouth—I found myself still impelled to understand better what I had been given.
I began my inquiry with this question: Is there anything at all that every person can be absolutely certain of? The question, of course, summoned me back to the origins of modernity, to the very “father of modern philosophy,” Rene Descartes, who turned Montaigne’s doubt into a methodology. Sweeping away, in his Discourse on Method, everything dubitable, he was left with only his own indubitable existence as a cognizant being. He could doubt everything except that he was doubting. Cogito, ergo sum, he famously wrote: “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes explained that by “thought” he meant “what happens in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it.” His own existence as a conscious subject was absolutely certain.
Here I got my own clue and cue: Start, like Descartes, with myself.
But in this, it seemed to me, I was able to be more clear that Descartes. To “start with myself” means, to be precise, to start with ātman, the conscious self.
Continued Next Week…