Friday, January 16, 2009

Doubt vs Certainty

Doubt and certainty. These two have been at war with each other as long as humans have been discussing religion and faith. Many Christians see doubt as the enemy of belief and faith and do everything they can to eradicate it. Someone once wrote that '[d]oubt digs the grave of faith.'  Frederick William Faber wrote: 'For right is right, since God is God,/ And right the day must win;/ To doubt would be disloyalty,/ To falter would be sin.'

Others see doubt as a necessary part of faith and growth in understanding. Robert Browning believed that the person '[w]ho knows most, doubts most.' And Rene Descarte, in his Principles of Philosophy argued that,

[i]f you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

At the very beginning of John Patrick Shanley's new movie, Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) preaches a sermon to his congregation where he asks the question: 'What do you do when you're not sure?'

There are two answers to this question: You could acknowledge doubt, exploring it as best you can, accept that there may be things we can never know, and live with the ambiguity that so often is a characteristic of human life. Or you could retreat into a dogmatic certainty, suppressing any doubts, and act forcefully to live as though your understanding is the absolute truth — sometimes wreaking great evil in the process. This choice between certainty and doubt is the theme of Doubt. And what a profound movie it is!

Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the parish priest of St Nicholas Church School in the Bronx during the autumn (fall) of 1964 just after Vatican II which called for priests to see themselves as 'part of the family' of their parishioners.

The principal of the school, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is an old-school nun who commands the respect of her staff and students through fear. She is ruthless and rigid. Sister James (Amy Adams) is a new teacher at the school who wants to motivate her students by inspiring them to learn because it is exciting and liberating. Sister James is innocent and naive and struggles to adapt to the governance of Sister Aloysius and is often troubled by her approach to disciplining of the students.

One of the students is the school's first black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). Sister Aloysius begins to suspect that Father Flynn is taking an inappropriate interest in Donald. Her response is swift and ruthless. Sister James is caught up in Sister Aloysius's campaign when she is recruited to keep an eye on Father Flynn and report any suspicious behaviour she might witness.

The problem with Sister Aloysius's conclusion is that the evidence is ambiguous. But that does not deter Sister Aloysius who is totally convinced of the guilt of Father Flynn. So the story becomes a battle between doubt and certainty as the fate of Father Flynn resides in the outcome.

Doubt is an absolutely brilliant film for a number of reasons. Firstly, Shanley, the writer and director,  has sustained ambiguity throughout the story forcing us, as viewers, to come to our own conclusions about what is happening. As the narrative progresses, we must consider new information and perspectives and grapple with doubt and certainty in our own thinking.

Secondly, Shanley has refused to collapse into a predictable Hollywood ending. Those who must always have a satisfying resolution to all their stories may (will?) be disappointed. This is cinema at its best — it treats us as intelligent. To watch this movie is to be forced to think for ourselves about the issues and consider our own relationship to doubt.

Thirdly, there are the actors. Meryl Streep is superb as Sister Aloysius. She inhabits her role to such an extent that we forget that it is Meryl Streep. And Philip Seymour Hoffman could not have been better in portraying Father Flynn. The occasions we see these two great actors on the screen together are tense and electrifying. And Amy Adams, Joseph Foster, and Viola Davis (who plays Donald Muller's mother) offer us subtle and powerful performances.

Doubt is the most thoughtful movie of the year so far. It's provocative portrayal of doubt and the potential evil of certainty is timely, penetrating, and deeply provocative. Doubt is a must-see movie — and I am completely certain about that!


  1. Today I heard a portion of Michael Medved's interview with the director of Doubt. I have to admit that a film which is really capped off by the people who saw the film discussing it after watching it is a good sign.

    We saw Vantage Point last week and it created a good deal of discussion afterwards, mainly about how absurd it was and how it could never work that way. I take it from the Medved interview that will not be the kind of discussion that follows "Doubt".

  2. I just finished listening to and blogging about ( a Speaking of Faith episode in which Krista Tippett interviews Jennifer Michael Hecht on the material in her book on the history of doubt. It is interesting to see two different but similarly reflective treatments of the nature and role of doubt.

  3. Thanks, HW. I look forward to listening to Krista. As far as I am concerned, doubt is essential to the development of faith and belief.