General ideas about what is true about life come from all around us — family, the mass media, books. These concepts have often seeped through from current and past thinking for example from politics, philosophy and religion. We respond with either conviction or doubt or somewhere in between.
We absorb such ideas because we tend to be interested in making sense of our lives, why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going, not to mention fathoming the reality of suffering, misfortune, and chaos that we find all around us.
But life goes on and we are obliged to make the best fist of it using what values and principles we have learned about and accept.
The question arises: Is it better to have conviction or doubt about your ideas? Conviction helps you put ideas into practice with commitment. Having doubt about ideas other people believe in can be useful given the complexities of life.
Problems with conviction or doubt
One problem in forming set beliefs is that of believing something for reasons other than to do with the truth. This might be wanting to fit in with the attitudes of friends, unease in going against what your parents told you to think as a child, and even fear of expressing a religious doubt in case this is construed as blasphemy.
Some argue that rushing into belief about something also means your understanding cannot easily be broadened and what you hold to be true cannot be qualified in any way. So they say exposing yourself to opposing ideas obliges you to think and ponder over whether your ideas are indeed true, and to gather reasons in support of them.
Having doubts can be unsettling especially if they challenge previous life choices such as vocation or marriage. The trouble with seeing every side of an issue is you can get stuck. A humorist once commented on someone who belonged to a liberal religion which celebrated doubt. This person arrived at the pearly gates of heaven only to find a signpost pointing in one direction to God, and in the other direction towards a discussion of God. He took the latter path. In other words he preferred to talk the talk rather than walk the walk of his religion.
Conviction or doubt in relation to luck
When something bad happens we might wonder why. One spiritual idea, is that good-fortune is a reward for acting rightly while bad luck is punishment for being bad. You tend to make this assumption when you find yourself asking ‘Why me, what have I done to deserve this?’
The idea that God punishes or rewards is an example of what I believe is an ‘appearance of truth’.
“Appearances of truth are given, to everyone according to (their) ability to grasp them; and these appearances are acknowledged as truths because they have the capacity to hold Divine things within them.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 3387)
England football manger Glenn Hoddle believed a person’s disability was a punishment for bad actions performed in a past life by that individual. And as a result of public outcry against this belief he was dismissed.
So what might a truer insight be? Clearly, we are all capable of bringing about our own suffering. Just keep drinking beer all day, or gambling away your savings. But often we suffer misfortune through no fault of our own. In the biblical book of Job we find someone who suffers great misfortune despite being innocent. He came to realize that good fortune and misfortune afflict the good and bad alike.
My suggestion is innocent suffering is permitted because it obliges us all to learn how to use our freedom of choice to respond to it e.g. with indifference or compassion. If this is true then it shows how a particular spiritual belief can be a temporary stepping stone to further insight.
Conviction or doubt about sacred myths
Is another example of an appearance of the truth found in sacred myth? I think so. Because they are myths, like parables, can’t they be seen on different levels depending on what people can grasp?
I offer this example. Doubting the idea of three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one God, opens up the mind to (what is to my way of thinking at least) a more rational understanding. A truer idea being these are three symbolic aspects of the one divine God – heart of creative love, head of human wisdom and hands of powerful activity.
Conviction or doubt in relation to enlightenment
For Swedenborg, the search for truth is crucial for deeper insight. Illumination of our ideas to develop conviction or doubt is seen by him as a spiritual gift which can only be received when the individual is in the genuine love of truth for the sake of truth and who humbly tries to live according to his or her lights. This is how we gain faith. In other words conviction is a feeling that can only come from inner enlightenment.
“Those with a genuine affection for truth, that is, those who desire to know truths to put them to good use and for the sake of the life they ought to lead, … when they receive (enlightenment) …their hearts rejoice.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 8993)
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on personal problems