Doubt

 Sermon for the second Sunday in Easter

This is the gospel story read each year on the 2nd Sunday of the fifty-day season of Easter. The three-year lectionary has us cycle through three different resurrection accounts on Easter Day, but on this 2nd Sunday in Easter it is always this text from John. And why do you suppose the architects of the lectionary made that decision? I think it has everything to do with the story of Thomas; the one who was not there that first evening.

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But Thomas said to them, ‘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.’

 

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“I will not believe,” Thomas says, but maybe it is something more like “I cannot bear to believe.” I’ve invested so much of my life in following after Jesus, only to have it all end with his arrest and terrible death. Your talk of his being risen… I will need to see him and touch his wounded hands before I can risk believing again.

You spoke and I believed in You
My heart received your Word as true

Then somewhere in the darkness
Stumbling in the shadows
List’ning to a liar
I fell
All my best intentions
Overcome by weakness
Couldn’t go the distance
I fell
But when I am faithless
You are still faithful
So when I am doubting
Let me see

Help my unbelief
Help my unbelief

I want to know that You are real
Beyond what I can touch and feel

Illuminate the darkness
Banish every shadow
Fill me with Your presence
I pray
Strengthen my conviction
That You’re walking with me
Til I fin’ly meet you
Face to face

When I am faithless
You are still faithful
So when I am doubting
Let me see

Help my unbelief
Help my unbelief

Inspired by the story of Thomas and his doubts, and attentive to our own struggles to believe, in her song Jaylene also alludes to an extraordinary statement from the Gospel according to Mark, spoken by a desperate father aching to see his son healed by Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!” It is a statement that we should always keep in view—a part of our mother tongue of faith.

Doubts and questions and unbelief; it is tempting to imagine that these are problems unique to our own age. It must have been so much easier to accept things on face value in an earlier age, when we didn’t know so much about the way the world works. Before the digital age, before Einstein, before Darwin… would not faith have been simpler? Would not doubt have been easily banished?

That of course presumes that doubt is the antithesis of faith, and again and again over the ages we see this unveiled as a false assumption. “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith,” wrote the great 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, “it is an element of faith.” More bluntly, the Basque philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “Life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death.” Ah, you say, but those are both 20th century voices; thinkers who knew the complexities of modernity… of course they needed to deal with doubt.

So, allow me to go take you back 100 years, to the words of Fyodor Dostoyevski: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Or 1000 years, to the medieval theologian Peter Abelard: “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” Or 1500 years, to St. Augustine: “Doubt is but another element of faith.” Trust me; the litany of quotations could go on and on…

I do know of people, though, for whom doubt has become a kind of desolation; a thing very different from Abelard’s assertion that “by doubting we come to the question.” In our day this is sometimes occasioned by the reading of books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, or Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. For some readers at least, the reading of such books has been all but paralyzing, with desolate doubt taking over, and faith rendered incredible. Yet while Dawkins and Hitchens may themselves never have taken this seriously, they are but two voices in a much larger conversation. When someone speaks to me about how troubling they’ve found these books to be, I always alert them to the presence of other voices—to Terry Eagleton’s Faith, Reason, and Revolution or to David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions, for instance—where hard questions and honest doubt are part of the very stuff of faith; where, like Dostoyevski, deep hosannas are “born of a furnace of doubt.”

And what is it that links all of these great doubters and seekers, from Hart and Eagleton back through Abelard and Augustine right to Thomas himself? They all in their own way insisted on keeping company with others. They did not exit the conversation, seeing it only as a blind alley. They kept company with others who—even against the grain—have insisted on belief, as well as others who continued to struggle in doubt. Others, too, who have insisted that even when we struggle to find the words or the will to believe, God will not cease to believe in us. As Jaylene has sung this evening,

When I am faithless
You [God] are still faithful
So when I am doubting
Let me see
Help my unbelief…

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