This is a guest sermon I was invited to give at a Presbyterian church in September 2013.
“In Praise of Doubt” By Rabbi Maurice Harris
University Sunday – September 29, 2013
Central Presbyterian Church (Eugene, OR)
Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you during University Sunday. Rev. Bostwick told me that one of the purposes of University Sunday is to explore the connections between church and academic disciplines, and to demonstrate this church’s commitment to creating the kind of spiritual community that welcomes all questions and invites critical thinking skills into religious life. Actually, what he said was more like, “Maurice – your job is to convince the university crowd that they can feel at home here. You must accomplish this task in one sermon. No pressure though.” . . . It’s possible that I’m remembering our conversation a little wrong.
The point here is that clergy like Rev. Bostwick and me – who welcome the questioning mind, who regard doubt as a healthy part of spiritual seeking – we sometimes struggle to get the word out that there is such a thing as non-dogmatic, intellectually honest, open-minded religious life. That there are places where people can come for prayer, song, community, social action, and yes, tradition too, and together explore how to form a plausible faith in a desperately uncertain world. That is the kind of religious life that synagogues like the one I served for eight years, Temple Beth Israel, and churches like this one seek to cultivate.
This talk is called “In Praise of Doubt,” so let me get to the heart of it. The Reverend Val Webb is an Australian Christian theologian and writer who writes about the spiritual value of doubt. She’s the author of one of my favorite books, In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure. Webb describes a healthy religious community as one that turns to its sacred texts, traditions, and customs for deep guidance, but that also allows room for the open expression of doubt and the possibility of change, especially in response to new knowledge about the world or the insights of human experience. She writes, “…questions of human experience cannot be silenced by the loudness of authoritative doctrinal interpretation.”
Webb describes two kinds of congregations – those that are inhospitable to doubt, and those that welcome doubt as part of the spiritual adventure. She describes doubt as not only spiritually necessary, but also as inevitable. She critiques religious communities that treat doubt as a demonic influence, and she argues that there’s a falseness to responding to healthy doubt by telling worshippers to repeatedly affirm the officially sanctioned set of beliefs until the doubts are driven out. Continue reading “In Praise of Doubt – Guest Sermon at Central Presbyterian Church – Eugene, OR”