Faith, Doubt, Tennyson

I was just reading over Logan’s (re)post at BCC, and I recalled a familiar line about faith and doubt, from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The poet wrote:

You say, but with no touch of scorn,
Sweet-hearted, you, whose light-blue eyes
Are tender over drowning flies,
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

(XCVI) (emphasis added)

The famous last two lines express a sentiment that resonates with me — sometimes it requires greater faith to articulate doubts, to grapple with problems, to acknowledge honestly the limits of one’s belief, than it does to simply adopt a set of beliefs.

[And given our tendency as churchmembers to prooftext extensively, let me point out a fact that might be relevant only for Mormons: A passage from this very poem is included in our (prophet-endorsed) hymnal. So there must be something divine about at least some of Tennyson’s writings, and at least some of this poem in particular. Now this is a limited endorsement — the passage included isn’t the one I’ve cited here — but nevertheless potentially illustrative. I don’t think that any lines from Nietzsche would ever be included in the hymnal, no matter how many wild bells he wrote about.]

9 comments for “Faith, Doubt, Tennyson

  1. December 2, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    Not only faith, but courage too. When everyone at Church talks about how they know the Church is true, it’s a lot easier not to express any doubt you may have. It takes a lot of courage to be honest with and about yourself when it concerns something different from and less desireable than what everyone else is.

  2. Kristine
    December 2, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    Hey, Kaimi–have you tried singing this to the tune of “Ring Out, Wild Bells”? I wonder what would happen if I did that with my choir this holiday season ;)

  3. Kaimi
    December 2, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Not a bad idea, Kris, though this passage presents some issues (like the lack of a natural break between the 8th and 9th line). The repetition of the last two lines of each stanza would emphasize the well-known part, which would be kind of cool.

  4. Bill
    December 2, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    For those who may be interested, here are the stanzas the hymnbook doesn’t use:

    Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light;
    The year is dying in the night;
    Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

    Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
    Ring out the false, ring in the true.

    Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
    For those that here we see no more,
    Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
    Ring in redress to all mankind.

    Ring out a slowly dying cause,
    And ancient forms of party strife;
    Ring in the nobler modes of life,
    With sweeter manners, purer laws.

    Ring out the want, the care the sin,
    The faithless coldness of the times;
    Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
    But ring the fuller minstrel in.

    Ring out false pride in place and blood,
    The civic slander and the spite;
    Ring in the love of truth and right,
    Ring in the common love of good.

    Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
    Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
    Ring out the thousand wars of old,
    Ring in the thousand years of peace.

    Ring in the valiant man and free,
    The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
    Ring out the darkenss of the land,
    Ring in the Christ that is to be.

  5. Adam Greenwood
    December 2, 2004 at 5:32 pm

    That’s an idea I don’t have much truck for. Whenever I think of honest doubt I think of the Episcopal Ghost in the Great Divorce.

    “Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.”

  6. Kristine
    December 2, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    “That’s an idea I don’t have much truck for. ”

    We’ve noticed, Adam.

  7. Jim F.
    December 4, 2004 at 12:26 am

    Adam, certainly self-deceiving doubt is possible and may even be common. But why do you not truck with the idea that honest doubt is possible? I agree that those who consider themselves intellectuals–like most of us on this blog–may find it too easy to congratulate themselves with their doubts. But I’m curious why you seem to reject the idea that a person can have honest doubts about the Gospel.

  8. Rob Briggs
    December 4, 2004 at 1:19 am

    I agree with the implied repudiation of the attitude of the proud and haughty doubter. But . . .

    “I believe! Err . . . help thou my unbelief.” (My translation ;-a)

    Sounds like the heart and soul of honest doubt to me. For me, it’s paradigmatic.

  9. December 5, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    If by honest doubt, one means the force the leads one to genuinely pursue answers (by study and by action), it’s pretty easy to see what it has in common with faith. There’s an absence of knowledge and assurance, and committed pursuit given in the hope that something good will come of it.

    Certainly more faith in that than in the creeds.

Comments are closed.