This past Saturday, two dear friends invited me to their home to share time with a gathering of their friends for a book reading and signing of my collection of sermons, For the Living of These Days. The spirit was warm, the hospitality, most gracious, the refreshments, plenteous and scrumptious, the conversation, rich. I had a ball! In the Q&A period, one person asked me to comment on the relation between faith and doubt. I responded by referencing one of the vignettes in John’s gospel featuring Thomas. With doubt on my mind, I share this reflection.
Doubt. That capacity, that freedom to profess wonderment. That ability, that liberty to confess, “I don’t know.”
Without doubt, I do not, I cannot question. (Anyone can voice an answer. I receive information from an ostensibly reputable source. A well-regarded book. A reputed professor or sage scholar. The venerable Bible. A trusted friend. Believing what I’ve heard, I repeat it, and without necessarily revealing much or any of what I think or feel. However, when I ask a question, I express, I expose more of who I am and what truly matters to me.)
Without doubt, I cannot listen, for my heart beats with little desire to hear words or perceive ideas other than my own.
Without doubt, I cannot discern and learn, discovering something other than what I think I already know.
Without doubt, I cannot believe, granting intellectual assent to the truth of something or someone.
Without doubt (thinking of the Epistle to the Hebrews), I cannot have faith so to be assured, convinced of something or someone I cannot see.
This, the value, the necessity of doubt is what Thomas, my spiritual brother, teaches me.
In one of life’s hyper-critical moments, everything he believed was destroyed. The one in whom he believed had been murdered by a conspiracy between the institutions of religion and state. A devastated Thomas withdrew, no longer gathering with his fellow disciples, refusing (perhaps not believing in the efficacy of) communal consolation, entering alone the tomb of his hopeless anguish.
Then the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples who, inspired, inspirited with a joy they had to share, searched for their solitary friend. Finding him, they shared the news. Thomas didn’t dismiss their confession of faith, “You don’t know what you’re saying!” Much less, did he reject them, “I don’t believe you!” Rather in the clarity, perhaps the ironic certainty of his doubt, he discerned and could (and, because he chose to be vulnerable with his friends, would) articulate what for him constituted tangible proof for his belief.
Driven by the courage of (verily, encouraged by) his doubt, Thomas rejoined his friends, putting himself in place to test his conviction, to behold a vision of the risen Jesus, and, thus, to make the declaration, “My Lord and my God!”
Notwithstanding Jesus’ question (“Have you believed because you have seen me?”), I do not think that Thomas believed simply because he saw or even touched Jesus.
Sight, one of our most faulty, easily fooled physical senses, never can be a trustworthy solitary pathway to belief. Even more, in the case of Jesus, during the course of his earthly ministry many saw him (ate and drank with him, heard his teaching, witnessed his miracles), but still arrested and accused, condemned and crucified him because they didn’t believe.
Thomas, I think, saw because he came to believe that Jesus (the one he had known and loved, the one from whom he learned, the one who was so true to his word that he died for his cause) was his Lord and God, the one whose teaching, the one whose way of being he would follow for the rest of his life. In effect, when Thomas said, “My Lord and my God” he was singing the words of that old spiritual, “I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice.”
In order to believe, whether the subject is Jesus or anything or anyone else, all it takes, I think, is a little doubt.