Doubt Alan Jones Desert Spirituality

Alan Jones Spiritual Direction and Doubt

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Alan Jones

The first time I heard this quote was by Alan Jones at a Trinity Wall Street conference at Kanuga in 2001. It warmed my heart when I heard Jones profess this, and I have shared it with so many others since. Annie Lamott is also a writer and speaker to whom many often attribute the quote. I have theological friends who tell me it is really from Paul Tillich’s work, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 116-117! I am going to stop here, but I am certain it is also scriptural as well.

So many come for spiritual direction about doubts.  

In his book, Soul Making, the Desert Way of Spirituality, former dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Alan Jones writes about doubt and the finding and nurturing of the soul according to the spirituality of the desert fathers. The spirituality of the desert involves encountering God, but then feeling God’s absence, and then feeling his joy. Jones describes this three-fold experience of soul making after an awakening with the first conversion involving self-knowledge, often with tears, the second conversion where things seem to fall apart, and the third conversion where we enter the life of contemplation. The awakening periods have occurred for me at so many times along the way, church camps, the time when I suddenly decided to go to medical school, the time I decided to ask for discernment about the diaconate, and at Cursillo as examples. The conversion of self-knowledge with tears occurred as well as the falling apart when I decided my only hope was to go to a 12-step program, and when people close to me, my grandfather, my mother and father and my brother died, and now as my mobility becomes more and more limited. 

Often only in the presence of death of a loved one do we see so clearly what love should be like. Jones describes the tears like the breaking of waters of the womb before the birth of a child. The task of love found in the desert experience is to free us of our well built up exoskeleton. Soul making is paying attention to things invisible which do not lend themselves to manipulation and control. It requires receptivity to the life of the mystic rather than being the problem solver where we instead spend most of our energy building up our frail egos by setting before it dozens and dozens of small situations while the life of the soul is aborted. If the world is to change, then, first, we must change, and that happens when we live more deeply into our questions and doubts. Sharing our doubt can bring us together more than faith, for the believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter only fights with himself.