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Believing and Doubting

Anne Dalke and Alice Lesnick
"Believing and Doubting"

A Session in Honor of Paul Grobstein,
skeptic and believer

Living Our Heritage:
Seeking Equality Through Education

Conference of the Friends Association of Higher Education
Bryn Mawr College

June 16-19, 2011

Colleagues from the Education and English departments @ Bryn Mawr,
variously schooled and variously attached to the 
interplay of the games of doubting and believing,
offer participants a framework for considering the significance of
skepticism and faith in the academic project,
and invite an exploration of the ways in which this framework
could open new possibilities in our classrooms.

Beginning in Silence....

I.  (Alice: 15 mins) We want to discuss w/ you today a dimension of diversity, a way in which people are different. We hope to explore the ways in which our leading terms, "doubt" and "belief," work differently for different people, signal different avenues of possibility and stasis, and so have powerful implications for learning.

Etymologically, both have a relation to "trust":
believe -- to have confidence or faith in, and consequently to rely upon, trust to -- comes from the Early Middle English bileven,  bi-, be- prefix + leven, the Old Teutonic galauƀian to believe, probably, ‘to hold estimable, valuable, pleasing, or satisfactory, to be satisfied with,’ galaub- ‘dear, pleasing’; compare Gothic liuban, lauf, lubum, lubans; Teutonic root *luƀ-, Aryan lubh-, to hold dear, to like, whence also love

doubt -- to be in uncertainty; to be wavering or undecided in opinion or belief, to hesitate to trust, to call in question, to mistrust -- comes from the Middle English duten, douten, < Old French duter, doter, douter...
< Latin dubitāre to waver in opinion, hesitate, related to dubius wavering to and fro.

our own stories illustrate this keynote of "trust":

Anne's "trusting" the world more, so more free to doubt and be skeptical; Alice's trusting it less, so more free to believe in what is offered, in what seems good....

our layered sense of the landscapes of belief and doubt
Anne's thick, reliant and resilient web, wherefrom the need for skepticism is a way to freedom; Alice's broken houses and torn webs, wherefrom the need for belief is a way to freedom

Through conversation, our increasing sense of how
the two positions are intertwined, interdependent:

"you can’t have a yes w/out a no"
Mike Rose on the academic "yes, but...."

II. (Anne: 5 mins) cf. Peter Elbow's believing (vs. doubting) game:
The doubting game represents the kind of thinking most widely honored and taught in our culture. It’s sometimes called “critical thinking.” It's the disciplined practice of trying to be as skeptical and analytic as possible with every idea we encounter. By trying hard to doubt ideas, we can discover hidden contradictions, bad reasoning, or other weaknesses in them-- especially in the case of ideas that seem true or attractive. We are using doubting as a tool in order to scrutinize and test.

In contrast, the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them. We are using believing as a tool to scrutinize and test.... unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues. Often we cannot see what's good in someone else's idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it. When an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs--or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated---we often cannot see any merit in it.

our goal today will be to push this concept beyond a "game,"
beyond a reading and writing exercise
(trying it out not just with words, but with images),
reaching for a spiritual practice, & asking how we might realize
these spiritual commitments in relation to our academic work.

III. (Alice: 10 min) focused freewriting:
think of the word "doubt" as a basket: what's in it??

IV. (Alice: 20 min) introducing ourselves:
what's your name and location?
what’s in your basket?

V.  (Anne: 10 min) working this "turn" from words to images:

say what you see
     and again   
           and again...

What’s not here?

     What don’t we see?
          What’s covered over, obscured, off the edge of the image?

VI.  (Alice: 10 min) What is the experience
of looking beyond what we see?

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narow chinks of his cavern.
(William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

In pairs now: taking up Blake's claim --
what does "infinite" mean? to you?
from the perspective of doubting....?
of believing....?

VII. (Anne: 10 min) where has this exploration of the infinite brought us? how might these perspectives on infinity inform our work?

one way to keep belief and doubt "infinitely" in play might be to think in terms of time, of patience:
if "comedy is tragedy plus time,"
might we conceive of doubt, similarly,
as belief plus time,  and of
belief as doubt plus time....?

VIII. (Alice: 10 min) what stories might we tell one another,
about ourselves as believers and/or doubters, in the play of the infinite?

what might each of us take back from this conversation, into our own contexts of teaching and learning?

And ending in silence....


Anne Dalke's picture

what we saw in the image of the floating tree

when we looked @

we saw





roots that nurture

uprooted tree

growing grasping





not even the sky is the limit

balance between roots and foliage




paradoxically abstract




gathering storm


square frame



photograph in a box









and when we looked again, we did NOT see










its story

the artist


it's silent: no sounds

other times of day



change: it's static


spring and fall


Anne Dalke's picture

What is in your basket of doubt?

not getting hurt, protecting myself, not being gullible

the basket is disingenuous, pretending to doubt, “because it is after all a basket of doubt.” It is a basket of analysis, of critique, of acceptance. In it is “the apple of shame, the orange of  embarrassment, the banana of regret. It is a brightly colored basket.”

The basket was empty for a long time; I was not permitted to put anything in it: so many certainties I was not permitted to question, which now fill it: how big is God's love? why blame God?

fear, negativity, limits, dryness, realism, inter-compass, courage, a way of doing nothing or something smart, asking great questions, or not settling for what you're told

How -- (useless, stupid, fat, awkward, dense, unlovely) can I be? All these negative descriptions can move together to form my pattern. To change the design by changing the adjectives would destroy the basket. Scary.

Doubts that I struggle with: a historical personal God, the afterlife, world and humanity in a positive evolutionary growth.

My doubt comes from three sources. In my journalism career, and as a critical academic, I was scrutinizing sources, verifying, finding holes, exposing them, not being trusting. As a professor @ a Franciscan college,  I was questioning tradition and teaching my students to do the same. As a creative writer, doubt was a way of imagining alternatives.

I have a series of related questions; the basket never gets less full.

I am just riding and riding with an overflowing basket of fireflies, nearly lighting me up, seeping into my eyes, nose, body, illuminating me by the fine fire, elusive and illuminated.

A specific item in my doubt basket right now: A New Kind of Christianity, on how to read the Bible, threw some doubt into what I thought I knew.

“I doubt that I matter to you. I doubt that I can let you matter to me. I doubt that God inhabits your inner space. I doubt that we have much in common.”

In my basket are a set of tools: flashlight, googles, mask, something to check for radiation--things to stay safe. A pen and pad to write about the experience, a cell phone to talk about it, a bubble of silence.

Doubt comes from experience. It could be disappointment about a job, a dress that doesn't fit, a role or position that doesn't work any more, all of which I'm determined not to repeat. It follows the initial glint of desire. I do not want to repeat an unsatisfactory experience.

Thorns, dust, distance, locks…."The bad (?) news: The key to the universe hasn't been found, despite extensive and continuing searches in all suspected places. The good news: It isn't locked." There’s a lock in the basket; doubt could be the key.

I doubt a lot; I go through this a lot, preparing students to engage in social justice; believe that you can be a part of it, don't buy all of it….

In the basket, it’s just turtles all the way down: each discovery provokes a new question. So the basket of doubt—questioning what is—is also the basket of faith—knowing that, always, there is something more.

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