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Doubting Our Way to a Higher Faith

David Hume and Samuel Johnson were two of the greatest exemplars of 18th Century Enlightenment. Hume, the preeminent thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, altered the course of Western thought through his penetrating philosophical writings. And Johnson, the subject of James Boswell’s legendary Life of Samuel Johnson, is often described as the “most distinguished man of letters in English history.” Each man possessed a powerful and skeptical mind, regularly challenging the accepted wisdoms of their time. And yet Johnson, far from considering Hume to be a kindred spirit, held a special loathing for the legendary philosopher:

“Hume, and other skeptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull. If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expense of truth, what fame might I have acquired. Everything which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote.” (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson)

Hume was a skeptic at heart; he considered no article of faith immune from his scrutiny. He regularly leveled broadsides at religion, and reveled in the controversy — and notoriety — that followed. Interestingly, Johnson struggled with many of the same religious doubts that preoccupied Hume. But it was precisely the similarity of their religious struggles — and their radically different orientations towards that struggle — that created such enmity between these two men. While Hume flaunted his disbelief, Johnson was tormented by doubt throughout his entire life. “O! my friend, the approach of death is very dreadful. I am afraid to think on that which I know I cannot avoid. It is vain to look round and round for that help which cannot be had. Yet we hope and hope, and fancy that he who has lived to-day may live to-morrow. But let us learn to derive our hope only from God.” (Samuel Johnson, Letter to John Taylor) As he grew older, Johnson was increasingly consumed by the fear that God might not exist at all. Until the very end, he struggled with his doubts, never overcoming them but learning to coexist with them.

Both Johnson and Hume experienced religious doubt; but only Johnson was a religious believer. As Rabbi Norman Lamm explains, “Faith and doubt are not in essential contradiction to each other… The truth which cognitive faith affirms is not given to us for the process of mere assent; it is the prize for which we must engage in a fierce intellectual struggle. Doubt, so conceived, becomes not an impediment, but a goad to reinvestigate and deepen faith. Out of the agony of a faith which must constantly wrestle with doubt may emerge a faith of far greater vision, scope and attainment.” (Rabbi Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt, 16) Hume’s rejection of religion was merely a sport, while Johnson’s religious anguish was a sign of deep and powerful faith.

A well-known Chassidic story — well worth repeating — captures this point. Once when Rav Noach of Lekhovitz was in his room, he heard one of his students begin to recite Maimonides’ Principles of Faith in the Beit Midrash next door. But immediately after reciting the words “I believe with perfect faith,” the student stopped and said to himself. “I don’t understand that!” And then once more: “I don’t understand that!” Intrigued, Rav Noach entered the Beit Midrash and asked the student, “What is it that you do not understand?” The student explained: “I don’t understand what it is all about. I say: ‘I believe.’ But if I really do believe, then how can I possibly sin? But if I do not really believe, why am I telling lies?” “You do not understand” said Rav Noach. “The words ‘I believe’ are a prayer, meaning ‘Oh, that I may believe!’” Rav Noach’s student was overcome by joy. “That is right,” he cried. “That is right! Oh, that I may believe, Lord of the world, oh, that I may believe!’

May we soon see a world of clarity; but until then, may our doubts be a pathway to a higher faith.

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Rabbi of Suburban Torah in Livingston, NJ.

By Rabbi Elie Mischel

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