Doubt as a seed, a story worth retelling

Kathleen Norris tells of a long intellectual battle against the faith of her childhood, finding it impossible for a time to swallow much of Christian doctrine. Later, experiencing problems in her personal life, she felt drawn to a Benedictine abbey where, to her surprise, the monks seemed unconcerned about her weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations. “I was a bit disappointed,” she writes. “I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused and intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.” Rather than address her doubts one by one, the monks instead instructed her in worship and liturgy.

-Philip Yancy, Reaching for the Invisible God, P. 219

Two things to mention here:

First, you’ve probably heard the phrase “seeds of doubt”. As in “Her friend’s gossip, though she brushed it off initially, planted seeds of doubt in her mind concerning the fidelity of her new boyfriend.” I find the notion described above by the monk to be fascinating and encouraging. A doubt we have may in fact be a seed of faith, ready to grow. This assumes that we come to God as sinners, unbelieving, looking up, wanting to believe. This, in contrast to the idea of being His people and our doubts being something that drag us down and make us fall away from the faith and prevent us from sustaining devotion on our own. I think I like the first idea better!

Secondly, citing the source of this idea presents an obvious problem. Some old and wise man of the Benedictine order taught his novices this encouragement of “doubt being a seed”. A monk down the line passed this on to Kathleen Norris (a poet and novelist I’m not really familiar with). She wrote it down in a book somewhere and it was recounted by Philip Yancy in one of his works.

I think Yancy has largely made a writing career out of compiling pertinent excerpts from other’s writing and then sprinkling in a little bit of his own commentary. There are lots of good one liners and illustrations, but ultimately not much is added to our collective body of literature and understanding. A lot of academic research can end up looking like this too! When your primary motivation for writing a thesis is to gain tenure at your institution, why not just recycle and repackage ideas? It may still take quite a bit of effort to produce, but there is no risk and little burden to be creative. Digging deep into original sources and experiences can be a lot of work with little to offer the casual reader.

Nevertheless, I guess I’ll appreciate Yancy (and other folks like him) for what they doing anyway.