After the Resurrection: Faith and Doubt
by Tim Mooney
The disciple known as Thomas, by and large, has been given a bad rap. He doubts what the other disciples say because he was not there; and then when he believes, he receives sort of a backhanded compliment from Jesus: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The point seems to be: doubting, needing more information, disagreeing with the majority, is a sign of weakness. True and blessed believers believe without needing to see.
Which strikes me as a little funny, when I look at what the Gospel of Luke has to say. The disciples are gathered together, Jesus appears and says, Peace be with you. But they were startled and terrified. Then Jesus says, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
The Jesus we see in the Gospel of Luke is quite anxious for the disciples to engage their doubts and fears: as if to say, see and touch, investigate, look, find out more information – trusting, then, that belief will follow.
I am concerned that our culture, in America and in the church, is in a period of time where doubting is suspect, a sign of weak faith, a sign of not being a true believer, a true American. We want leaders who don’t doubt, and we seem afraid or unwilling to doubt our own convictions.
The writer of a letter-to-the-Editor, speaking of a public official, said of him, “He is a man with the courage of his convictions.” This letter struck me, because I had just finished reading a book titled, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. The book says, a common characteristic of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and those of other religions who commit atrocious acts in the name of God, is they have the courage of their convictions in spades. They do not doubt, they believe! If they did doubt, those doubts have been repressed; they no longer have the ability to pause, reconsider, see more clearly. Fundamentalists of all kinds leave little room for doubt. The absolute certainty of their convictions is the cause of much suffering in our world. Another letter to the editor the same day, said, “Fundamentalists threatening [so-and-so] with the ‘wrath of God’ have got it backward. If there is a devil, he is in concert with fundamentalists of all religions. More evil has been committed by fundamentalists, than all [so-and-sos] since time began.”
The author of that first letter-to-the editor, then went on to say, “I know an honest and righteous man when I see one.” He is confident in his ability to judge a man or woman’s character from television clips, or articles online, or in the paper. Where did he get such fool-proof ability? How can he be so sure?
I am advocating for a healthy dose of doubt. It’s helpful to have the courage of our convictions, but it is important to have the courage to express doubt, because the truth is, we can’t always believe what we’re told, what we read, and we don’t know without a doubt an honest and righteous man or woman when we see one.
Thomas had doubts. But he had the courage to express those doubts in front of the other disciples. God does not fear our doubts. In the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus willing, if not glad, to welcome doubts by inviting exploration, saying, “see and touch.” We need not be afraid of our doubts, or the doubts of others.
I am advocating for a healthy dose of doubt.
have had many conversations with those who grew up in the church, and when they began asking tough questions, they were told to be quiet, don’t cause problems, and just believe. So they left the church, but mind you, they did not leave God. They have continued to wrestle with, and believe in, a God that is with them. But the church is no longer part of their journey.
I would ask you, now, to take 30 seconds, to identify your doubts. Don’t suppress them; let them arise if they are real. (30 seconds of silence) And now a request. Will you let Louise and I know of your doubts? They might be the basis for a Faith Formation class, spur a book study, a topic for Theology on Tap, or become the theme for a future series of sermons. We are not afraid of your doubts.
In Mark 9:24, the father of a boy who suffered seizures says to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, help us!” Jesus says, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father then says a memorable line: “I believe, help my unbelief.” You and I believe and doubt at the same time. Jesus spoke of faith the size of a mustard seed. Not just faith that we are forgiven, but faith that our doubts are not detriments to our relationship with God.
Biblical commentator William Barclay had this to say about Thomas in his commentary on the Gospel of John.
But Thomas had two great virtues. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There is an uncompromising honesty about him. He would never still his doubts by pretending that they did not exist. He was not the kind of person who would rattle off a creed without understanding what it was all about. Thomas had to be sure – and he was quite right. Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” There is more ultimate faith in the person who insists on being sure, than in the person who glibly repeats things, which he or she has never thought out, and which he or she may not really believe. It is doubt like that which in the end arrives at certainty.
Sometimes there is a world of wisdom on a bumper sticker. Like the one I saw the other day: “Don’t believe everything you think.” How wise that is.
Though the Gospel of John says blessed are those who do not see and yet believe, it does not say that those who need to see, in order to believe, are not blessed. In fact, in John 20:8, the disciple whom Jesus loved, raced to the tomb and after letting Peter go in first, he went in, “and he saw and believed.”
By believing and doubting – honestly expressed and explored – we follow Jesus more closely. Amen.