Beyond Doubt

At the most recent AML Conference, James Goldberg made a passing remark that has stuck with me. It went something along the lines of, “I’ve become bored with stories about doubt.”

The comment stuck with me because . . . well, I’m bored with stories about doubt, too. I certainly can’t write them anymore. And I’m wondering now what is beyond doubt.

Usually “beyond doubt” means that something is blindingly true. But in this case, I’m asking, “What is on the other side of doubt?” When you finally break through, what awaits? Enlightenment? Reconciliation? Rejection? Justin Bieber?

But most importantly, can you write about it? Because I like to do that sort of thing.

Let’s approach this question by batting a few metaphors around.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys famously tells us “That was the River. This is the sea.” Are the straits of doubt—quick, narrow, and jarring as they are—leading us to a vast undifferentiated space? What do we do in that space?

Winnie-the-Pooh, following on the trail of a heffalump, becomes lost in the 100-acre woods of doubt. Every time he strikes out for home, he finds himself back where he started. Is doubt an endless circuit from which only Christopher Robin can save us?

Alice stumbles doubtingly through a world of mad characters, only to wake up to normal life. Is doubt a strange dream from which we are glad to emerge?

In the movie Avatar, Jake Sully doubts the motivations of his fellow humans and eventually joins the Navi, not only in spirit, but in body. Does doubt lead us to reject the idea we doubt in favor of a different idea?

On the other hand, while wandering through a strange land, Dorothy, who had once doubted the value of home, decides that there’s nothing like it. Does doubt lead us back to where we started?

Maybe I am simply wrestling here with the problem of the sequel. Sequels are usually lacking because the first story dealt with the most dramatically charged values inherent to a particular character or situation. Any other value is usually either a repeat or derivative of the first story’s values. Once doubt has been thoroughly wrestled with, then, is it simply time to move on to other matters?

Or is there a change of soul at the end of doubt that opens up new possibilities, that reveals greater tensions and higher stakes, that allows one to access a dramatic palate different from what the pre-doubter would know how to work with?

I’m certain there is literature, film, or other art out there that could help me consider this question. Can anyone out there in Mo Lit Land give me some pointers?

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26 Responses to Beyond Doubt

  1. Mark Penny says:

    I think you’re spot on about sequels. Sequels only work if you dig the characters and setting more than the plot—or if the premise is big enough for further exploration. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion work well that way. Most of the “sequels” that work for me are actually installments, generally pre-planned big episodes with a unifying story arc, like Harry Potter (which I sincerely enjoy reading and re-reading—for the most part, though I dislike some of the movies), His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Chronicles of Prydain.

    One part of the palette that I’m drawing on right now involves the tension between doubt and devotion. I’ve taken an initial stab at articulating my interest here. One problem with doubt as a theme is that, as has been pointed out elsewhere in the Moblogs, the stories are stagnant, sort of pond-of-consciousness. The doubter achieves only loss of power unless doubt of one thing leads to faith in another (a la the Joseph Smith story).

    If I may, here is a quote from a bit I wrote last night in a story about a young boy whose psychological survival of the murder of his parents by marauding revolutionaries depends on the development of a cosmology consistent with a world in which, as he states earlier in the tale, “death was what there was to love” and “it remained only to serve, to be, as I say, the hand of death, the fist reaching out of the darkness to uncover the light.”

    You see the poetry, the allure, the logical enticement of my mythology. Step by step, the deeper I strode into the resurrecting abyss, the clearer it became, the more tangible, the more fused with my own being, fiber by fiber. What a relief it is to know! To harbour no distressing ship of doubt. To be single in thought and purpose. No compassion, no cruelty is beyond the will of such a one. For me they were one. An elegant formulation. Beautifully simple. Simply beautiful. Which of the poets said that?

    Well, enough of my religion, my self-souled theology. It was more or less complete. I emerged from the font and the fire as pure and purposeful as an innocent cast out of the womb.

  2. Wm says:

    Perhaps we need to move beyond stories of “Is the Church true?” and take as a given either that it is or that it isn’t and then what the Mormon experience ends up being for folks on either side of that question as well as how they then relate to each other. That to me seems much more interesting.

    I have more experience with the “yes” side so digging in a bit deeper, I think the stories are: “Given that I believe that it is true, what does that mean for me?” Or: “Given that I believe it is true, how does that affect how I approach the world, people, art, economics, politics, science, family dynamics, work dynamics, etc.”

    The danger, of course, is that this can often lead to the mini-epiphany story that is such a hallmark of American short fiction of the last several decades, but perhaps we can find ways of framing them or unspooling them that don’t feel quite so tired.

    And, perhaps, we can also dramatize the small (and big) tragedies that are part of the experience as well. Something tentative that I’m beginning to understand: if this all is real, then the abundance of wrong choices that we (as individual, as church members and beyond to all humanity) make and harm that we cause on daily basis is tragic. And if we truly have charity (pure love) then we need to experience the misuse of agency as sorrow (and individual and collective sorrow) rather than just dismiss it all as “evil” or “the world” or “bad people”.

    • I like that, William. There have to be more kinds of stories available to us as LDS writers than the “is or is it not true?” stories.

      There is one kind of speculative fiction story, which has long out-lived its appeal for many readers (and editors), in which the whole story is about “what’s really going on here?” And the “resolution” is the realization of what that is.

      The problem with such stories is that at best they tend to feel like the first chapter of a novel–”okay, now we know, so what are we going to do about it?”–and at worst, just leave the reader hanging there.

      I submit that such stories can be considered to be analoguous to doubt stories. So, there’s doubt. Is there resolution, and if so, what is it? And THEN, what do we do about that “resolution”?

      Surely (beyond doubt?) that has the potential of being a more interesting exploration.

  3. D. Michael Martindale says:

    I’m rather amazed at this trashing of doubt. Doubt is impotent? Doubt is boring?

    I’ll tell you what’s boring. People who never doubt. People who never explore because they’re chained to an ideology that cannot be questioned. In simple terms: people with blind faith who demonize thinking.

    Right about here is where the chorus happens of, “Mormons do not have blind faith!” Rather than challenge that assertion at this time, I want to point out that thoughtful faith can ONLY exist when preceded by doubt. Otherwise, it truly is blind faith.

    Believers apparently consider doubt to be the opposite faith, but that’s not true. Doubt is the process that leads to faith. The opposite of faith is fear, and frankly, being negative about doubt is a disguised form of fear in my opinion. If one truly believes their faith is true, why fear doubt? It can only lead to faith.

    But doubt is also useful for escaping from a false faith or a distorted understanding of a true faith. When you get right down to it, doubt is THINKING, dressed up in a scary word to make it easier to criticize thinking without looking like one is criticizing thinking.

    To be tired of hearing about doubt is tantamount to saying, “I have arrived.” There is nothing more to think about, nothing more to learn. Which inherently holds the answer to the question presented in the blog and the comments: After doubt, what?

    The answer is, more thinking. The answer is, after doubt comes exploration, because resolving doubt opens up whole new vistas to explore, and to think–or doubt–about all over again. The only way to never doubt again is to stop thinking.

    Let’s bring this into the context we’re talking about: Mormon faith. In this context, doubt means, “I don’t know if the church is true.” That doubt can be resolved in several ways. Yes, the church is true. No, the church isn’t true. Yes and no, the church is true, kind of, but its traditional claim to unerringness is questionable. All three of those outcomes open up new vistas to explore, question, think (doubt) about.

    Is the church false? Then what is true, and how do I find out?

    Is the church true? What does it mean to say a church is true? Does it mean, the church is perfect but the members aren’t? Does it mean neither the church nor its members are perfect, but are still inspired by God? Does it mean every word that drops from a General Authority’s mouth is revelation? Does it mean only those things unanimously agreed upon by the two top quorums is revelation? But how is that unanimity achieved? Through an ideal spiritual process like the Church likes to paint? Or is D. Michael Quinn’s scholarly portrait more accurate: as much through politics as any other human endeavor? In which case, is even unanimity a reliable indication of truth?

    We’re taught that we should seek out our own answers from the Spirit and not go to the authorities all the time. But what if the answer we get doesn’t please our authorities? What if they threaten action against us if we follow the Spirit instead of them? How do we resolve the fact that the Spirit witnessed to us these men represent God, yet that exact same Spirit revealed to us the answer those authorities don’t like? Which Spirit is deceiving us? If my bishop tells me the Spirit didn’t reveal that to me, Satan did, then how do I know it wasn’t Satan who witnessed to me that the authorities represent God? It sure felt like the same Spirit. How can I possibly know what to believe if I can’t distinguish between the two?

    (This is not a bizarre hypothetical. It happens.)

    Coming to the conclusion that the church is true hardly ends thinking, exploration, doubt. It only expands our horizons to continue the process, ask new questions. The Boook of Mormon itself warns us that saying, “We have enough,” is the road to damnation (i.e. stalling of progress).

    If yuo resolve your doubt by saying the church is conditionally true, you’ve got lots of exploration ahead, trying to figure out what’s what and how do you know.

    So the sequel to the story of resolved doubt is, exploring the new vistas that open up. That never ends. That’s why it’s called eternal progression.

    Having said all that, if you’re tired of reading stories of doubt, fine. Don’t read them anymore. Read something else. Surely the shelves of any Deseret Book are crammed with stories absent doubt.

    If you’re tired of stories that involve deep thought at all and just want some familiar, comforting, faith-affirming experience, fine. I refer you to the self-same shelves of Deseret Book.

    But–even though it wasn’t said explicitly–there’s an undercurrent of negativity toward stories of doubt in this blog and the responses to it. And I can only paraphrase what I’ve said multiple times before: the problem isn’t too many stories of doubt, but too few. Most of LDS literature has been of the (putting it bluntly) non-thinking sort. Warm, fuzzy feelings, but not thought. Like a Thomas Monson sermon. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    Not one person who wants to see “edgier” (for lack of a better word) stories is suggesting that the warm, fuzzy, faith-affirming stories should go away. They just want to see some balance, some variety, some choices that appeal to them mixed in.

    So I’m a bit perplexed at the question, what stories are out there that do not doubt? My answer is: what stories are not out there?

    But if you really can’t find the stories you want to read, the solution is obvious: write them yourself. That’s what I do.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “Having said all that, if you’re tired of reading stories of doubt, fine. Don’t read them anymore. Read something else. Surely the shelves of any Deseret Book are crammed with stories absent doubt.

      “If you’re tired of stories that involve deep thought at all and just want some familiar, comforting, faith-affirming experience, fine. I refer you to the self-same shelves of Deseret Book.”

      Why does Deseret Book always have to be the fall-back? It’s not the 80s and 90s anymore. Mormon readers have significantly more reading options these days. Your own publisher, Zarahemla Books, is proof enough that those bored with doubt don’t necessarily need to turn to Deseret Books. Plus, it shows that “edgy” doesn’t have to equal “doubting.”

      Why “demonize” those sick of doubting stories by associating them with Deseret Books?

    • Wm says:

      D. Michael:

      We’re talking about a specific doubt narrative, here — not all doubt. I think both the original post and the comments are in a very different vein from where you’re trying to channel things.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I’ve been thinking a little bit about all this, because on the one hand, I find myself agreeing with Stephen, Mark, Wm, et al. — and on the other hand I also find myself agreeing with much of what Michael said.

      Doubt becomes boring, I think, when it’s the center and main focus of the story — when the story is *about* having doubt. As if a character experiencing doubt is such a riveting thing that it can hold the weight of a story (and of the reader’s interest) without any other point of focus.

      Which I think is (ironically) both the point Stephen and some others have been making, and to some degree also implicit in Michael’s response. Doubt may be the starting point of a story, but the story becomes interesting only when the character does something about (or in spite of) that doubt. At that point, the story isn’t about doubt anymore, but rather about a character making a decision — and what follows after that.

      I think that our emphasis, in our Mormon culture, on testimony and knowledge make the existence of doubt more shocking than it ought to be. Ironically, this has led to a certain fetishizing of doubt in some Mormon stories. I doubt! Well, duh. Welcome to the human race.

      Living with doubt, as I see it, is the flipside of living by faith. And we do need stories about that. Ultimately, though, those are stories not about doubt, or about faith, but about *living* — with doubt, with faith, with whiny children and boring/challenging jobs (or the lack thereof) and messy relationships and private irrationalities and the small stupid cruelties we commit almost without realizing. And all the other conditions of mortality.

      • Jonathon says:

        We’re using the same term in very different ways, I think, JL, but this is what I try to convey below. So let me try again: stories OF doubt are what you’re driving at in your comment, in my view–doubt becomes the protagonist rather than the agon. Stories ABOUT doubt, in my use of the term, signal those stories that foreground a character’s response to/use/resistance of, etc, and the very complex and interesting things that can result. Here, doubt is the agon. We’re invested in the protagonist.

        I hope that’s a little clearer. And I think we’re agreed. I also agree, whole-heartedly, that doubt, if it’s treated at all, does better when it’s treated as normative.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Agreed. After writing my reply to Michael, I realized that in the process, I seemed to be contradicting what you wrote below — when in fact I think we’re saying similar things, but using “about” in different ways.

          (Great name, by the way! Even if you spell it the “wrong” way…)

  4. Jonathon says:

    I gave a talk in church a few months ago called “The Benefit of Doubt.” My purpose was to acknowledge that doubt is of a piece with faith: we all do it, what matters is how we respond to doubt. Do we cultivate it for its own sake so we’re not, as Michael fears, “boring”? Or do we use it as an instrument to cultivate greater understanding?

    Stories about how people respond to doubt can, I think, be enlivening and engaging. Narratives of inexorable apostasy or tepid, sighing acceptance are, I agree, tired.

    What Scott says above is important, whatever the answer turns out to be. We’re not confronting an either/or hypothesis, but asking one of several thousand important questions about mormon literature, its preoccupations, its possibilities, and the ongoing seduction of the hearts and minds that read it. Stories OF doubt are as saccharine and cliche’ as stories OF faith. Stories ABOUT either might have more to say.

    I’m working on a handful of stories about normative Mormonism, albeit in some contexts that aren’t so normative for us. These are stories in which nothing extraordinarily spiritual occurs, though spirit is a given in them for the characters. Normal is miraculous. Normal is tedious. Normal is marvelous. Normal is acceptable. Normal is different for everyone and everyplace and everytime.

    Anyway, to answer Stephen’s question, tentatively: beyond doubt is decision. Rinse. Repeat.

  5. Jonathon says:

    I’ll add that I think Wm’s stuff does this very well.

    • Wm says:

      Thanks!

      I’m writing more SF&F these days, but I do plan on continuing to write at least one, perhaps two, Mormon-themed short stories a year.

      • Jonathon says:

        Who’s to say that SF&F can’t deal, normatively, with mormonism? I’m not! In fact, my competition entries for Goldberg et al will attempt that very thing.

  6. Weighing in late:

    I am bored of doubt stories, I think, in the same way I get bored of TV shows that rely on dating/hook-up romantic tension. For a while, it’s exciting to watch just to find out if guy A and girl B will get together or not. But then a while ends.

    I think we could put doubt stories and simply conversion stories into the same category of romantic tension. Will the LDS protagonist break up with Mormonism for a sexy secular alternative? Will the non-LDS protagonist get together with the gospel? Interesting for a while, but then the tension wears out for me. So when someone else at the AML Conference said a mature Mormon Literature would be built around doubt, I..err…doubted it. ;)

    Personally, I think the commitment of marriage is more interesting than the suspense of dating. I liked the relationship in “Mad About You” way more than, say, the dating suspense in the early seasons of “The Office.”

    What I enjoy most in Mormon Lit are the faith equivalent of marriage story. Like Wm mentioned, we start with commitment and then watch how it informs the rest of life.

    Theory: marriage is harder to write than dating, but has more depth. Solid religious commitment is harder to write than young faith or doubt, but will also prove richer in the long term.

    • Jonathon says:

      Agreed. Belief/discipleship are harder to write in complex ways. And I like the implication: a mature mormon literature won’t be doubt-oriented, but will find a way to shed cliche and sickly-sweetness and represent what I’ve called above normative modes of modernism (including doubt) without relying on the old canards and manipulations.

      Salaam,

      J

    • Mark Penny says:

      My recent love poems (and some of my ideas for realistic and science fiction) center around the problem of enduring in commitment. Doubt comes up as a component. Doubt factors into many things in many ways. Is it true? Is it the right thing right now? Have I understood everything properly? Is this current method/belief system/relationship going to work or should I try something else? I think it is natural and healthy for homo sapiens to constantly and consistently reassess everything in life. Doubt is part of that process. The problem from a literary perspective is that Doubt has become a stock character in one of two roles (villain or saviour) when really it is part of our divine and evolutionary endowment to be used to survive physically and spiritually. When doubt comes up in pageants and morality plays, which I would hazard to guess much LDS literature boils down to, it is a villain, a threat to harmony with the good world. In the much-ballyhooed messy reality we supposedly all inhabit, doubt is a tool of survival which occasionally slips and draws blood.

  7. Stephen Carter says:

    Once again, James, you and I inhabit similar wavelengths. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/158-04-05.pdf

    • Mark Penny says:

      Comment as I read.

      Narrative poverty and divorce rate: I’ve often wondered if Dan Fogelberg’s sorry statistical record didn’t have a lot to do with needing ideas for songs.

      Big changes and plot lines: The ever-after isn’t all that happy, but it can be hopeful. Literarily, we need some genres that make a thrill of small perturbations and a heroic virtue of grit.

      “[I]nterest passes to the generation that is to come”: Ain’t that the truth. This is sub-conflict in the story arc of my marriage. I’m all for feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating and financially endowing the next generation, but I don’t think that’s the only thing my mature years are for. I want more education. I want to achieve my grade-five dream of getting paid to write incredible fiction and my middle-aged dream of writing incredible language learning materials. I don’t want to slave away at one 50-minute language class after another until my throat goes completely dry and the air conditioner blows my parched quasi-corpse off the chair. My wife, on the other hand, frequently bemoans the fact that her narrative from the birth of our first child to the drawing of her last breath will probably include little more than slaving after the children. Cultural difference, I guess. My marriage is full of narrative possibilities. I don’t need to get divorced.

      Marriage narratives: Cool.

      “[T]rying to make something here”: Exactly. Marriage as quest. Or anti-quest (a la Lord of the Rings: destroy the self-destruction).

      Marriage metaphors: Marriage as inquisition. Marriage as handcart trek. Marriage as Ender’s Game.

      • Wm says:

        This is where I say that I really need to find someone to publish “Dark Watch”. It’s a post-apocalyptic, Mormon-themed portrait of a power marriage (but not one w/out difficulties) and a tribute to all the great Mormon couples I know (and to my wife).

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