St. Doubting Thomas

Jesus is risen! … (He is risen indeed?)

If you were raised in church environments and this phrase is familiar to you, what likely follows is a sense of compulsion to respond in the affirmative, “He is risen indeed!” which is fantastic if you find yourself exultant, filled with joy at what God has done for you. You also may however resent the fact that you’re sitting amongst family, friends, or strangers and you’re stuck; you’re fighting the urge to succumb to peer pressure – you don’t want to stick out by remaining silent or, heaven forbid, responding out loud with what you really think. Do I, right now, at this moment, believe that Christ rose from the dead? I sure as hell don’t want someone thrusting upon me the pressure to give some sort of obligatory response. Are you ready, pastor person, if I respond “NO!” to amend the rest of your message to meaningfully engage my disbelief? Are you interested in engaging the nuances of my story, of acknowledging the moments in my life that have brought me to respond, “I don’t know”. Is there any other answer that is acceptable in church, than “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”?

Do I believe Christ ever lived or actually died? Can I grasp or identify with a possible historical or spiritual reality such as the life and death of a man who lived more than two thousand years ago? Can I dare to trust in a relational, personal, interested, creative and healing God? Can I do so when I have in the past, and yet have come to feel betrayed or ignored or abandoned by this… God.

Barbara Ehrenreich, self professed atheist, political activist, and best selling author of “Nickle and Dimed”, “Bait and Switch”, “Bright Sided”, and others, recently put out a new book entitled “Living With a Wild God”, an exploration and memoir of mystical experiences she had when she was a child. I recently attended a Q & A discussion at Town Hall where she was interviewed by KUOW’s Marcie Sillman. Ehrenreich spoke about growing up with atheist parents, and when she asked many of the ‘why’ or ‘what’ questions of our existence, she was never given the answer “God”. The story of her family’s atheism began with her great grandmother whose husband was on his deathbed. When the priest was summoned to comfort her family and deliver the last rites, he replied that he would come for $25. When her great grandmother was then on her own deathbed, and a priest came to her side and placed a crucifix on her chest as she lay dying. Ehrenreich says that with her last dying strength, the matriarch thrust the crucifix from her chest and threw it across the room. All growing up, Ehrenreich’s father taught her to doubt anyone that claimed to have authority. A familiar dictum in her family was her father’s insistence that rationality was the only useful way to approach the world. As you can imagine, atheism ran deep in her family’s blood.

For me, growing up in the conservative church world of the 80’s and 90’s, doubt and rationality were held as highly suspect. The implicit and sometimes explicit message was that doubt was a temptation from Satan to be countered with fervent faith and resistance. But in my childhood and adolescence, I faced a world where stringent faith and obedience to God’s Law didn’t seem to cover all the bases and in fact, often seemed to break down under scrutiny. The bible, as I was taught to use it, didn’t seem to have relevant answers for the questions that arose in my world. Science, philosophy, social justice and political theory, all brought up questions and made suggestions about the human condition that all seemed invasive and dangerous to living in obedience to the Christian God.

And so, I began to doubt.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we have the story of a man named Thomas after which his namesake is established as One Who Doubted. But instead of criminalizing this man’s doubt as if a mark of shame for the early Christian church, the story seems to suggest instead its merit.

When the disciples came to Thomas and told him that they’d seen Jesus risen from the dead, Thomas replied that “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails in his hands and in the stab wound in his side, I will not believe.”

I can only imagine what was happening for Thomas he declared his doubt that God raised Christ from death. When I read of his doubt, I read of a man in pain. I read of a person standing in their grief of having hoped in Jesus; I read of a man in mourning having lost his teacher, his friend, having watched as this man whom he had loved was tortured and murdered (can you say PTSD!); in his doubt, Thomas authentically declared that all of what he had hoped for in following Jesus, was now dashed; when I read of Thomas who doubted, I read of someone who told the truth of his experience.

In doubt, we confess our fears, our concern, our hesitation. We take the opportunity to look at our true self and validate our experience. In doubt, we tell the truth. Through it we also have a way of authentically declaring and rooting in our own unique identity – we can be ourselves. In this way, doubt is a celebration of unique self. This also means that we cannot doubt well until we have sense of who we are, of honoring and listening to what makes us unique, extraordinary.

I would argue that in doubt, we exercise spiritual autonomy and freedom as opposed to a loss of identity when we succumb to the pressures of convention.

In so much as doubt reflects our deepest identity and our authentic experiences of life, it also directly links us to the poor. The poor, of whom Christ referred so often, are not just those who are hungry, thirsty, weak, or without shelter, but also anyone who is lost, confused, dysphoric, disillusioned, disenfranchised, disregarded, or isolated. When we walk alongside the poor, when we feel pain with someone who hurts, we do so most empathetically out of the place in us that remembers our own pain, our own need. In empathy, we experience in ourselves, but on another’s behalf, our shared lack of hope or presence of fear or sense of insufficiency. When we talk to a friend who sounds down or anxious, or bored or directionless, when we listen with our whole self to their heart, to their needs, we unite ourselves with them. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for they will be comforted”.

Without the authentic and committed action of doubt, we remain cocooned in a bubble, in a posture that requires a strong defense, behind a wall that must not be penetrated. We cannot face the pain or hopelessness of another, or their need to navigate questions of which we ourselves cannot answer, if we will not face our own needs or questions and survive. To me, there seems to be a correlation between churches who don’t embrace doubt as a practice and don’t experience or embrace the needs of the poor in their midst.

During my time in grad school, the words ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ were buzz words. We talked a lot about the benefits of facing our dogmatic beliefs and ideas about ourselves, to attempt the uncomfortable tension of uncertainty. We jokingly (and in true postmodern grandiosity) called these years “our season of deconstruction”, During this time I grew to find uncertainty quite liberating. I found that I less often needed to be right about things I was so sure were universally true. This also meant I less often found myself embarrassed and ashamed at having insisted on maintaining perspectives that turned out to be either wrong or at least incredibly limited. I think this was all possible because I began to see in a new light the relevance of another person’s experience as unique and valuable from my own.

But a funny thing happened. In the same way that I had previously depended on certainty, I began to depend on uncertainty. Where as I had previously consciously or unconsciously believed that being right and having the right faith would protect me from the insecurity and discomfort of having to face my imperfections, now I had begun to depend on uncertainty’s protection from the risks that accompany faith. I began to see that by holding dogmatically to an ideology and theology of uncertainty and doubt, I was able to avoid taking new risks, to protect myself from being hurt by belief, to keep myself from being let down again by God, or a friend, or a parent, or a lover that failed to keep their promise, or hold up to my expectations.

When Christ came to him alive, Thomas might not have had a change of heart. He might have clung bitterly to his grief, to the betrayal he felt, to fight to ward off the embarrassment and shame he faced from his family and friends. In fact, he might have found solace in the fact that Christ was dead – finally he could release those wild hopes about Jesus, hopes he’d had that made him the weird one of the family, that made him sooo awkward and a problem for everyone in his life outside of those who also followed Jesus. He might have comforted himself in various ways; convincing himself that the man before him was an imposter, or that the whole thing was a hoax- Christ must not have actually died!

But the writer of the book of John says that instead, Thomas sees the marks of death on Christ’s risen body, and says “My Lord and my God”. Something happened in that moment.

I would argue that active doubt without active hope means there can be no movement. Unbridled doubt without hope becomes psychological and spiritual inertia. Similar to the worldview where doubt is a threat to spiritual and emotional security, so also hope is intolerable where doubt or skepticism are universal.

When Christ appears to Thomas, he does not demand that he should never have doubted, does not indicate any moral attachment to belief when it was for him impossible. Neither does Christ reprimand him for not choosing to have faith. Instead, Jesus says to Thomas, “Peace be with you”. He shows him the reality of his resurrection. He gives to Thomas what he needs, what Thomas had confessed would truly be the conditions necessary for him to believe.

Thomas steps toward and into a new reality, his heart is won, his mind attempts to shift, his will surrenders. He chooses a new direction. Without this move, this shift, without his acknowledgment of a new truth, he would remain bound up, a slave to the grief and sadness that had consumed him. He would have been unable to leave his suffering.

The crux here is that for Thomas, Christ enters into his doubt, and then and only then, is it transformed. But this is not possible if we do not have a context where both doubt and belief are possible.

Henry Nouwen, says that “to be able to enjoy fully the many good things the world has to offer, we must be detached from them. (He explains that) To be detached does not mean to be indifferent or uninterested (but that) It means to be non-possessive. Life is a gift to be grateful for and not a property to cling to”.

When I put this up alongside Barbara Ehrenreich’s father and his call to place rational thought above belief, as if the two are mutually exclusive (which I can totally relate to!), I start to see how doubt, dogmatism, attachment, and certainty all share a common thread.

If we refuse to hold loosely to our attachments, if are unable to face our certainties with grace and curiosity, we will be enslaved to them, whether they are beliefs or doubts. I would also argue that it takes an immense amount of courage to hope when hope feels impossible. It takes an empathetic God, to come close, to come into our pain and into our questions, before a spiritual transformation can take place. But if we are not free to both doubt and believe, then what happened for Thomas might never happen for us.