Doubt, Faith, and Certainty comprise a triad of attitudes toward knowledge which lie on a spectrum. Not only do they differ in attitude, but there are degrees of which they are present. There are some things we can be absolutely certain of such as ‘whatever death looks like from the outside, what I’ve seen of it, it will surely happen to me’. There are other statements that we often say we’re certain of, but in attitude we always keep an open mind to being wrong such as ‘I’m going to heaven’. In a spiritual practice, we come up to these three attitudes often, and the path often looks very different depending on which are present.
The most potent of the three, doubt, only takes one tiny drop to undermine the entire show. Now this is actually a great thing. A majority of people would say they don’t enjoy being lied to. Doubt is useful in that it is at times the voice that encourages us to look deeper to see when we are lying to ourselves. We can be pretty hard headed, and our belief systems typically do not take kindly to adversary. Luckily doubt is such an adversary, but is only enemy to a false image and comes from within. Doubt has gotten a undeserved bad reputation over time. We’re told “We shouldn’t doubt what comes from the pulpit,” and what we’ll learn is that the doubt never really goes away until we answer for it. So if you do doubt something, give yourself the opportunity to look into it. Not honoring an instinctual notion is typically not a great idea.
Faith is different depending on whether it was given to you or it is your own. For the first, the best example is of youth. Children who grow up within the church are told of the religious duty to believe. Eternal life depends on whether or not you believe and a lack of faith makes a bad Christian. If your faith waivers it is seen as representative of your shortcoming rather than religion’s. This lack of faith is usually a result of the aforementioned doubt which unfortunately may even be personified as the devil himself. This kind of faith is very ‘heady’ or of the mind in that it is attached to ideas. If those ideas are cast into doubt then there is a lack of faith. The phrase ‘you have to believe it to see it’ is one which clearly illustrates this point. As if any God other than a false one needs your personal belief to exist.
The second kind of faith comes from within and is unique in that nobody can give it to you. It is of itself. In a way it is a scar leftover, or a badge earned from a battle within. It is likely where the faith of the youth originated from but was received in second-hand. As we’re all people, i’m sure we’ve come across obstacles in life, some which may have been easier not to overcome. Whether it be addiction, dysphoria, depression, or you name it, for some reason we moved on anyway. We weren’t certain, but were open to the idea that there may be better. Maybe you’re going through something like this now, and are in the thick of it and doubt the entire greener side. But why go on? Regardless, eventually there’s an internal bottoming out. In Alcoholics Anonymous we ‘hit rock-bottom’, and its rightfully seen as a pivotal moment. The worst we have been through has happened, there’s absolutely no reason to get up, yet we do. This faith is closer to the heart or gut, we don’t know why we keep going, but for some reason we feel there’s more.
Now this second kind of faith does not absolutely need a terrible experience to be induced. That’s where the doubt comes in as a protagonist rather than an enemy. If there is a structure in the mind which is cast into doubt and does not hold up to the test, we’re left surrounded by mental rubble. It may not seem like much in writing, but in practice it can be disorienting. What’s important is that we don’t hurry off to build a new house for the sake of having furniture, or call a friend to see if they can resuscitate our previous system. In this rubble is the real thing, the juice of it all, and it’s simply been ignored. It is of no coincidence the greatest spiritual leaders underwent a time of paramount solidarity, a walk in the desert. It very well may be true when they say that we don’t have to, but it means nothing at all to us if we don’t know why.
This walk leads us into certainty, and not the kind of logical certainty philosophers talk about to appease to the scientists. There is no argument to be had here, primarily because it’s been solved and there’s no need. What originally begins as a flicker of doubt sets ablaze everything we thought we knew. Previously we thought we were certain about many ideas. They turned out to not be necessarily so, only potentially, or not at all. The first type of certainty is most relatable to our idea of the ‘false sense of security’. The picket sign holders on campuses and streets across the country warning ‘sinners’ of hell, we can agree that they in fact think they’re certain. We don’t take them seriously though, and a gut feeling they’re innocently confused about something is natural.
The optimal certainty on the path is acknowledgement of that which survives doubt unscathed. That which is whether you believe in it or deny it exists. You simply can’t get rid of it even if you try, it survives everything in life, even when you wish it didn’t. What at once was overlooked and searched for, winds up to be all that was ever really there, only at times taken to be veiled. There’s no explanation for what or how it is. All that is required for certainty is simply knowing ‘that’ it is.