Doubting Thomas. You all know the story. We just heard it read once again. The heart of the matter was that the other disciples had encountered Jesus on Easter evening. They had evidence that Thomas didn’t have. And so he was skeptical.
I recently participated in a focus group that was considering proposals for changes in our homeless system here in Montgomery County. In one exercise we were asked to divide the proposals into three categories: I approve, I’m conflicted, I disapprove.
I imagine that Thomas was in that middle category: conflicted. His friends believed in the resurrection and seemed to be enthusiastic about it. But resurrection? I imagine Thomas’ interior dialogue going like this. “I’m devastated by Jesus’ death. I desperately want to believe that he’s alive. I want to trust my friends’ testimony. But this kind of thing just doesn’t happen in normal experience. Maybe the others are deluding themselves. Perhaps they buried their sorrow in too much wine. I just can’t bring myself to go there without farther evidence.”
The people who scare me the most in this life are those who are absolutely certain. I think that you may know what I mean. We encounter folk like that in almost every walk of life and in every arena: true believers. Among some in the Christian world, it’s expressed in the mantra: The Bible says it. I believe it. And that settles it.
The world is flat and was made in six days, and Eve talked to a snake who talked back, and there was this Tree, and God is Up and is a He, and boys are better than girls, and sex is only for baby-making, and there will be Pie in the Sky Bye and Bye. And so the blessing Thomas gets for having doubts is turned, by some, into a kind of curse against those who raise their hands at the end of the lecture, because they still aren’t completely convinced.
I’ve lived much of my life with doubt. To say that the Bible says something doesn’t fully settle the matter for me. I find myself asking questions like:
- Does the Bible really say that? What does the Hebrew and Greek say?
- Are there other explanations?
- When was it written?
- Who wrote that text, in what context, and with what agenda?
- Has it always been interpreted that way, or have there been other perspectives?
As a boy and a young man I thought that I had things figured out. But then I started discovering that certain people weren’t quite as bad as I thought. Discovered in myself mixed motives. Realized that some of my heroes had clay feet. Ideals like freedom of speech, capitalism, and democracy have both upsides and downsides.
For the longest time I said the creeds with fingers figuratively crossed behind my back, because they contained words or phrases that stuck in my throat. There were times that I thought that I was a fraud for being a priest and questioning some tenet of the faith.
I’ve come to learn that this is a particularly Anglican sensibility. We’re true to our British roots, muddling through as they say. Even to this day the British are hard pressed to be clear about whether they want to be part of the continent of Europe or not. They like to look at all sides of a question.
And you know what? Because I’ve doubted myself, I’ve never wanted to excommunicate, shun, or banish anyone else – with the rare exception of those who were so certain that they were willing to throw others off the bus for disagreeing or differing with them.
Doubters save us from Nazism.
Doubters prevent us from engaging in genocide.
Doubters mitigate racism.
After posting the topic of DOUBT on the Church sign this week, there have been a number of inquiries, questions, and conversations about it. Tom Ioanes shared with me a TED talk on the subject. Psychologist and Middle East reporter Lesley Hazelton delivered a talk entitled Believers and Doubters in which she called for a new appreciation for doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith and an end to fundamentalism of all kinds.
Hazelton points out that the prophet Muhammad was convinced that his first encounter with God was either an hallucination or evidence that he was possessed by an evil spirit. He was overwhelmed not by conviction—but doubt. In fact, Hazelton insists that doubt, rather than the opposite of faith is actually essential to faith. Faith arises out of struggle. Mohammad struggled to understand his experience. Jacob wrestled with the angel. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness striving with satan. Thomas strove with himself for a week—and out of that struggle he knew exactly what questions needed be answered in order to come to faith.
What is often mistaken for faith is fanaticism, an absolute conviction that those who believe like we do possess the truth with a capital “T”. “Without doubt, what is left is absolute heartless conviction.” Others, who do not accept our truth are then disposable as infidels, from the Latin, meaning “faithless”. It was applied by Christian Crusaders to Muslims and more recently, by Muslim extremists to Christians, Jews, and even fellow Muslims who disagree with them. In fact, says Hazelton, fundamentalists of all stripes are the infidels, the faithless, because they have no questions, only answers. It’s the perfect antidote to thought and struggle: certainty.
Real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult, because it requires an ongoing questioning of what we think we know. It goes hand in hand with doubt.
This understanding is why many of the more certain churches grow and have large campuses and numbers. It’s why many of us in the mainline of Christianity are witnessing declining membership and, in part, why, sadly, we will participate in the closing of another Episcopal Church this afternoon up the street at St. Andrew’s.
Of course, there are many other factors at play which are beyond the scope of this reflection. But be encouraged to know, as you struggle with what to believe and question certain affirmations, that you are being faithful. You are faithful to the traditions of the world’s great religions and to our own Anglican and Christian heritage. As cracks may appear in your faith from time to time, they are allowing an opening for the Holy Spirit. As our United Church of Christ friends say, “Do not put a period where God has only placed a comma.”
 Leslie Hazelton’s Ted Talk was delivered Nov. 22, 2013, and can be viewed at this link. https://www.npr.org/2013/11/22/245951995/is-doubt-essential-to-faith