no plateaus here | the artist and doubt

“To believe with certainty, somebody said, one has to begin by doubting.”

I remember vividly the sensation brought by reading that quote – of being both jarred and strangely comforted. I had been reading Shelden Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” drawn into a world where a poetic mind spoke honestly about darkness, death, loss, love, and the harshness of divine mercy. The book was stunning (read it, if you haven’t), but the quote itself started me off on a long line of inquiry that is still being directed and rephrased and remade.

What is the place of doubt in the Christian heart and experience? More pertinently to us, what is the place of doubt in the life of the Christian artist?

Living in the question

As artists, we question. Mostly “why” laced with “who” and including the odd “what,” our work constantly illustrates what we cannot rectify. It was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.” Dance, visual art, drama, writing, music, et cetera, often seeks to show either a picture of what is, or an idea of what could be (sometimes including the horrific alongside the hopeful). As Christians, it’s particularly illustrative of our belief and of our struggle within those beliefs.

I’m thankful that we are slowly coming to a place in the Body of Christ where the idea of Christian doubt is less and less the colloquial boogeyman. The Psalmist came to God with stronger suspicion and angst than anyone I know, and he got in the Bible for it. Even Christ never condemned a man for his doubt – He condemns him for his unbelief. Our incertitude often flows out of a deep, honest desire to trust, but a desire who’s answers have been found wanting, for one reason or another. In truth, Christ is the only One able to answer our qualms – even though He often doesn’t answer in the way we’d like (but all that’s another post for another day…).

If we refuse to acknowledge doubt, much less battle in it, we risk the falsehood of blind security. We look for the place where we (in our current frustrated and imperfect state) could become “enlightened;” where we have at last reached a full understanding of the things we had, until now, not satisfactorily mastered. Where we don’t need to investigate because we finally “get” it all.

It took until my fourth year at Moody Bible Institute to understand that I was seeking for just such a plateau. During my Systematic Theology class, some lecture or conversation or reading (I don’t remember which) stirred in my mind the understanding of looking for perfection. A place where one comes to the end of works well-done, where there need to be no more effort; “heaven” in the most boring sense of the word.

It’s appalling, actually. Here I was, sitting quietly in my seat, unknowingly convinced that all the grace and freedom I talked about was underlined with the firm belief that you can work yourself to a place where there will be no more conflict, disquiet, or effort. That you can perform your “works” so well that you make it to the absence of strife.

Besides that being an obvious theological mistake, it’s also a robbing of our joy through enrichment. In this life, we have messy things that constantly tug at us – relationships, ideologies, historical events, sins, convictions; contention in one thing or another. In bumping up against all that, somehow, we are made to mature.

Living in the mystery

While the absence of interactive relationship would mean a lessening of conflict, it would not result in peace. As human beings, we continue to find the qualms – even without the other bodies and souls who make it that much more evident. Running from times of uncertainty, however, will not ward them away. The vacancy of growth is death.

When we refuse to embrace the uncomfortable rub (within or without), the only alternative is stagnation and the extinction of our art. Without questioning, we cannot make art, and in order to query, we must admit there is much we do not know, even cannot know. The presence of the incomprehensible is essential. Paradox is a constant throughout our Christian faith; our spirituality is rife with reality that we cannot, in any way, satisfactorily answer. Trinity, sovereignty, union, sacrament, eternity – all of these are theological language for “you won’t understand it, so keep believing and enjoying it.” It’s crazy – something we artists should know plenty about.

Living in the mess

Let me take a moment to say that, in its essence, our doubt and our art are meant to be experienced in community. I know it’s at risk of becoming a buzzword for our generation, but community is an essential part of the struggle and gritty progress through contention. If you live in conflict while alone, it’s dissociative to your being. You split against yourself and have nothing to patch the hole.

In community, you experience the peeved reality of others’ quirks and questions, their idiosyncrasies and annoying bits. Those people are often the source of collision as well as the cushion for the blow. Thank God it is a mess and will not leave you the same as when you came.

Donald Miller says this in his book “Blue Like Jazz” (which, incidentally, has a lot of marvelous things to say about paradox, belief and distrust): “When you live on your own for a long time… your personality changes…There is an entire world inside yourself, and if you let yourself, you can get so deep inside it you will forget the way to the surface. Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body.”

In His sovereignty, the God we love and serve helps our finite minds haggle and fail in our pursuit of truth. G.K. Chesterton said “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” As artists, especially as Christian creators, we should (we must) live in the world of growth – in the fracas-ridden ground of suspense and uncertainty. Not always uncertain, but embracing the paradox in our faith and the strength of our God, especially in our times of doubt.

I encourage you to let the tears and the confusions lead you to questions – ask, read, talk, pray. Realize that you are growing and will continue to mature to the tune of impossibilities. Be honest, and let those things fuel you onward.


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