Thursday, April 27, 2017

Can Faith and Doubt Coexist? Or Why Does ‘Doubting Thomas’ Get a Bad Rap?

One of my favorite quotes comes from Thomas Merton, "A person is known better by his questions than his answers." I love Merton’s statement because these words sum up my understanding of religious faith. Faith is not about answers. Faith is about questions.

This way of thinking, for some odd reason, comes natural to me. In fact, those who know me very well, know that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am not satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it, for the questions are too numerous and too serious. And, let’s be honest, the Bible could be wrong.

That’s why I like Thomas, not Merton, I like him too, but the Thomas who was Jesus’ disciple, the one we call “Doubting Thomas”. When I read the story of Thomas from John 20, I resonate with this figure whose nickname, unfortunately, has become synonymous with all those who cannot believe without proof. 

But was Thomas such a bad guy? Were his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection an expression of his lack of faith? Was Jesus condemning Thomas for his doubts? I am inclined to say no to all three of these questions.

But I think the most refreshing thing for me about Thomas is that he expresses what it means to be human. We are prone to doubts and confusion simply because we are finite human beings.  We are inclined not to believe certain things simply because our minds are so grounded in our experience as a way to gain certain knowledge. And so, it is only natural for us to be skeptical about certain things, especially those things that seem to be far fetched ideas. And religious ideas can be very far fetched.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by
Caravaggio (Sort of) (c. 1601)

I’ll be completely honest, but I hope you will excuse my honesty at this point. When I compare the various religious traditions and what they say about God, a serious look at Christianity suggests that our closely held beliefs are about as crazy as you can get. 

Seriously. Think about it. Is it entirely reasonable to believe in a God who had a son, who this God had killed so that the sins of humanity, committed against that God, could be forgiven? I don’t really buy into that atonement theory anymore, but my point is that what we call traditional, orthodox Christianity has longed held these beliefs.

But we could push this even further by talking about the existence of God in the first place. For centuries philosophers have argued for the existence of God from a rational position. Their classical arguments are well structured and nuanced. 

But even though these philosophical arguments are very sophisticated, they cannot prove that God does indeed exist. In fact, although it is easy for our culture to despise atheists and agnostics for their lack of belief in God, the reality is that the arguments against the existence of God that atheists propose are perhaps as convincing than those that argue for God’s existence.

The point I am trying to make is that faith is often a tough thing; at least it is for me. I wish I could stop the questions and simply just say I believe. But, unlike many folks I know, I cannot. I have actually heard people say that it is not a matter of not being able to believe, it is a matter of not wanting to believe. But this is false. Many people want to believe, including me, but sometimes those beliefs are not possible.

I cannot force myself to believe everything just because the Bible says it or because Christian tradition teaches it. I can certainly accept many things from the Bible and from the traditional teachings of the church, but I also have my doubts, and often these doubts are numerous and quite intense. Indeed, there are days that I doubt that God really does exist, and for that matter, what does it mean to say that God “exists”, or that prayer does “work”, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, and even if rising from the dead means a physical resurrection.

I came to a place in my life many years ago when I decided to be honest with myself on matters of faith. I decided that I would not just keep saying I believed in God or Jesus or certain things about either God or Jesus. For me, faith is not an absolute belief or knowledge that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that everything happens for a reason. And, I am particularly doubt stricken when I see the suffering in our world.

Perhaps what really does it for me is the way that we think of God in very personal and individualistic terms. I am not saying that God is not personal, or that God cannot be described in personal terms. What I am saying is that there are views of God that, in my mind, actually fly in the face of believing in the God many Christians claim exists. 

For example, I have heard people say they prayed about things such as getting a certain job and they got it, and then they attribute this to God, when at the same time thousands, even tens of thousands are killed by a tsunami. I have a huge problem with this God of partiality. Why would I want to believe in a God who is concerned that my happiness is achieved, but who seems to be unconcerned with the deaths of thousands?

But that is just one of those quirky questions that is always at the forefront of my mind. That is why Merton’s quote resonates with me, as does “Doubting Thomas’” , well, doubt. I prefer to live with the questions rather than the answers. Doubt keeps us from certaintly, which opens up the life of faith. Thus, doubt and faith must coexist.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Good Friday Reflection: Jesus’ Cry from the Cross: Abandonment and Hope

I write the words of this current reflection on the morning of what Christians have traditionally called Good Friday, the day on which we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. While we refer to it as Good Friday, when we read the narratives of Jesus’ last hours, we can find nothing really that good about that Friday. In fact, it is a very dark and violent story about Jesus at his most vulnerable period.

Portrayed on stage, in film, and in church dramas, the passion story of Christ is fraught with human agony and pain that is unequal to any story we read from the Scriptures. And yet, despite the grotesque nature of the story, it is the focus of the Gospels and indeed the entirety of the New Testament. But what are we to make of this story?

This is certainly a difficult question to answer for many reasons. For one thing, the narratives of the Gospels tell the story in such vivid detail that we would be hard pressed to sum up the story in a few simple words. For another, details differ from Gospel to Gospel even though they agree at many points and all four tell essentially the same narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. 

But one thing is certain about the story. The early Christians felt the need to tell this story, with all the details, no matter what it might have said about Jesus, their king and messiah.

While we often look back on the crucifixion with a bit of sentimentality, probably because we are influenced by the introspective, but wrong, idea that “Jesus died for me”, the earliest Christians must have been out of their minds to portray their Messiah as a vulnerable human who hung on a vile Roman cross. Yet, this is exactly the story they told, without sanitizing it.

This straightforward telling of the story by these earliest Christians is epitomized very poignantly in Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) through the only statement Jesus speaks from the cross in these two Gospels. It is a prayer of protest in which Jesus recites Psalm 22:1 and calls out in honest anger, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

This is a cry of naked vulnerability through which the crucified one expresses a deep resentment at the one who once called him the Beloved Son and the one in which he had placed his complete faith. The intimacy that once characterized this relationship was replaced by estrangement and abandonment, and the vulnerability that Jesus experienced in his life was now at its most extreme in his death. 

We cannot deny the fact that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by God. This was real human emotion responding not only to the pain of death, but more tragically to the feeling of abandonment by the one in whom Jesus had placed his full trust and obedience. Yet, Jesus’ cry is much more than a personal cry to God for his own feelings of desertion. It is a cry he voices for vulnerable humans who also feel abandoned by God.

We often wrongly assume that the Gospels were written only to record the history of Jesus, so that future generations would have a biography of sorts about this famous Jewish Rabbi. They certainly provide us the best historical evidence of Jesus’ life and death. But a more important reason that these narratives about Jesus were written was so that Jesus’ story could become the story through which the vulnerable would find hope.

Thus, Jesus’ cry from the cross is the cry he expresses on behalf of those who suffer under the weight of a world system that produces injustice, oppression, and violence that marginalizes the most vulnerable. It is a cry for those who, like him, have been forsaken. It is a cry against the cruelty of death, particularly an unjust execution by the powers of this world.

Yet, even as his cry expresses abandonment, it also holds forth continued hope. For one thing, Jesus continues to call out to God for he knows that it is only God who can help him. 

Moreover, in quoting the first part of Psalm 22, Jesus may also be invoking the entirety of that psalm. Though Psalm 22, a psalm of lament, begins with a cry of abandonment, it ends in hope and victory.

But perhaps more important for our understanding of why the writers of Matthew and Mark included this inauspicious statement voiced by the one who was crucified is the fact that they are telling a story that does not end at crucifixion.

The Jesus on the cross, though experiencing vulnerability, death, and abandonment by God, will be raised by God, just as he said. The narrative of death and despair will transform into a story of life and hope.

And that is what makes Good Friday good.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Maundy Thursday Reflection: Jesus Modeled Love, Even Toward His Betrayer

Years ago, as I was teaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, a very perceptive young man asked me, “How far should we go to love our enemies?” Not only was this a thought provoking question, it was one I had never seriously considered until that moment. Certainly I understood that Jesus had called his followers to love their enemies, but I had never pondered to what extent I was to live this command.
One thing that makes the command so challenging is that Jesus does not qualify which enemies we are to love. Nor is he explicit in how far we are to go in loving them.
Can we pick and choose which ones we are to love? Can we decide on how much love we are to show them? These are relevant questions for us to consider, but Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not help us one bit in deciding how far we are to go in doing this.
Whenever I find myself struggling to come to grips with one of Jesus’ more difficult commands, I often discover clarification by looking at what Jesus does; how he responded to the challenge of doing God’s will. After all, if I claim to be a follower of Christ, it only makes sense that I emulate the way he lived.
Jesus is not only the one who makes our way possible to God; he also acts as the example of true faithfulness before God. Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple of God’s will. 
I need to find incidents in the life of Jesus that give me guidance in understanding the command he has clearly set forth.
While we could point to various stories of Jesus’ love for others, and indeed, the whole story of the incarnation itself is a story of Christ’s love for humanity, there is a very interesting and underlying twist in the account of Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 which may very well prove to be an answer to this perplexing question.
We often hear sermons preached from this scene that focus on the portrayal of Jesus as the true servant, who sets an example of service for his followers. Undeniably, this is the crux of the story. What we may not see, however, is a subtle, but powerful, detail of the story; the interaction between Jesus and the one who sets himself up as the enemy of Jesus, Judas.  
We are very familiar with Judas’ story. He seems to have followed Jesus with hopes that Jesus was the political Messiah who would stir zealous passion in the people to rise up against Rome. We also know that Judas’ dreams did not become reality, as Jesus talked of another kingdom, one characterized by peace, love, and justice, and not by arrogance, violence and war.
It was this realization that may have caused Judas to plot with the religious leaders and hand him over to their authority. John 13:2 makes it clear that Judas’ plan was in the works even as they gathered for the Passover.
What is interesting about this scene, however, is that when Jesus takes up the symbol of a house slave, the towel, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, nothing is said about him passing over Judas. In fact, if we read it carefully, we find that Judas does not leave the table until after Jesus had completed his act of service.
Are we to assume that Judas was a recipient of Jesus’ service? Does the story lead us to accept the distasteful fact that Jesus washed the feet of every disciple, including Judas?  If so, then the follow-up question is why would Jesus wash the feet of any of his disciples, and especially the one who would become his enemy? 
The answer may be close at hand in John 13:1. The verse can be understood in two ways. First, it might be translated, “He loved them to the end.” Or it could read, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” Regardless of which reading is more correct, both capture the essence of Jesus’ act of love towards his disciples, including the one who became his enemy. Indeed, the mention of Judas’ eventual betrayal of Jesus right after the statement concerning Jesus’ love for his own seems to add to this reading that Judas was included in that group whom Jesus loved.
Notwithstanding the evil plot and action soon to be taken by Judas, Jesus continued to express his complete love for Judas to the last possible moment. In the face of betrayal by one of his own, Jesus showed persistent love. While evil was being plotted all around him, Jesus returned love. 
Paul declares in Romans 12, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” He continues, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Like Jesus, Paul is not unaware of the evil people will do to others.

But, as Jesus both taught and modeled for us, retribution toward those who do evil is not the way God calls us to respond. Rather, Jesus taught and modeled for us that loving our enemies means always seeking to love them through repeated acts of goodness that express the limitless love Christ demands of us.

As we reflect on this Maundy Thursday, remembering when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them the commandment to love one another, and as we approach the dark day of his crucifixion, let us follow Christ’s model of love for all, both our enemies and our friends.