Jun 7, 2010

Had a great time at the Christian's Scholars Conference. A highlight was going to a performance of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt: A Parable (the play which was subsequently directed by Shanley in the 2008 film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman). On Thursday night Shanley attended the show and participated in a delightful talkback.

The entire play is packed, almost line by line, with theological, moral, social, and epistemological insight. One of the most powerful theological moments in the play is the opening sermon delivered by Father Flynn, a sermon that sets the tone for the entire play:

What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. You look for God’s direction and can’t find it. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation. Despair. “What now? Which way? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself?” It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow beings was your despair. It was a public experience, shared by everyone in our society. It was awful, but we were in it together! How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity? “No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong.” Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On the one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people. On the other side: you. Something has happened, you have to carry it, and it’s incommunicable. For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: “Help me!” What if no answer comes? Silence. I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank and all her crew was drowned. Only this one sailor survived. He made a raft of some spars and, being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and, exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky. For the next twenty nights, as he floated on the vast ocean, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course by there was no way to be certain. As the days rolled on, and he wasted away with fevers, thirst and starvation, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations—had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen Truth once, and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? This was his dilemma on a voyage without apparent end. There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I saw the movie I spent most of my time thinking about religious doubt. But having seen the play and listening to Shanley in the talkback it began to dawn on me that Shanley is thinking about doubt in much broader terms. Yes, religious doubt is a part of all this, but the opening question of Doubt--What do you do when you are not sure?--is much broader. It's a question less about how we live with God than about how we are to live with each other. Because the main issue in the play is less about doubting God than about doubting the goodness of other people. In addition, consider Shanley's introduction to the play where he suggests that self-doubt is critical to growth and maturity:
There's a symptom apparent in America right now. It's evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion...

We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it's because, deep down under the chatter, we have come to a place where we know that we don't know ... anything. But nobody's willing to say that...

What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There's the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who's your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is Doubt, so often experienced initially as weakness, that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he's on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake. Like you've gone the wrong way and you're lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present...

There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time.



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