“It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”
I wish I could remember exactly what age I was when I questioned the existence of God. Not too old, not too young is about as close as I can get. But that was my mother’s response. “It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”
I can’t remember how I responded, or what specifically prompted my anxiety in the first place, but I do remember the comfort I felt, sitting on the bed beside my momma and hearing her give that answer. It wasn’t the answer a mother and woman of Christian faith had to give more than twenty years ago in rural Alabama. Flannery O’Connor liked to use the phrase “Christ-haunted South," which is a brilliant way of getting at how fear dominates the Southern religious imagination. My mother could have fed me some bad theology along those lines. I suppose that’s why I came to her so upset in the first place; I felt the Jesus specter lurking among the trees, waiting for my inevitable failure.
Doubt is a palpable idea for us Southerners, but it’s rarely positive. Many of us, especially rural white folk, are asked to set doubt aside to make way for rose-colored memories of our antebellum history. Doubting the moral supremacy of our secessionist ancestors didn’t always make you a lot of friends. It’s easier now than when I was growing up. Events like the Charleston shooting have led to an overthrow of the hesitancy in some ways, though not in others. Lots of people I know are still clinging to their hateful symbols, though they’re probably a bit quieter about it now. They can’t let doubt creep in, lest it shake their identity to its core.
Religion around here gets a similar shake, which is why I’m still surprised and grateful for my mother’s response to her doubtful child. She affirmed that my doubt was as natural as the red clay stains on my shoes, that the Christ who followed me through the woods, creeping and insidious as kudzu, was only able to haunt me if I didn’t turn around and ask him where he was going and why. I could look at him and doubt him. That’s how I’d learn.
These days, I see my faith as orbiting her own, tethered to her in a way I can’t really explain. It’s my own, but it’s still remarkably unsettled. My mother anchors and calms it with her own blessed assurances. It started when she gave me permission to question. She set me on a course to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, something I need daily to love and deal with many aspects of myself and where I live. She set me up to be both broken and reconciled. I have no doubt that’s a good thing.