Doubt and Questions that Lead to Life
Poor old Thomas, I often think he gets a bit of a raw deal by being remembered as “Doubting Thomas” because the inference is he had less faith than the other disciples. Really Thomas only required what they all had – an opportunity to see for himself this scarcely believable miracle of their beloved master and teacher being alive again despite all that they had seen with their own terrified eyes! He just didn’t happen to be there the first time. Indeed because Jesus did it all again for Thomas’ benefit the other disciples got a second chance to be blessed.
I for one am very grateful that this story was kept in the tradition because it includes my experience, my need for answers, explorations, and living with questions – rather than just taking other people’s word for it – to be legitimately, essentially, part of the faith journey.
In this scenario, reflecting on the readings set for the second Sunday of Easter (Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and John 20:19-31 ), it is primarily about questions and doubt in the context of the Christian faith that I shall speak but I would go so far as to say that doubt and questions are an important part of every relationship and body of knowledge.
Indeed let’s start with questions in secular science. It is by asking questions and exploring them that knowledge advances and things we thought were given are reviewed and reconsidered in the light of new observations and theories. While I don’t want to hold up science as the only or most true knowledge it is wonderful to live in an age of rigorous scientific research. Any of us who have needed medical assistance will know how essential that others have keenly observed the human condition – including under a microscope – and have tried a range of treatments and observed which ones work best in what circumstances. It is our desire and our prayer at this time of pandemic that our scientists are asking scalpel-like questions that will cut to the heart of new knowledge. Questions, including doubting old conclusions, can be life giving! Otherwise we would still be treating burns with butter and ulcers with stress reduction techniques and childbirth with ten days in bed!
Questions and the expression and exploration of doubt are also very important in human relationships and social conventions. At one time the mentally vulnerable were kept under lock and key in the family home or in public institutions. We now know that one of the best ways to include those who struggle with mental health struggles is to invite all to Act, Belong and Connect. At one time it was thought to be ok for Christians to keep slaves, indeed to trade in human life. Asking questions were not always popular but looking back we can see how important questions and doubts have been in our development as a society.
And interpersonally we have questions and doubts even in our most intimate relationships. Questions and doubts can be destructive but they can also give us permission to be more deeply real with each other and to reach the depths of one another. If we stay at the surface of what we want to be true about ourselves – the good, the right, and the polite – we may never discover who we truly are and in whose presence we are. Sometimes that is delightful news, sometimes very unsettling. But questions and doubts dealt with honestly and compassionately can lead us to truth and so to freedom and healing.
And so too in our faith life. We need to feel as free as Thomas did to ask questions and to want to know for ourselves the truth of things. For Thomas it was life giving. His fellow disciples seem less than supportive about his questions but it is essential to note that Jesus is completely comfortable and obliging with his questions. Indeed he repeats the entire show and tell session so that Thomas can catch up with the truth of resurrection. I read from this that Jesus has no problems with our questions! The followers of Jesus, his church, may have problems but not Jesus himself.
I of course don’t mean spurious questions for the sake of mocking and undermining but Thomas-like questions – that is questions that arise out of personal experience it is better for our faith to voice them and search them out within the faith relationship than to let them eat away at us. Imagine if Thomas had not spoken out. He may have disbelieved the other disciples and refused to believe what he could not prove for himself. Or he may have taken their word for it but felt diminished because he hadn’t had the experience for himself and then maybe he would not have grown in stature to become the saint he did.
Doubt is probably even harder to deal with than questions because doubt is to be predisposed toward a negative assessment of an idea or relationship. And yet even doubt can live side by side with faith if we are honest and open, if we can bare the discomfort of not knowing conclusively everything we would like to know.
I am sure some people fear that if they allow themselves to ask questions and experience doubt then their faith may be eroded and disappear. It is a risk I guess – if we ask questions and allow doubt to enter in it may undermine our faith. But I would say that sort of faith that can be undone by genuine healthy questions is at best a Sunday School childish faith. Now a Sunday School faith is great if you are of Sunday School age, or if you have been blessed with an unquestioning heart. But few of us have.
It is much more corrosive to have questions you won’t voice and doubts that you try and push away and under because they will surface. And it tends to be when we are at our most vulnerable. If we have never allowed ourselves to ask “Why does God allow suffering?” when times are good for us it is sadly late in the day to ask for the first time when the one we love is suffering, when our whole world is at risk. As a person of faith and as a pastor to others I would say that there are no questions too shocking to ask God.
The only trouble I see with the story of Thomas is that he got his answers quickly and visibly whereas often we have to live with the questions much longer and answers do not always come in the form we would want or can easily decipher.
While it would be an amazing faith that could survive with no questions being answered most of us will have at least some questions that will not be answered in this life. Some are easier to live with than others. Faith is ultimately more than a pass/fail grade given on an exam paper we deliver to God. Christian faith still requires just that – faith in things not visible – even when we do ask questions and express doubts. It is not “ask questions” or “have faith” it is both. Faith gives us the desire to ask questions and the courage to live with strange answers or none sometimes. Faith leads us on a dance toward and away from certainty, weaves a fabric of knowledge and deep not knowing, and engages us in a conversation some of which is questions and the expression of doubts. If such conversation is conducted in truth and the desire for connection then it shall liberate us. And somewhere along the way we learn how to live faithfully with all our changing certainties and uncertainties.
Mostly we can do this because Jesus, the very spirit of God who came among us in human form, joins us, invites us, companions us in the relationship, in the conversation, on the journey. Next week we will explore that wonderful story of the Emmaus Road. We get to ask our questions, experience our doubt, in conversation on the road of life, not in a Sunday School classroom by and large. When questions and doubts are expressed in the context of relationship rather than classroom debate those very words and thoughts actually draw us in closer not further apart. Those sorts of questions draw us so close we can place our hands in the wounds in his side.
So to Jesus our dearest and closest companion we give ourselves again and again. Amen.