Love and doubt: the central truth of existence

I’ve been working for a long time to arrive at the central truth of my existence.

In search of answers I’ve read extensively the works of mystics, saints, sages and great teachers from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

I’ve read New Age books and talked to psychics and healers.

I’ve studied philosophy in an academic context, and theology in a private one.

I’ve read various texts from psychology and psychotherapy, undergone counselling and hypnosis, examined my quest from the point of view of mental illness and personality disorders.

I’ve tried Yoga, Qigong, martial arts, reiki, and various forms of meditation and prayer.

And through all this I’ve spent more than eighteen years analysing, questioning, struggling and striving, tying myself in knots and trying to untie them again.

What have I learned?

Some parameters

I’ve learned that the pursuit of some truths is unhelpful.

It eventually became clear to me that my path was different from most other people I know. It took longer still for me to stop apologising for this.

Part of me – both for intellectual reasons and for personal ones – has sought to universalise my conclusions. If, for example, I had the thought that “all wealth comes from God”, I would immediately think of counter-examples: drug-dealers, pimps, exploitative corporations and businesses, where clearly people are making money from the exploitation and harm of others.

Is their wealth “from God”?

Well, even asking the question is departing from my original intent. I want to get to the central truth of my existence, not come up with a universalisable moral theology of economics. The counter-examples my mind produces are not a part of my experience. To even consider them in this context is to set up obstacles to what is clearly a more faithful and God-centred view: that all wealth comes from God.

In other words, you can always find excuses to shake your faith and trust in God and in love. You can always find reasons to doubt.

So I took from philosophy a parameter that we could call subjectivism, so long as we don’t get distracted by the broader (and decreasingly relevant) context of that term in philosophy.

Subjectivism in the context of my search for truth means that I am not going to accept at face value the things that are not a part of my experience.

Many bad things happen in the world, don’t they? But in my experience, these global events are just news reports. I’m not looking to call God to account for earthquakes and wars on the other side of the world, I’m looking to call Him to account for my own subjective sense of something wrong in my life, and my experience.

Charity begins at home, or as John Wyclif apparently put it in the 14th Century: Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self.

What I’m looking for is the truth of my existence, and searching for objections in what I have heard from others’ experiences is an unnecessary constraint on finding answers.

Because there are answers I will find that defy the worldly view, and it would be ridiculous to turn to the world to confirm or repudiate answers I’ve sought from God, when the whole point of these answers is that the world could not provide them!

Nothing is impossible for God.

Over time I’ve become aware that my experience is profoundly shaped by my own beliefs, choices, and emotional states. I might be conscious of real, insurmountable limitations and obstacles in the world, and yet those limitations and obstacles have simply evaporated as my belief in them, or my underlying emotional state, has changed.

Like the previous parameter, this often emerges as a conflict between faith and doubt. Love may point in directions that the world or our own experience say is impossible, implausible, or even undesirable. It helps to remember that the limitations and obstacles presented by the world or our past or current experience are at least shaped by, and sometimes wholly constructed from our beliefs and emotions.

This can be as simple as a depressed or anxious person projecting their own negative thoughts onto others, and anticipating social rejection. Or it can be as profound as admitting that the whole of space and time is known to me only as a series of impressions, and that all existence and all consciousness emanates from, and participates in, the being we call God.

God could repair the world, or end it at any moment. Don’t talk about what is and is not possible based on the limitations of your own experience, when our own existence is barely distinguishable from a dream.

Love makes room for itself.

The obstacles and limitations that present themselves in the face of love are not substantial. They subsist foremost in our own doubts and fears, and the corresponding beliefs. They are only as consequential as we allow them to be.

Hence we can choose love over doubt, trusting that the conditions that seem to validate doubt will disappear or be resolved or somehow overcome through love itself.

Otherwise we are caught in an absurd situation, with love or hope that can’t be reconciled with “the world” or our own experience, precisely when what we yearn for, and what brings us true fulfillment, must necessarily repudiate the limitations and obstacles coming from the world.

So with all these parameters in mind, I’ve found that my experience of suffering arises because of complex sets of beliefs and emotions in my own mind, which both shape my experience and are reinforced by it.

If I want to know why my experience feels always insufficient for happiness, then I only need to look at the fears, doubts, and sense of insufficiency in myself.

How do I feel about life, about myself, and about the world?

It turns out that my whole psyche is packed full of conflicted and negative beliefs and emotions.

But by tracing those chains of cause-and-effect backwards, I’ve come at last to the fundamental choice from which all the subsequent flawed efforts stem.

The fundamental choice is a choice between love and doubt. I describe it as doubt rather than fear, because doubt is much more insidious and plausible. Yet doubt originally meant fear or dread anyway. It comes originally from the same root as “two”, and implies duality, double-ness, and the uncertainty evoked by suddenly having two alternatives to consider.

Recapitulating the fall.

Again without seeking a comprehensive theological framework: our original, fundamental choice between love and doubt reflects and recapitulates the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

In essence, human beings were at one with God and in paradise. Yet the serpent tempted them to doubt. 

In Genesis 3, the serpent essentially casts doubt on God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, and defies God’s justification of the command. He presents to Eve, and by proxy to Adam, an alternative option, an option in which God – who is Love itself – has ulterior motives.

And from that moment erupts human suffering with temptation, blame-shifting, and fear dominating the human experience.

This doubt arises in our own lives continually. We have continual opportunities to choose between doubt and love. Yet for most of us the original doubt has grown and developed into a convoluted web of subordinate doubts, fears, temptations, and other psychological maneuvers, all designed to help us avoid, overcome, or shift the suffering that arose from that original doubt.

The original doubt would have been reflected back to us as it shaped our experience. In a vicious circle, our experience would have seemed to vindicate the doubt, in much the same way that a self-conscious, anxious person may act in ways that elicit negative attention from others.

The experience of doubt is painful, since it would have seemed to nullify or render-hollow the prior experience of love, just as the serpent cast doubt on the goodness of God’s motives in commanding the first humans not to touch the tree of knowledge.

To escape this pain, what can we do? Well, we can blame other people for our suffering. Or we can blame ourselves for our suffering. Either option gives us a sense that maybe we can regain the love we lost when we entertained doubt.

But both are false. And both elicit a chain of psychological “moves” that attempt to shift the pain around in the vain hope of eventually removing it.

If you blame yourself for your suffering, then yes you have the hope of changing and redeeming yourself, but you also experience an additional pain of self-blame and recrimination.

And now you must pursue self-improvement and redemption.

It is no coincidence that such a central theme of Christianity is the insufficiency of our efforts to redeem ourselves, and the depiction of Christ’s death on the cross as the one true and eternal sacrifice for our redemption.

I’ve never appreciated the idea that God required a sacrifice, rather it is we who needed to know that our attempts at redemption would never succeed.

We can’t go forward from doubt into love. We need to go back to the original choice, to our own choice and repudiate doubt at the most basic level. That’s why the centrality of God’s love is the most prominent theme in Christianity.

If you choose doubt, no amount of love can overcome it. If you choose love, no trace of doubt can shake you.

Taking what is offered.

Lately I’ve been reading about “acceptance” as a spiritual practice.

To accept means to take what is offered.

Acceptance as a spiritual practice is about taking life as something offered, especially the parts of life we usually reject, deny, ignore, or struggle against.

The Old Testament begins with the story of the origins of human suffering.

In this story, human beings once existed in a world that was entirely good.

Eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil opened the first humans’ eyes to good and evil, ruptured their relationship with God and brought about suffering and death.

The orthodox interpretation is simple: human life and happiness lies in union with God. Yet the first humans ate from the tree against God’s explicit command. Regardless of the precise significance of the tree itself, the act of disobedience was enough to break the relationship with God and introduce suffering and death into human experience.

Obedience comes from the Latin obedire which literally means to listen, or to hear. It is fitting in this context that humanity fell from the paradise of communion with God because they ceased to listen to God and instead sought to be “like God” in their own right, through knowledge of good and evil.

Nor does the story say that they were wrong. They did become “like God”, and their eyes were opened to good and evil.

In our own experience, knowledge of good and evil doesn’t refer to an objective, theoretical understanding, but to an immediate, practical and subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. We see the world in terms of our own personal profit and loss.

One interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ is as the ultimate sign of how we can return to paradise – through a reversal of the fall.

The crucifixion that formed the central motif of Christianity for millennia denotes an act of faithful acceptance of suffering and death in direct opposition to the knowledge of good and evil that otherwise rules our lives.

In anticipation of his death, Christ’s words encapsulate the answer to the fall:

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Christ’s crucifixion and death is presented as the ultimate atonement on behalf of all humanity. Atone is a contraction of “at one”, its literal meaning is the same as union or communion.

The union of God and humanity was broken by the human pursuit of knowledge of good and evil. The path to re-union is indicated by Christ’s acceptance of God’s will for him. As the quotation above demonstrates, the answer to the fall is to accept God’s will in spite of our sorrow and suffering. Knowledge of good and evil is thus not extinguished or abandoned. It is still there, just as the tree of knowledge stood in the garden both before the fall and after. But putting the will of God ahead of the knowledge of good and evil means we no longer eat the fruit of that tree.

The way of the cross is the return to paradise, as Genesis tells us:

“at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way to paradise is guarded by a flaming sword, just as the way to eternal life is found through death on a cross. The way to the tree of life looks like death. In losing our life, we save it. We can’t return to the garden without passing through the fire.

What does all of this have to do with acceptance?

Acceptance means to willingly take what is offered, and if we apply it to the sufferings and struggles in life it implies not only that we willingly take them, but that we regard them as something offered.

Eden is not a literal garden; the paradise consists in union with God. This union cannot be attained if we adhere to our own subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. Acceptance of the life we are given does not mean pretending that everything is good. It means that we align our will with something greater than our own sense of good and evil, profit and loss.

That is the choice before us. If we adhere to our sense of good and evil we will continue to pursue a self-interest dictated by fear and desire, struggling against the reality before us. If we accept reality in spite of our fears and desires, then we are accepting the life that is offered us right now by God.

Maybe your first thought is “well God can keep that reality, I don’t want it”. But that’s pretty much the point here. Acceptance is a different state from our usual play of good and evil.

If you think it would be pretty bad to accept parts of your reality, then you’re operating from the knowledge of good and evil. If you think you can try accepting this bad reality just to see if it changes into a good reality, then you’re still operating from the knowledge of good and evil.

That’s why accepting reality is so hard. It’s hard because it transcends our usual measures of good and evil. It takes us to a place we almost never visit, a place where we are no longer ruled and burdened by obsessive self-interest.

But let me tell you again that it is hard. Really, really hard.