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.

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