Mayfield: Room for doubt in religious belief |

Mayfield: Room for doubt in religious belief

Rich Mayfield
Vail CO, Colorado

I’ve always been something of a cynic. It is a most employable asset, I’ve found, when dealing with the vagaries of the human condition. Certainty, be it found in religious convictions, political rhetoric or simple relationships, is almost certain to cause havoc.

I was reminded of certainty’s dangers this week while touring a Hindu monastery on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai. The monastery is being built to provide a spiritual home to the resident monks of the island who have developed a reputation for community service and committed hospitality. My tour guide was not a monk, however, but a dedicated Hindu believer who was kind enough to show us around the fascinating temple in the jungle.

My fascination took on a slightly harder edge as my guide began to describe with unmitigated conviction her version of the ultimate truths of the universe. With nary a moment’s hesitation for self-reflection, the guide sought to take me well beyond the monastery grounds and into an entirely different reality filled with elaborate and intricately detailed descriptions of life in the great beyond. No reservations for her, only a certainty about the mysteries of the cosmos that seemed to satisfy completely for her even a hint of troubling theological conundrums.

As kind and gracious as my guide was I was more than a little troubled with her utter absence of any equivocation about her beliefs! Such certainty, even when it comes in such a charming manner and place leaves me uneasy. Doubt, be it Hindu or Christian, Baptist or Buddhist is, at least for me, an admirable attribute that provides opportunity for true spiritual growth.

“True believers” have been the cause of untold suffering over the ages. Folk who find in their limited experience and knowledge all the answers to the myriad of life’s mysteries often are tempted to demand such certainty from others. A movie star unblinkingly boasting that his religion is superior to all others or a televangelist demanding most of your money and all of your mind are frighteningly close to the deranged dictator whose call for submission is refused at great peril.

When we hear politicians speak the language of “true belief” we should sit up and take notice. “You are either with us or against us” is the kind of declaration that precludes doubt among the disciples. It doesn’t take more than a brief look at the headlines to see the ramifications of such self-assured rhetoric. Saber-rattling over Iran, tribal slaughter in Kenya, renewed religious hatred in Serbia, all come from the same true-believing source.

Evidence for the True Believer’s destructive power needn’t be limited to nations or cultures. Probably most of us can think of some friend or family member causing all kinds of havoc by the insistence of similar certainties. I know of many families that have faced painful fracturing caused by the religious or political rigidity of one unmoveable member. The ability to view life from varying perspectives can be a healing bridge not just between families but nations and cultures as well.

Many years ago, two similarly attired young men appeared at my door and pleasantly inquired as to my religious beliefs. Recognizing the need to follow my own advice, I invited them in. As we spoke it became clear to all three of us that no one was about to change the convictions of any other right then so we relaxed and moved our conversation beyond our religious differences. While we spoke, one of the young men picked up the Lutheran hymnal I kept on my desk. In the midst of our now pleasant chatter he exclaimed, “Why you sing ‘A Mighty Fortress’, too!” The fact that this particular hymn was written nearly 500 years before by Martin Luther himself and long before the young men’s religion even came into being was apparently unknown to these bicycling missionaries. Their eyes grew wide with this new revelation and together we laughed over our newly discovered bond. Certainty, religious and otherwise, prevents us from realizing that we are more alike than different.

One of the hallmarks of a healthy culture, at least in my mind, is a willingness, even eagerness, to embrace other avenues for enrichment beyond our own parochial prejudices.

Such openness demands a relinquishing of certainty but rewards with the hope of a peaceful future.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to

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