Mystery & Doubt. Reflections by Horizons Fellow Ben Noble '18

“No one gets a 100 on the quiz. No one.”

I sank back into a chair in my advisor’s office on a Thursday afternoon during my Third Year. “No one gets a 100 on the quiz.” My advisor’s words echoed in my mind and hit like a truck. Still, I knew that they were true. He and I had been discussing religion, death, the afterlife—light conversation for a late-August day.

Over the past year, I had been trying to make sense of a faith that no longer felt feasible to me. The months leading up to that conversation with my advisor had been characterized by struggle and skepticism. I had quit going to church. I had stopped praying. I had put Henri Nouwen on the bookshelf and picked up Christopher Hitchens instead.

Retrospectively, a lot of my doubt was born out of emotional resentment. At the time, I felt like I had been hurt by Christians. In response, I nurtured animosity towards the Church, and, over time, towards God. However, unresolved bitterness and anger eventually turned into intellectual doubt. I transitioned from being angry with God to questioning whether God was even real.

How could I know, with assurance, that the Bible and all the stuff it said about God and humanity and history and morality were undeniably true? Moreover, was it worth following even if it was true?

Having sat on these thoughts for some time, there was a brief period during the summer before my Third Year when I considered myself an atheist. I thought that giving up on belief would make me feel free—free from resentment, free from ignorance, free from God. However, rather than feeling free, I felt an internal emptiness instead. Life felt grey and dull. I felt alone, too—more alone than I had ever felt.

Fast-forward a few months.

Time passed and I eventually came around to being open to faith again—though not without some low points and a substantial amount of existential anxiety. Still, even though I was open to belief, I couldn’t shake my feelings of uncertainty and I didn’t have a strong sense of confidence about any particular belief. Despite my doubt, I wanted desperately to trust in something again.

I walked into my advisor’s office on that day hoping that he would speak some magical words that would inspire me and give me a sense of hope once more. I walked out feeling neither a greater sense of clarity nor a renewed hope.

So what’s happened since the day that I left that office?

Although I would like to say that a couple weeks passed by and then, out of no where, God arrived on a white horse and I had a profound moment of conversion where my doubt was put to rest and my faith restored, I can’t say with any honesty that that was the case. Nearly a year and a half has elapsed since that meeting with my advisor and I still have yet to experience that “Eureka!” moment where everything is reinstated as it once was.

A lot has changed for me since then. The time in between has brought new hopes, more doubts, fresh experiences, moments of deep sadness, and moments of unparalleled beauty. Still, God has yet to ride in on a white horse and answer every single one of my questions. Maybe He will, some day, but I’m not so sure that it’s a safe bet.

God didn’t show up in the way that I was hoping, but despite this, I have found God in ways that are deeper and richer than I could ever have imagined on that day in August 2016. The ways in which I experience God are nuanced and unique and everywhere. I see God in a poem or song, from time to time. I see God in a Sunday drive through the Blue Ridge. I experience God when I have a really rich, deep conversation with a friend over a cigarette (Sorry Mom!) Most of all, however, I experience the reality of God through others. The moments when I see and experience the way that people truly love and care for each other and for me are the moments when I’m convinced, beyond of shadow of doubt, that God is real and alive and present.

This may sound a bit esoteric. I won’t disagree with that. My times of doubt have created an uncertainty about God in ways that can be frustrating, but the same uncertainty that causes me distress has also made space for me to experience the mystery of God. In many ways, the reality of uncertainty has shown me that my advisor was correct when he said, “No one gets a 100 on a quiz.” At the same time, this uncertainty has made God indefinable and illimitable and has animated life with mystery and excitement in ways that I didn’t think were possible.

In an essay entitled, “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” I used to desire certainty about life. I wanted to have all the answers. I wanted to understand God and, in a way, I wanted to control God. Now, I think about things differently. I’m more at ease with the fact that I won’t ever know and understand everything. Now, I’m invigorated by the fact that God is far beyond my understanding. Rather than seeking to be the master of knowledge and truth, I tend to think of a life lived well as, like Emerson writes, “an apprenticeship to the truth.”

Each day brings with it the possibility of seeing the world and experiencing God in myriad ways that are new and fresh and exhilarating. Of course, this brings the possibility that yesterday’s way of understanding may require reconsideration and perhaps abandonment. In my experience, the “apprenticeship to truth” often entails a constant expansion and reconsideration of what I considered true one year ago or last week or even yesterday. I’m not going to suggest that this pursuit of truth doesn’t pose the possibility of anxiety and doubt and despair—that’s an inherent risk. Uncertainty is scary and there often isn’t an easy solution to dealing with it. However, despite the uncertainty and fear that the journey towards truth may bring, I am convinced whole-heartedly that the journey is vitally and comprehensively worthwhile. At the end of the day, what I think makes this way of navigating life invaluable is that it creates an opportunity for growth—personal growth, intellectual growth, and spiritual growth.

To me, for the time being, this is far better than getting a 100 on the quiz.