Saturday, April 28, 2007

Doubting Thomas

“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas!” Growing up it seemed like every time I had a question about God, someone along the way would tell me to put aside my questions and just believe. Just believe…as if it were that easy to resolve my complicated inquiries into the nature of the Divine.

As I got older and became increasingly more interested in God and the church, I learned to hide my questions, to be ashamed of my uncertainties and to berate myself for the inevitable doubts and questions that I had as I encountered what it meant to be a Christian. I remember vividly one youth retreat in which I knelt at the altar for hours asking, no begging, God, to forgive me for doubting, beseeching God to strengthen my faith and disappear like magic my questions and doubts.

As much as I had tried I could not get those questions and doubts out of my head. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God, why does it say one thing in one place and something entirely different in the other? If, God is all-powerful and all-loving, why is there evil in the world? If God is a spirit, why do we call God “he?” If God is compassionate and good, why did Jesus suffer? If the Bible records history, did people really live to be hundreds of years old? If Christianity is the one way, what about people of other faith traditions? Are they wrong? Are they going to hell? If God created the world in six days, what about evolution? What does resurrection mean, really? Why do bad things happen to good people?

How could I be a faithful follower when I had so many questions? From everything I had been told, I knew I could not.

Many a sermon has been preached with Thomas as the quintessential bad guy. When the other disciples told him that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion, Thomas refused to believe. He could not take their word for it, he wanted to se for himself. The story we hear told and see played out on our Sunday School felt boards depicts Jesus returning for Thomas and rebuking him with harsh words, admonishing his doubt and calling him to believe. The moral of the story was clear -- Don’t be like Thomas! Believe! Don’t doubt!

I find more often than not people in churches don't like to talk about their fears or failures. What would people think of us? I’ve discovered all sorts of anxieties and resentments festering underneath the deceptively calm surface of many faith communities. Over the years working in a variety of ecclesial settings I have come to realize I’m not the only one who has struggled with questions. I’ve watched people struggling alone with deep questions because they were afraid of how others might react to their doubts. Doubts and uncertainty frighten us. That’s why we reject Thomas -- he dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.

When the disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus, he answers, "Unless I see the mark of the nails -- in fact, until I touch those marks and put my hand in the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe." What if this is some mistake, a delusion born of desperate hope, an apparition? Thomas needs to find out for himself. Mary can’t experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples can’t experience Jesus for Thomas. Thomas must know for himself. We, too, must know for ourselves.

I don't think Thomas is any more of a doubter than the other disciples or, perhaps, than most of us. But he is the only one to admit it.

Doubts are not the impious heresy of non-believers; rather doubts arise from those who seek to believe the most for they require a deep wrestling with the tough questions of life. Doubts and questions confront us with the meaning of our faith as we seek to understand what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Several weeks after my shameful weeping at the youth retreat, I was sitting out on the front porch of my of my friend’s house. We were staring up at the night sky, wondering at the beauty of the world around us and somewhere in our conversation we began to talk about God. Now, this friend, was considered both to be academically brilliant and spiritually “perfect,” a tried and true believer. In our conversation, I felt dishonest about my questions in the face of her belief and so finally confessed that I had questions. I had doubts. I expected to hear her admonish me for my lack of faith and urge me to just believe, but instead she looked at me with a look of pure compassion and told me that if I never doubted, I could never truly believe.

You see, she explained that summer night, doubt and faith are inextricably intertwined. Doubt moves us to belief by helping us to wrestle with the big questions of life. If we never doubt, if we never question, how can we ever expect to understand what it is our faith tradition really says and means? Doubters take seriously the inevitable questions that are part of human life and in that way take seriously the answers that arise from our faith traditions. If we “just believe” without thoughtful reflection, what type of faith is that in the end?

Doubts, questions and uncertainties scare us for they lead us into the unknown and threaten to expose what we fear to be the underlying meaningless of our experience. Yet, far from being our enemies, our doubts and questions carry us through this abyss of chaos to the other side in which we discover how deep our faith has really been all along. It is only through this process of deep questioning and wrestling with the Divine that we find we can ever honestly proclaim our faith.

No comments: