Wrestling with “Doubt”

Last Friday, we featured the movie Doubt as the latest installment in our Talking Pictures series. Since I regularly hear from people that express a desire to come to one of these events but can’t make a particular showing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the film in this space.

(WARNING: If you haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.)

Few movies lend themselves so easily to further thought and discussion as Doubt. Carefully constructed and brilliantly acted, the film centers upon an allegation of sexual abuse in a Catholic school/parish in the 1960s. Spurred by circumstantial evidence, the school’s stern and austere principle, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), accuses the charismatic, progressive Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school’s first black student.

And yet the film isn’t ultimately about whether Father Flynn is guilty or innocent. Rather, it’s about the verdict you as a viewer give him…and whether you’re really justified in doing so. In describing audience reaction after screenings, writer and director John Patrick Shanley had this to say in an interview with Christianity Today:

Every audience is different. People get up and say with utter certainty that they know the priest is guilty, and that they know everyone in the audience knows that, too. And then other people say, “Actually, no, we don’t feel that way at all.”

A quick poll of the Talking Pictures audience more or less confirmed this phenomenon. About half raised their hand to indicate they were convinced of Flynn’s guilt. By my eye, a slightly smaller number were willing to argue he was innocent. The ambiguity, according to Shanley, is quite intentional:

What I’m hoping is that people will at first feel confirmed in their prejudices, and then have their prejudices explode and then go, “You know what? I don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong in this story. But it’s a compelling story, and I think I want to talk about it.

But is there more going on than a glorified “I gotcha”? I think so. I’ll mention just two important clues. First, the film’s first significant scene is, not coincidentally, Father Flynn’s sermon on doubt. It includes the memorable line, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Second, the film’s most doggedly certain character, Sister Aloysius, reveals she also has great doubts in the film’s climactic scene (thought, interestingly, we’re not specifically told what it is she doubts).

Where is all of this meant to leave us? With the idea that doubt, not certainty, is a virtue. To quote Shanley once again, this time from an interview he gave to NPR:

Certainty is a closed door. It’s the end of the conversation. Doubt is an open door. It’s a dynamic process.

This is certainly provocative, and it begs us to ask: how might a Christian respond to such a view? I think the answer lies in the framework of “yes, but….” In other words, from a biblical perspective, we should be very conscious of both our finitude and fallenness in regard to views we bring to the table. We’re limited by our knowledge and vantage point, as well as skewed by our self-interest and biases. And this can play havoc with our ability to grasp reality, things as they really are. And yet no one lives in constant skepticism. We all act as if there are things that we can truly know and truly communicate to another.* And if, as we Christians say, we’re fallen creatures who still retain the image of a God who can both know and communicate, doesn’t that make sense?

*In my experience, people who agitate against things like certainty or what they would consider “dogmatic” positions are often selective in their efforts. Consider Shanley’s quote about certainty and doubt above. Sounds pretty certain, does it not? To be fair, in response to a question as to whether it’s okay to be certain about some things and uncertain about others, Shanley offered, “Yeah, but I’m not going to go there.”

So, should we be careful and humble in our pursuit of the truth? Absolutely. But can and should we have confidence to believe some things over others? Yes again. How all this fits together involves a much larger discussion, to be sure. For now, though, I’ll close with on more quote, this time from G. K. Chesterton: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

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