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14: Wisdom of the Skeptic

June 16, 2011

Perhaps California above all can appreciate that assertion of the French-born monk Thomas Merton who claimed that “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.”  Flannery O’Connor also reminded us that to cultivate skepticism is something akin to a sacred obligation, for without such a virtue we stop asking questions.  Amidst whatever varied flavors of brainwash are in vogue, skepticism “will keep you free—not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.”

But skepticism, as one writer put it, “is more like an interval than a state of being, which faith can be.”  A wise skepticism will need, at some point then, also to question itself.  That is, it becomes okay, too, to doubt our doubts, for underneath doubt always lies some sort of trust in something or someone, even if the trust be as paltry as merely oneself.

Consequently, the skeptic may be our ally, helping us unearth the self-justifying claims of self-vaunting Pharoahs or self-appointed Messiahs.  The skeptic may help us disarm both the Napoleons and the Oppenheimers.  Or the skeptic may allow us to ward off the amorous advances of both Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive.

And finally, the skeptic may also remind us to be skeptical of ourselves, aware that even our finest intentions become adulterated with ambition and self-seeking.  Sometimes our questions may arise from honest doubt, and other times our skepticism may arise from desires gone astray.  So questioning ourselves will keep us honest:  to admit that more often than not, our efforts at love are mottled, our desires to live well are sullied, and even our hallelujahs are broken.