03 April 2016

Room for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Second Sunday of Easter
3rd April 2016

Thomas has received a lot of criticism over the centuries for his doubt.  And ever since then, it seems, doubt lost its place in the world of faith.  No one wants to be called a Doubting Thomas.

I can remember as a boy struggling with doubt.  I was taught, either directly or indirectly, that God wanted my belief, complete belief, one hundred percent.  I was taught that doubt, being the opposite of belief, was a bad thing, to be avoided, and eventually conquered.  I was taught about “justification through faith” (Romans 5:1).  God wants my faith in order for faith to be effective. Doubt was evidence that I didn’t believe enough, have faith enough to be saved. 

The text from John seems to support this view.  Thomas was nowhere to be found when Jesus first appeared to the other disciples on Easter. When Thomas returned and learned that he just missed Jesus, the risen Lord, you can see why he would be extremely skeptical. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 19:25).  In other words, I won’t be made the fool.  I want to see the evidence.  I want to see it myself.  I want to touch his wounds myself. 

And then, a week later, Thomas was with the disciples at home, behind shut doors.  Jesus stood among them again and said, “Peace be with you.”  Word of Thomas’ incredulity must have gotten back to Jesus because he says directly to Thomas—who was probably beating himself up all week for not being home when Jesus showed up the first time (I would have)—“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe” (John 19:27).  And then Thomas answered, “My Lord and My God.”  Thomas came to believe through evidence and then Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 19:29).  With Jesus’ words here you can see why we’ve come to disparage doubt and desire belief.  We don’t have Jesus’ wounds to physically touch. All we have is belief—but who wants to be like Thomas?

But is all of this criticism really warranted?  Is there really no place for doubt within the life of faith? Are they polar opposites?  My own dualistic, either-or thinking on this subject began to collapse when I was in college.  It was in a theology class (offered by a very secular, public university in New Jersey), when I heard the professor, Hiroshi Obayashi—a teacher I highly respected, a Christian—say, “We should always maintain a healthy agnosticism.” We need to leave space for humility of knowledge, somewhere between faith and doubt, to say we don’t know and will never know everything.  Slowly I learned that doubt was important, incredibly important—not the kind of doubt that leaves us cynical or always skeptical—but doubt that keeps things open, open to discovering something new and different, open to discovering what one thought was true is no longer true or was never true and so you have to lean into a new way of knowing the world or yourself or neighbor or even God.  Maybe we need more doubt in the church—again, not the cynical, skeptical kind, that becomes tiresome—but the kind that leaves us always curious.

On Friday morning, our own Jeff Bolognese, who works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, hosted what may have been the very first Presbyterian Pastor Tour at NASA.  Dorothy Boulton, David and Molly Douthett, pastors serving in National Capital Presbytery and very dear, longtime friends, and I were treated to a remarkable behind the scenes walkthrough of some of the test facilities.  We finished the tour in an observation room looking down at the construction of the James Webb SpaceTelescope, which will be launched in October 2018.  It’s the most ambitious telescope ever made by Goddard, costing billions of dollars, which will allow us to see into the darkness of space and search in the darkest, coldest reaches of the universe for some evidence of light, original light that emerged at the beginning of time.  It was extraordinarily humbling to stand there and see that telescope—I felt tears welling up in me—for who knows what this will discover.  We stood around talking about the nature of scientific research.  Jeff said, “Scientists change their minds because of data.”  Scientists want more data because they want to discover more.  Once the Hubble Telescope was launched they said, “What’s next?”  Scientists ask questions, explore the evidence; they’re learning, discovering all the time, always asking, “What else don’t we know?”  The questions push us forward.  The truth is out there, but the truth is open-ended.

Thomas the doubter sounds oddly contemporary.  Maybe he deserves our thanks and praise. That’s what James Loder (1931-2001) said.  Professor of practical theology at Princeton, with considerable interest in science, a mentor and friend, Loder wrote a short piece in praise of Thomas.  Jim wrote, “It is to Thomas’ great credit that he knows a problem when he sees it. …I see Thomas’ famous dubiety not so much a problem of whether [Jesus] lives, but if He lives—for that presents the problem.  His doubt is rooted in a profound sense of the implications of such a claim and an unwillingness to take that step seriously.”  “It’s a problem,” Loder writes, “to have the presumably dead Jesus, radically reversing the universal tendency of matter to disintegrate, appear before you in a form of tangibility you’ve never seen before.  It is a problem so great that it may violently awaken you from a deep Newtonian slumber and put you into the world in a new way—yet without any sense of direction…perhaps, all you know to do is wander off and go fishing.”  Thomas “sees all too clearly that if he lives, [if Jesus lives] the apparent and assumptive world we have always tended to take for granted is not actually definitive of us after all.”[1] 

We could just say we believe and be done with it and go about our lives.  This is what Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) called bad faith, ‘Just say you believe in God, then you won’t have to think about it anymore.”[2]  Loder says, “Oh, yes, I know—‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Cynically, one can say, ‘Thank goodness he said that.  I haven’t seen anything and I don’t want to, so I can say I believe, and by this saying, I can be better than Thomas and still not have it make any difference!”

But it made a difference to Thomas.  It made a difference because his doubt, his search for proof was evidence that he actually cared enough to know the truth. The polymath Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) said we only come to know something or someone when we care enough to know; we come to know through love.  “Of course, if Thomas had really wanted to avoid the implications of the claim his companions were making,” Loder suggests, “if he had really wanted to avoid changing anything, he made a big, tactical mistake.  He should have just walked away, left the scene so as not to be associated with a marginal person who thought that way.”

Thomas’ doubt was an expression of how much he cared.  He had “the courage to say so, and the tenacity not to let go of it until he had an answer.”  Thomas “believed the empirical test was necessary but found, like so many after him in all fields of human endeavor…that the truth always exceeds the proof.”  But the doubt pushed him there.  That’s because, as Loder said and as he knew firsthand in his own life, “Yes, sooner or later, when you get passionate about this you will walk headlong into the resurrected incarnation.  When that stunning moment occurs or when that astounding realization gradually dawns upon you over a considerable length of time…when you say ‘My Lord and my God,’ without actually having to touch Him after all, you know you have been struck an immortal blow, you have been permanently wounded by the sheer awe and wonder of this grace.  Once wised up, you can’t wise down.”

So, here’s to Thomas. Here’s to doubt. Here’s to being curious, courageous, and caring enough to pursue and explore and fathom what we really mean when we say we believe, “Christ is risen!”  

[1] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).  All the references to Thomas are found in the Epilogue, especially 213-215.  For more on Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology ofJames E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Cited in Loder, 214.

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