Blessing of Doubt

Blessing of Doubt

This is one of two Sundays during the year that are referred to as “low” Sundays. The designation has nothing to do with theology, but is rather a recognition that on the Sundays after Christmas and Easter, the parking lot, and the pews, tend to be somewhat emptier.

In the secular world, the story is similar: At the grocery store, Easter chocolates, baskets, and other goodies are on the sale tables; the feasting and celebrating are done, we’re getting tired of the leftovers that still remain, Easter has been put away for another year.and we’ve moved back to “life as usual”.

This morning’s gospel passage, and others like it, echo that sense that the Easter event is over, in that Jesus’ friends and disciples are grief-stricken, bewildered, and afraid. At the same time, though, the post-Easter stories make the point that “life as usual” is no longer an option.

The Sunday after Easter finds us visiting the disciples who are in shock, confused, and, despite the Easter morning revelation through the women who went to the tomb, hiding behind locked doors.

They are no longer feeling the euphoria of the entry into Jerusalem, or whatever hopes or dreams that triumphal parade brought to each one.

Here we are, with them, having our yearly visit with “Doubting Thomas”. And we have, through this story, juxtaposed faith (or belief) and doubt, the inference and assumption being that one is the opposite of the other. In fact, the Greek word “doubt”, (distazo) does not appear in this story. The concepts being compared are “belief” and “disbelief”, disbelief being, it seems to me, a far stronger sentiment than doubt.

And when we look again more closely, the name that we’ve given this character, “Doubting Thomas”, is also a misnomer. We might be better to call him “Conditional Thomas” since what he does is set out conditions for his belief. “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.” (v. 25) In fact, what Thomas is describing is not belief but knowledge, certainty. When he sees Jesus, with his wounds, Thomas no longer has to believe, he knows. As Jesus says in v. 29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What does it mean to “believe”? The online dictionary says that to believe is “to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so.” That’s not Thomas.

But if we’re picking up on the idea of belief that is in this story, then we need to think more about what that involves. If you’re a “believer”, does that mean you have no doubt – I hope not. And yet, in many faith communities, and often in many other areas of our lives, that is the goal – to remove all doubt and reach “certainty”, to know, as Thomas knew.

Uncertainty, doubt, gets a bad rap. It wasn’t always so. When the early church discussed doubting Thomas, the figure who couldn’t bring himself to accept Christ’s resurrection and had to touch his wounds before he believed, he was seen differently at different times.

Early theologians referred to Thomas disparagingly; as an unbeliever, he was an embarrassment. John Chrysostom, who lived in the 4th century CE, described Thomas as ‘grosser and more materialistic’ than the other apostles. He referred to him as the epitome of the weakness of human faith and the inadequacy of many Christians – Thomas’s faith was insufficient to convince him of the miracle of the resurrection, and he would only believe when presented with visual evidence.

Not too much later, though, it was Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604 CE, who, as he increased the focus on the Eucharist and the body of Christ, established Thomas as a model in whom Christians could identify their own personal spiritual journey from skepticism to faith, from disbelief or doubt to belief.

In the later Middle Ages as well, Thomas was seen in a better light.  An increasingly positive concept of the role of the senses in the spiritual life, particularly encouraged by a growing materialism and commercialism, re-validated the figure of Thomas as one whose faith was based upon empirical evidence, and whose concerns about the origins of knowledge were shared by medieval people.

Also, anxiety about earlier Docetist and Arian heresies which held that Jesus merely appeared to be human but, in reality, was not, meant that Thomas ’ emphasis on the physical body of Christ was particularly welcomed by the established church and by orthodox theology.  Thomas became the model theologian.

But perhaps more importantly, Thomas and his own personal journey from unbelief to belief was increasingly cited as a model for ordinary believers.

The figure of Doubting Thomas was used to suggest that doubt and skepticism are common to us all, and spiritually useful in allowing us to explore and critique and challenge in new and productive ways.

I said before that uncertainty or doubt, gets a bad rap. In many circumstances, we long for and lift up certainty, and see doubt as weakness.

In the political realm, which is at the forefront these days, those who express doubts or a change of opinion get slaughtered in the media. We expect certainty from people in public positions – why is that? Sometimes, it would be more thoughtful, more honest, to say either “I don’t know” or ” I need to give that further thought.” In effect, leaders who exude certainty are saying that they know all there is to know and all they need to know. That closes down the conversation as well as the mind and heart.

The same happens in the religious realm – faith is pared down to a set of beliefs, without a doubt. That certainly inhibits dialogue, and ends further thought and the addition of new insights.

Certainty is not only not helpful, it is an inhibitor of growth. If I am certain, I need think no further. I need not take in any more information, nor listen to any other viewpoint. There is no room for the new, the imaginative, the un-thought of.

Doubt, on the other hand, keeps us open to new insights, to creative possibilities, and to developing relationships – with God and with each other. Relationships depend on recognizing that we are constantly learning more about each other, and that we DON’T know everything there is to know.

Paul Tillich, a prominent 20th century Protestant theologian, said: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith”.

Certainty also denies our humanness, and the fact that there is much that is beyond our knowing. Certainty assumes that we can have a God’s-eye view… and we can’t. Much as we might like to, we can’t know everything. And that’s uncomfortable. Uncertainty, mystery, ambiguity is difficult. We might wish that, like Thomas, we had been there to see for ourselves, to touch, to have our beliefs confirmed, but we weren’t and we cannot know in that way.

Perhaps we can re-set our thinking about doubt. Perhaps we can accept doubt as a gift, a gift that keeps us in a growing relationship – with each other and with God. Doubt keeps us curious, eager to explore, so that our relationship with God never becomes stale.

Doubt helps us to recognize that we are constantly capable of growing, changing, learning – learning more about each other, learning more about the creation of which we are part, learning more about the Creator.

In this season after the surprise of the resurrection, the gift of doubt opens us to God’s surprises, it opens us to the “new life” that Easter promises.

Rev. Heather Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.