“Who among us—everybody, everybody!—who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith? Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them.” These were the words of the current Pope, Francis, probably the most popular Pope in recent memory. He is not alone in expressing thoughts on a subject often neglected and yet always present underneath the steely certainty of so many pronouncements on faith. Martin Luther, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, to name but a few, have all uttered similar recognition of an underlying reality.
If we are honest, many of us would identify more closely with the plight of Thomas, one of Jesus’s close companions when he said that unless he felt the holes in Jesus’s side and hands he would not believe that he was risen from the dead. There are only two other mentions of Thomas, both in John’s account. Significantly, the first showed that he was present in the death defying encounter with Lazarus, who was given his life back four days after his untimely death. The second was his reply to Jesus who told his disciples that they knew the road he was taking; Thomas’s response, “We have no idea where you are going.” Poor Thomas, it seems no one else was willing to give voice to the doubts they must have had about following their radical friend. And, having witnessed the powerful reality of the resurrection of Lazarus, he still has real doubts concerning the return of a living Jesus following his brutal crucifixion.
Those who profess to follow Jesus Christ have nothing more to go on than a belief that what was written so many years ago is at least largely true, coupled usually with an inner response that is logically difficult to define, but we call faith. For many, this response is reinforced by events and experiences that further confirm these responses and allow a deepening of conviction. What we don’t spend much time examining, are the many conflicting ideas, experiences and failures that undermine and seek to weaken our resolve. What do we do with the claims of those who do not share this faith, that we are deluded, weak, needing some reassurance of our immortality? How do we deal with the countless times our prayers have seemingly gone unanswered? What do we do when, like Thomas, we feel like we don’t know where this is all going and our past experiences are severely tested by the death of a loved one we thought God would heal?
There is little room given to these often unspoken fears and doubts, and yet Thomas and those I mention earlier, point to a healthy realism we might all do well to emulate. I have the feeling that a greater acknowledgement of our inner fears and doubts, especially from those who lead the Christian community, might release so many of us from a feeling of letting the side down, from somehow disappointing the God in whom we have put our faith. So much contemporary theology has centered around our level of faith determining how prosperous we might become, how effective our prayers might be, that to have any doubt will simply negate any positive outcome from our petitions and desires. If we pray harder, fast longer, never doubt, then the healing will come, but when it doesn’t, somehow we have failed to move God enough as our faith fell short.
As I think about Thomas and his open acknowledgement of not knowing where this story was leading, and his stubborn refusal to say the right thing in the absence of proof, I think of the response of Jesus. Far from chastising Thomas, he invites him to experience the proof he craves. Surely, the mere presence of the physical Jesus should have been enough? But Jesus allows him to experience tangible proof through touching the very wounds he said were necessary to restore his faith. He then goes on to address the rest of us who have never had the benefit of the physical Jesus and encourages us with the promise of how much more encouraged we will be for believing without touching. There are moments when we all have doubts about everything we believe. Open acknowledgement does not have to undermine our faith, but, like Thomas, allows us to further our journey and deepen our faith for there was no condemnation for Thomas and so also not for us.
Personally I think that wrestling with doubts is completely healthy; it almost always results in our faith growing stronger as we realise why we believe things. In faith matters, answers don’t always come easily, and those that are harder to arrive at are all the more satisfying for being so.
Questioning was the Rabinnic method of training, something that Jesus used a lot. ‘Who do you say I am?’ ‘What do you think?’; also the disciples questioned Him back again. This is normal and healthy; weak faith does not question whereas strong faith does. Weak faith is afraid that it might find out something ‘counter-faith’ if it questions, whereas strong faith is already secure and just finds more meaning. This is why conservative evangelicals/fundamentals/whatever are so afraid of science, evolution and the like. Because they are afraid of conceding even one small point, they simply dismiss the whole lot as ‘wrong’ or ‘demonic’ rather than actually using their brains – which in actuality God gave them to use in order to find out more about Him.
Which is a shame. There is so much richness out there once we realise that God speaks to us however He likes – through the bible, yes, but also through science, through a sunset, through others (believers and unbelievers alike) and even through donkeys, apparently (Balaam had one such, I believe).
I wrote an article on this last September; if you’re interested, here’s the link:
Thanks for the contribution – I’ll definitely go back and read your post
Interesting. I’m still submerged in my Work Deadlines of Hell period so have not been able to really put any thought into your recent musings. But this has touched a nerve. Coming from a family of what I might term Blind Believers – those who never doubt, never question, and who have unshakable faith – I’ve always been disquieted by those who do not doubt. I find it unnerving, and unhealthy, not to seek out and explore the cracks in the argument and to demand firmer answers. Yet I also feel a huge amount of guilt when I do challenge those with unquestioning faith, because it causes so much anxiety for those who are challenged. It deeply upsets my family if I ever ask difficult questions: they panic, because Thou Shalt Not Question is the eleventh commandment. This forms a significant barrier to actually speaking about anything to do with faith or religion (different entities in my understanding). Isn’t questioning… healthy?? Sure, we can explain this all away by looking at the history of church control, etc… but I often wonder whether whichever muppet wrote Doubting Thomas into the Bible will ultimately be responsible for the collapse of Christianity.
Great to hear from you on this and I very much appreciate your perspective – I think you speak for many who have experienced and in varying degrees, have rejected the blind faith approach. I think part of my mission in this blog is to question and provoke thought from those who profess faith and those who don’t. I am looking forward to your thoughts on the subject of hell – am grateful for taking the time to enrich and add to my musings!
I’m SO excited about working on hell: it is going to be an invigorating academic journey. I’ve only not done it yet because it warrants a proper job, if you know what I mean (it’s up there with my ‘does the soul have a gender?!’ research). ‘Doubt’ is now also on my radar. Intrigued as to why, culturally, we have the need for doubt, and why it is such a threat. Interesting, interesting…
I know how you feel.