Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #29 – The Marriage of Faith and Doubt

July 16th, 2018

Faith is good. Doubt is bad. Not so quick; they are not enemies. Both faith and doubt have a common goal—to help us understand things further.


First, faith. In his essay “The Will to Believe”, Williams James[1] gives a very practical example of how faith is essential for knowledge: If a man wants to know if a woman loves him, he first has to have the faith that she does. If he sat around waiting for her to express her love first, he may lose out on the opportunity to discover and understand the love that was there.


The general point he makes is that in many instances of practical importance without faith or initial trust we cannot fully realize what we suspect may be true. We must rely on individuals or traditions of thought that educate us about a world beyond our experience. This involves trust. Without such faith we are restricted in the expanse of our knowledge to our present and limited frame of reference. Almost by definition the knowledge we are seeking is beyond our present purview and requires faith in its pursuit, otherwise why would we need to learn something in the first place? If we think of anything we want to learn, from music and science to spiritual subjects, it should become obvious how much faith in an authority, a person who knows and sees what we don’t, accelerates our learning. In many ways, therefore, faith is a precursor of knowledge.


It is important to note that such faith doesn’t mean blind acceptance. Faith means trust by evidence. For example, it is very reasonable for a young man to faithfully accept his father’s words on trust if through the years that relationship has proven to be one of affection and wisdom, or to trust the directions of a doctor who has demonstrated himself as a medical authority by repeatedly curing his patients. It is likewise reasonable for a student to trust her professor’s claims about her field if the professor is a reputable authority in an established tradition. Faith thus means to reasonably accept something beyond our current state of knowledge.


It is commonplace in Indian thought that philosophical reflection begins with doubt. In fact, according to Lord Kapiladeva, doubt is one the five attributes of intelligence.[2] But how does doubt help us understand things given the role of trust in knowing as discussed above? The dichotomy is resolved when we clarify how the faculty of doubt is used. If it is used to reject a legitimate authority, it is then opposed to faith; but if it is used to find a genuine authority, or to clarify from him or her what we don’t understand, it is the partner of faith.


In fact, in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.12 Sūta Gosvāmī describes the necessity for this type of doubt specifically to explain the method to understand tattva, or truth. Two qualities are delineated: faithfulness and thoughtfulness (or doubt). If one is not faithful, then one’s knowledge is limited to one’s present understanding. And if one is not thoughtful, it is mired to one’s inadequate grasp of what one has faithfully heard. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī quotes a relevant reference in his commentary on this verse to validate this claim:


“Lord Brahma heard the Vedas three times from Lord Krishna before he concluded that the essence of religion is devotional service.” (Bhag. 2.2.34)


In elaborating on this reference Śrī Jīva explains that the first time Lord Brahma heard the Vedas, which to a large degree promotes ritualistic activities, he heard the essence of the Vedas as karma, but doubted how that could be true. Krishna thus explained the Vedas a second time. He listened carefully again, this time noting the Upaniṣadic sections, and concluded that the essence of religion was jñāna, analytic knowledge and renunciation. He doubted once again that he had understood the text properly. Krishna therefore explained the Vedas a third time and he finally understood that the essence of the Vedas was bhakti.


Śrī Jīva comments in this regard that if a disciple is not similarly thoughtful and doesn’t raise his doubts to his spiritual master for clarification, he will surely mistake devotional service for either karma or jñāna. Almost all major Vaiṣṇava texts, like Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, are therefore recorded dialectics, or in other words discussions between teachers and students where the doubts of the students are cleared.


Faith is glorious, but doubt is not the enemy. Thoughtlessness is, whether it be fanatical faith or skeptical rejection of reasonable faith.



[1] Renowned American philosopher and psychologist (1842-1910), who wrote various classics including The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

[2] Bhag. 3.26.30



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