The Art of Doubt
I didn’t lose my faith in God. I felt like it had been taken from me.
The summer after I graduated from college, I lived in a community with several other recent grads and families. One of the couples who started the community was this brilliant creative power couple, reminiscent of Charles and Ray Eames. They painted, gardened, designed with textiles, and did theater. Some twenty years back, they began transforming the suburban house we lived in into a spiritual sanctuary, with thick rugs, ceiling high paintings, and a lush garden all throughout the front and back yards.
Tending the garden and composting was one task on our list of chores for household upkeep. We used three different bins to compost. The first was where we stashed all the “new” stuff, like coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, banana peels, and yard waste.
After spraying it with water and letting it sit, we would turn over the first pile and move it to the second bin. That’s where the magic happened. In the second bin, the compost could aerate and start decomposing. Opening up the lid after a while would reveal worms, beetles, and silverfish busy at work breaking everything down. Then, after moving the pile into the third bin, you’d start the whole process over.
Around the same time I was living in that community, my religious faith started decomposing too. My parents are Christian missionaries, and I’d grown up with certain teachings about what the Bible was, stories about who God was, and specific instructions for what it meant to live a good life.
Like many do while attending college, I began to ask questions, unpacking the worldview I was handed. An integral part of my faith had always been seeking out truth. When I started spotting some loose threads in the “Team Christian” jersey, the natural thing to do, it seemed, was to pull at them.
It began at a summer camp, where I was counselor. High schoolers brought me their concerns about doctrines like hell. The idea that a loving God could let people suffer infinitely for choices made in a finite time period with finite knowledge didn’t make sense. I felt like I was kinder and more forgiving than that version of God.
I had studied Scripture, read arguments made by apologists, and believed it all. But what had once worked in my head, was no longer working in my heart and in my gut. My conscious couldn’t keep making sense of the ugly, ragged edges I kept uncovering in my worldview.
Slowly, over the course of years, the questions kept building. They were quiet at first, but eventually rose to a loud din. My sense of spirituality, identity, and belonging were all coming apart at the seams.
Losing God felt like losing my best friend. It was like waking up to the news that your mom or dad died in the night, while you were sleeping. Each morning, the grief and confusion stung in new ways. I was angry, because this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. People who truly loved God weren’t supposed to fall out of love. If it worked so well for others, why wasn’t it working for me? Why was it all unraveling?
The odd thing about the word “unravel”, as philosopher and storyteller Peter Rollins notes, is that it shares the same meaning as its linguistic counterpart, “ravel”. It’s a weaving term, meaning to either combine or seperate tangled threads. Untangling is still “raveling, still the act of linking and unlinking, the same action. Raveling and unraveling, Rollins says, are the exact same thing.
Subtraction becomes a kind of addition. In this way, doubt isn’t the opposite of faith—that’s certainty. Doubt is the negative space that faith finds it’s form in.
Think about all the most iconic logos. Nike. Target. Apple. They’re all simple. A great graphic designer knows that it isn’t what you add…it’s what you remove. A good logo has all the superfluous elements stripped away so that all that’s left is essence.
Or think for a moment about sculpture. What has to take place to extract a piece of art from an unruly hunk of stone? A slow, steady chipping away. A chisel has to bite into the stone, over and over and over to bring out beauty and form.
Michelangelo said that the more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows. Picasso said that every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction.
Think back to gardening. What’s the result of all that decay? Piles of soft compost, which look and feel like velvety, crumbled chocolate cake. What was dead waste is transformed, by natural processes, into active ingredients for living soil.
It’s as if elimination, destruction, and decomposition…are all necessary aspects of creativity.
Everywhere you look, life is engulfed by death, which in turn, is being enveloped by new life. A seed buried in darkness explodes into bright bundles of flowers. Rivers become clouds become storms. Trees die in the fall and are reborn in the spring.
In physics, the Law of Conservation of Mass implies that matter can’t truly be created or destroyed, just rearranged.
So actually, to take it a step further, what we call death and life, are really just different names for change. It’s all the same stuff, undergoing processes of radical transformation.
The point of it all, it seems, is so that new forms can take the place of old ones.
What’s true in the garden is also true in the stories we love most. Luke Skywalker. Simba. Harry Potter.
Now think about all the difficulty you’ve experienced in your own life. All the different kinds of death. The death of relationships. The death of expectations. Of ideas. For me, I wouldn’t wish my deepest pain or estrangement on my worst enemy.
And yet…in a unexpected way…
I’m still…grateful? Is that too weird a word to use?
Before Roman political and military machinations gave birth to the institution called Christianity, there were these stories passed around about an itinerant Jewish rabbi who wandered through cities and villages talking about new ways to be human. You might know him as Jesus. But I’m not talking about the gently-holding-a-lamb-in-the-painting-in-your-Aunt-Carol’s-foyer-Swedish-Jesus.
The Jesus I’m talking about was so mystical and his message was so inclusive, that it earned him a reputation as a revolutionary with the Roman Empire. Ultimately, it got him brutally tortured and killed.
But something happened. Followers of Jesus began telling stories about experiencing him in a new form. They claimed He had been resurrected from the dead and they had seen Him.
What I love about these accounts, however, is the bizarre endings that are supposed to act as resolutions. If you read them, several have some version of the following theme: Some of Jesus’ followers are heading home after His death. They’re depressed and defeated, most likely dreading the “I told ya so”s from their friends and family, who chided them for joining the crazy rabbi’s movement. While they’re walking, a resurrected Jesus appears on the road with them.
He starts asking them questions about what happened, and apparently they don’t recognize it’s Him. “Things went down in Jerusalem,” they say. “What things?” Jesus asks innocently.
At this point in the story, He’s just punking them.
They proceed to tell him about His own horrifying death, and how they had hoped He’d be their guy. They’d hope He’d come to liberate them from Roman oppression.
He drops hint after hint about who he is, but they still can’t see. After his reported resurrection, it seems Jesus is unrecognizable.
In my experience, resurrection isn’t just something that happens around us. It can happen to us. Each time I’ve died, it’s shaped me, and made room for something new to bloom in the dirt.
I don’t want to belittle anyone’s suffering. This idea isn’t meant to be a silver bullet or quick fix to our struggle. It isn’t an easy path out of pain. It’s actually the opposite.
These stories are about how it’s in our loss, lack, and “not enough-ness” that we’re most found, held, and transformed. If we allow it, suffering can unexpectedly unlock something sacred inside us. But we have to go all the way into the heart of our pain before it can be redeemed. The treasure you seek glimmers in the darkness of the cave you don’t want to enter. Weakness is the way to enlightenment. If you want to find your life, you have to lose it. The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi said it like this: “The wound is the place the Light enters you.”
In an unexpected way, I was found. And held. Not by an angry, distant paternal being in the sky, but by the ineffable embrace of Being itself.
Slowly, faith bloomed in my heart. It didn’t happen in a specific moment. It’s been a series of stumbles. Like a mysterious rabbi appearing on a dusty road, I didn’t quite recognize it at first. But I started seeing, what I can only call God, everywhere.
In poetry and savory food. In color and light and warmth and wind. In Pacific waves, glittering in the afternoon sun and in quiet pines, looming like sentinels in the morning mist. In cold evening stillness and in the rivers of occupied faces flowing over downtown sidewalks.
I even started seeing God in the some of the stories and teachings from my childhood that I had let go.
When I had truly released what I was handed, and went fully into the heart of my fear, despair, and unbelief, I wasn’t met with hopelessness. I was met with love.
All my experiences became wrapped in the feeling that I was enough and everything was okay, regardless of how my intellectual furniture was or wasn’t arranged.
Before, my faith calcified into a closed system of fact claims I wielded to make myself feel safe and special.
But as the poet Christian Wiman says, “Belief has objects. Faith is objectless.”
Today, my faith is a way of seeing. It opens me up, gives me meaning, invites creativity, and teaches me presence. It reveals life as profound, sublime, mysterious, and endlessly interesting. Faith uncovers what’s been true the whole time: everything belongs. Including our pain. Each death in my life has been an invitation into a depth and intensity I couldn’t have known otherwise. It hasn’t made me bitter. It’s left me better. Even unrecognizable.
Jonathan Logerstedt is a graphic designer who specializes in identity design and illustration. He helps brands refine how they're perceived, through a design process that is research driven, goal specific, and grounded in honest relationship.