Rethinking Doubt

Christians believe a lot of strange things.

We believe that Jesus is fully human and fully God.

We believe Jesus was born after God “overshadowed” Mary.

We believe Jesus died. Really died. We believe Jesus rose again. For real.

But, when we start to ask questions about what we believe, the foundation of certainty crumbles quickly. These are mysteries, all of them.

I recently got a text from a dear friend, a lifelong Christian, who confessed: “I’m in a deep rut. I feel disillusioned with God and the church.”

This troubled me for many reasons, but none of them were due to his disillusionment with God.

It troubles me because the church has done such a poor job of inviting mystery and un-knowing into the equation of what it means to be faithful people.

After all, our God is beyond all knowing, so why must we seek to define the un-definable?

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of faith and what we believe. We, as Christians, have a very helpful textbook definition of faith, carefully explained in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I love this because it’s both clear, and also open to wonder.

Anne Lamott, a writer of disarming honesty about her faith, tells a story of talking with an Episcopalian priest and confessing her doubt in God. His response was this:

“Anne, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

He went on to say, “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Every religious tradition builds a framework for how we understand God and God’s relationship to us. This is what defines our doctrine, which gets conveyed in our teaching and preaching.

But the problem with doctrine is that it leaves very little room for wonder on our part, or mystery on God’s part.

Religious doctrines seeking to answer questions that cannot be answered by humankind are working hard to present a coherent picture for how we could believe in a Spiritual force that is often un-seeable. Perhaps the instinct is to explain away the mystery, so that there is an air-tight argument for God.

The problem is that this approach eliminates the possibility of doubt as a reasonable way to seek to know God better. Doubt is seen as a lack of faith, an expression of our skepticism of God’s very existence. We seem to think that if we can’t fully understand or agree with everything the church teaches, then we must not believe in any of it.

How, then, do we invite our doubts to help shape our understanding of God? How can we re-think doubt as a tool of our faith, rather than an obstacle to it?

Every year, the week after Easter is devoted to telling the story of Jesus appearing to the Disciples, and Thomas is absent. When the other disciples tell Thomas about what happened, Thomas makes his famous declaration: “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.”

Because of this, Thomas has been given a new name in our teaching: Doubter. We spit this name at him with accusation and derision.

But a week later Jesus appears again to Thomas and the other disciples. He said to Thomas, “‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (John 20:27-29)

The beautiful thing about this exchange is that Jesus answers Thomas’ prayer. He appears, shows up, and is fully present. I think that Thomas’ plea for Jesus to be as real to him as he was to the others is the core of our prayers. But most of us haven’t had the same sort of visceral experience. We haven’t put our hands in the wounds of someone who died and rose again. So Jesus’ words are more for us than for Thomas. He gives us a new beatitude: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Jesus affirms our wondering, our doubt, our craving for certainty. In showing up for Thomas, he shows up for us as well. We believe, not because we know — because faith is built on the unknowing — but because we crave understanding of the mysterious and loving God who gives us a promise of presence.

Mandy McDow