Full text of author Casey Gerald’s talk: The Gospel of Doubt at TED conference. In this moving talk, Gerald urges us all to question our beliefs, to embrace doubt and to find the courage to believe in something new.
Casey Gerald – Author
There we were: souls and bodies packed into a Texas church on the last night of our lives. Packed into a room just like this, but with creaky wooden pews draped in worn-down red fabric, with an organ to my left and a choir at my back and a baptism pool built into the wall behind them. A room like this, nonetheless.
With the same great feelings of suspense, the same deep hopes for salvation, the same sweat in the palms and the same people in the back not paying attention.
This was December 31, 1999, the night of the Second Coming of Christ, and the end of the world as I knew it.
I had turned 12 that year, and had reached the age of accountability. And once I stopped complaining about how unfair it was that Jesus would return as soon as I had to be accountable for all that I had done, I figured I had better get my house in order very quickly.
So I went to church as often as I could. I listened for silence as anxiously as one might listen for noise, trying to be sure that the Lord hadn’t pulled a fast one on me and decided to come back early.
And just in case he did, I built a backup plan, by reading the “Left Behind” books that were all the rage at the time. And I found in their pages that if I was not taken in the Rapture at midnight, I had another shot.
All I had to do was avoid taking the mark of the beast, fight off demons, plagues and the Anti-christ himself. It would be hard but I knew I could do it.
But planning time was over now. It was 11:50 pm. We had 10 minutes left, and my pastor called us out of the pews and down to the altar because he wanted to be praying when midnight struck.
So every faction of the congregation took its place. The choir stayed in the choir stand, the deacons and their wives — or the Baptist Bourgeoisie as I like to call them — took first position in front of the altar.
You see, in America, even the Second Coming of Christ has a VIP section.
And right behind the Baptist Bourgeoisie were the elderly — these men and women whose young backs had been bent under hot suns in the cotton fields of East Texas, and whose skin seemed to be burned a creaseless noble brown, just like the clay of East Texas, and whose hopes and dreams for what life might become outside of East Texas had sometimes been bent and broken even further than their backs.
Yes, these men and women were the stars of the show for me. They had waited their whole lives for this moment, just as their medieval predecessors had longed for the end of the world, and just as my grandmother waited for the Oprah Winfrey Show to come on Channel 8 every day at 4 o’clock.
And as she made her way to the altar, I snuck right in behind her, because I knew for sure that my grandmother was going to heaven. And I thought that if I held on to her hand during this prayer, I might go right on with her. So I held on and I closed my eyes to listen, to wait.
And the prayers got louder. And the shouts of response to the call of the prayer went up higher even still. And the organ rolled on in to add the dirge. And the heat came on to add to the sweat. And my hand gripped firmer, so I wouldn’t be the one left in the field.
My eyes clenched tighter so I wouldn’t see the wheat being separated from the chaff. And then a voice rang out above us: “Amen.”
It was over.
I looked at the clock. It was after midnight. I looked at the elder believers whose savior had not come, who were too proud to show any signs of disappointment, who had believed too much and for too long to start doubting now.
But I was upset on their behalf. They had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and I had gone right along with them. I had prayed their prayers, I had yielded not to temptation as best I could. I had dipped my head not once, but twice in that snot-inducing baptism pool.
I had believed.
Now what? I got home just in time to turn on the television and watch Peter Jennings announce the new Millennium as it rolled in around the world. It struck me that it would have been strange anyway, for Jesus to come back again and again based on the different time zones.
And this made me feel even more ridiculous — hurt, really.
But there on that night, I did not stop believing. I just believed a new thing: that it was possible not to believe.
It was possible the answers I had were wrong, that the questions themselves were wrong. And now, where there was once a mountain of certitude, there was, running right down to its foundation, a spring of doubt, a spring that promised rivers.
I can trace the whole drama of my life back to that night in that church when my savior did not come for me; when the thing I believed most certainly turned out to be, if not a lie, then not quite the truth.
And even though most of you prepared for Y2K in a very different way, I’m convinced that you are here because some part of you has done the same thing that I have done since the dawn of this new century, since my mother left and my father stayed away and my Lord refused to come.
And I held out my hand, reaching for something to believe in. I held on when I arrived at Yale at 18, with the faith that my journey from Oak Cliff, Texas was a chance to leave behind all the challenges I had known, the broken dreams and broken bodies I had seen.
But when I found myself back home one winter break, with my face planted in the floor, my hands tied behind my back and a burglar’s gun pressed to my head, I knew that even the best education couldn’t save me.
I held on when I showed up at Lehman Brothers as an intern in 2008. So hopeful that I called home to inform my family that we’d never be poor again.
But as I witnessed this temple of finance come crashing down before my eyes, I knew that even the best job couldn’t save me.
I held on when I showed up in Washington DC as a young staffer, who had heard a voice call out from Illinois, saying, “It’s been a long time coming, but in this election, change has come to America.”
But as the Congress ground to a halt and the country ripped at the seams and hope and change began to feel like a cruel joke, I knew that even the political second coming could not save me.
I had knelt faithfully at the altar of the American Dream, praying to the gods of my time of success, and money, and power. But over and over again, midnight struck, and I opened my eyes to see that all of these gods were dead.
And from that graveyard, I began the search once more, not because I was brave, but because I knew that I would either believe or I would die.
So I took a pilgrimage to yet another mecca, Harvard Business School — this time, knowing that I could not simply accept the salvation that it claimed to offer.