Author of the book “Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt: A Story of Belief, Uncertainty, and Boundless Love” (Loyola Press, $13.95), Kyle R. Cupp shared his struggles with doubt in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you come to write this book? Were there one or two incidents or experiences that made you realize that doubt and faith are intertwined?
Kyle Cupp: Doubt sometimes gets treated as an experience a person of faith shouldn’t have, as if doubt were a sure sign of a weak faith, and I wanted to counter that notion by reflecting on my own struggles with faith and doubt. In my own life, the two have gone together. I’d go so far as to say that they’re two aspects of the same experience.
Early in my life, I had to grapple with how to trust both my parents, who each came from different religious traditions — Catholicism and Buddhism. More recently, I struggled with trusting God when our unborn daughter was diagnosed with anencephaly, a fatal neural tube defect. We didn’t know whether Vivian would live until term or, if she did, how long she would stay with us. I didn’t know what it meant for me to be a father to her or whether I’d have the strength to endure the months of uncertainty. I just had to press on without certain answers to these questions.
I can’t say I felt faithful in these trying moments, but through them I came to understand my own faith as the choice to trust and love when trusting and loving seem absurd and pointless.
OSV: We often ask for people to tell their faith stories. Can you tell your story of doubt?
Cupp: Even with the loss of Vivian, I still felt close to God, at least for a time. But as the years passed, I sensed God’s presence less and less, until one evening, sitting on the couch late at night with my wife, I told her that I didn’t know whether or not I still believed in God. I had reached a stage in my faith where I doubted whether I even had faith. I wasn’t ready to jump ship, but I felt as though I had no sun or stars to guide me.
As we both came from devout Catholic backgrounds, this was not an easy confession to make. I continued to attend Mass and outwardly live the Catholic Faith, but my heart wasn’t in it and the distance of God only seemed to grow. With the presence of God diminished, I lost the hold I had once had on the idea of God.
Since then, I’ve had times where God seems closer and the idea of the divine makes more sense, but mostly I’ve remained in doubt. The difference between now and then is that I’ve come to see this darkness not as the absence of faith, but as a setting in which my faith can thrive.
I don’t have certain answers to the big questions of life, but I don’t need them. I choose to pray and love and worship without the comfort of knowing for sure that God exists or that everything is proceeding according to some plan. I’m happy for those with a firm sense of these things, but I’m not there, and I’m not alone.
For me, the question isn’t whether I’m free of doubts, but whether I’m full of love. As I see it, faith at its core isn’t having certain knowledge, but being willing to love God and others fully and unconditionally without the assurance that death will not rob love of its meaning. Love, I believe, is not constrained by time, but is the way that we live eternally. Jesus didn’t name love as the greatest commandment for nothing!
OSV: Explain what it means for you to live in tension between doubt and faith.
Cupp: One way of understanding faith is being able to take a step not knowing where your foot will fall or where the road will take you. If you were certain about the journey and the destination, you wouldn’t need faith to get you on your way and keep you on the move.
We Catholics call God “ineffable,” which means that God is indescribable. That means we can’t be certain what we mean when we try to describe God. We’ve seen a great light, but we’re still in the dark. When we step toward God, we don’t really know where we’re going or where God is leading us. We’re uncertain. We have to trust. We have to have faith.
OSV: Modern life tends to be busy and full of distractions and temptations. Do you think the way we live encourages doubt to grow?
Cupp: It can. We live in what’s sometimes called the “postmodern condition.” We don’t share a singular religion or worldview or way of life. We’re socially fragmented.
To complicate matters, we’re prone to the latest technologies and gadgets and fashions. We’re uprooted and always on the move. In this condition, it can be more difficult to determine where the truth lies. Those who claim to speak the truth aren’t speaking from the same place. This is certainly ripe soil for doubt.
OSV: Have you ever been discouraged by your own doubts? When? How did you come to terms with them?
Cupp: I can’t say I enjoy those times that I feel most distant from God, and I’ve had occasions to wonder why I persist in practicing the Catholic faith, but overall I wouldn’t call my doubts discouraging. I’ve reached a place where living by faith and dwelling in doubt refer to the same thing. For me, that’s an encouraging thought. The fact that I keep going suggests to me that I really do have faith.
OSV: You write that you are the child of a Buddhist and a Catholic. How did your parents’ different approaches to faith affect your understanding of faith and doubt as “siblings?” Was it something that you grew up with?
Cupp: I believe so, but I didn’t realize it at the time. They also divorced when I was 4 and conveyed to me very different accounts of what had happened between them. As I grew older, I wanted to believe them both, but I realized over time that what they told me couldn’t all be true. Their stories about the here and now and about the hereafter didn’t cohere.
Looking back, I think the differences in their accounts of God and love and everything else set the stage for my faith. If I could trust both of (my parents) without having to make what they said add up, then I could trust in God without having to make sense of every creed, doctrine and theology.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.