Saturday, January 19, 2019

"Embracing Our Doubts"

What is it about religious doubt that frightens Christians so much?

Perhaps it is that religious doubt interjects uncertainty into our lives.  With religious doubt, the stakes are very, very high.  For me personally, if God does not really exist, then the very meaning of my life and who I am would get taken away. If there were no God, then there would be no heaven, no life after death, and my ultimate destiny is taken away from me.  Or, as the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) 

Such doubts could cause me to lose my faith—and, my way.  Thus, the stakes are very, very high.  To acknowledge and talk about religious doubt creates fear and anxiety.  It can make this huge knot in the pit of my stomach.

For me, the most important scriptural discussion of religious doubt occurs in the Gospel of John, after Christ’s Resurrection; see John 20:24-29.  During the evening of that first Easter, most of Jesus’ followers had gathered together in the Upper Room.  Despite a locked door, Jesus appeared to them, greeting them with the words:  “Peace be with you.”  After his greeting, John records that Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.”  When they saw this clear physical evidence of the resurrection, “the disciples rejoiced.” 

The only problem is that one of the disciples, Thomas, was not present when Jesus appeared to his followers.  When Thomas rejoins the other followers, and they tell him that they have seen the resurrected Christ, Thomas is really doubtful.  He says, “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.”  Now, notice here that Thomas is only asking for the same proof, which Jesus had already given the others in the Upper Room. 

            A week later, Jesus reappears to his followers in the Upper Room—this time, with Thomas present.  Jesus immediately goes to Thomas and offers, “Thomas, put your finger here and seen my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Notice that Jesus is offering to provide Thomas with exactly the proof that Thomas identified as essential for him to have faith.  And, notice further that this is the same, exact evidence which Jesus had given the other disciples a week earlier, when he appeared to them.  One scholar points out that “Jesus is not attempting to shame Thomas, but is giving Thomas what he needs for faith, as Jesus has done so many times in the Gospel.”[i]  She notes further that Thomas’ response to Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” is “the most powerful confession [of faith] in the Gospel.”

            It seems to me that there are two prominent forms of religious doubt.  The first form is rational.  This form of doubt concerns the rational plausibility of certain aspects of a religion or sacred writing.  For instance, within the Christian tradition the claim, that after three days Jesus was resurrected from the dead, could create insurmountable religious doubt because physical resurrection is completely antithetical from all that we know about life and death from science.  Here, it is important to highlight that religious faith is not necessarily opposed to rationality—or, even science.  The English writer C. S. Lweis develops this distinction well in his book, Mere Christianity.[ii]  Lewis observes that there is a rational component to faith.  It is not as though faith is irrational.  Instead, reason is an integral component of faith.  Yet, reason may itself challenge faith or the propositions of a religious faith.  As Lewis observed, “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods..”.

            The second form of religious doubt concerns an emotional incongruity, instead of a rational incongruity.  As an illustration, consider the parents of a young daughter who dies at the age of 7, after a short lifetime of suffering from bone cancer.  Although initially devout Christians, the young girl’s parents may begin to doubt God—or, even the existence of God.  They may question why a supposedly all loving and all powerful God would have allowed their young daughter to suffer and die.  This is a different type of doubt from the doubt one may have due to some aspect of the religion not appearing rational or being consistent with what we have learned from science.

            There are two responses we can make regarding religious doubt.  The first response is to try and avoid thinking about any religious doubts which we may have.  We can take all of our doubts and cram them into a box; put a lid on, and then put the box way in the back of our closet, where we never have to see it.  Then, we can try and live our lives without ever having to open that box up and confront our doubts. 

However, the problem with this response is that we end up living our lives in fear that at some point, something is going to happen in our lives, which will force us to confront these doubts.  If that happens, then we may finally be forced to confront our doubts, and we may lose our faith.  In essence, the problem with this response is that we end up living in the shadow of our doubts.  By contrast, the alternative response is to simply confront our doubts head on; to struggle and wrestle with our doubts.    

            I believe that God does not oppose and probably intends for us to confront our doubts and to struggle with them.  There are a couple of considerations here.  First, consider the story of ‘doubting Thomas,’ which we examined earlier.  Jesus does not condemn Thomas’ doubt.  Instead, Jesus accepts his doubt and then encourages Thomas to find the answer he is seeking by placing his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in the wound from the spear.  In essence, Jesus is walking with Thomas as Thomas seeks to resolve his doubts. 

            A second consideration is that Christians sometimes experience profound spiritual growth by struggling with doubt.  It is only through his struggle of faith that Thomas eventually develops the spiritual discernment to see that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.   Thomas has been a disciple of Jesus for three years.  He has traveled with Jesus; eaten with Jesus; lived with Jesus; listened to all of Jesus’ teachings.  Thomas has had an inside track to Jesus life and teachings for 3 years.  Yet, it is not until after Thomas has struggled with his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection that he sees clearly who Jesus really and truly is:  “My Lord and My God!”

            Still, coping with religious doubt is hard.  As we have seen, there is the uncertainty of doubt.  We all want to know about God with certainty.  Yet, even worse, it is hard to admit our doubts to others.  We don’t want others to think badly of us.  We don’t want others to judge and condemn us as unbelievers, bad people, or troublemakers.  Sometimes we don’t even want to raise hard questions.  If we were to raise hard questions, then we might appear to be rude or difficult.  Finally, we don’t want to undermine other peoples’ faith by sharing our doubts or asking difficult questions.  So, our first inclination is to hide our doubts from others and struggle with them alone.

            Churches also have trouble with doubts.  Some churches are intolerant of doubts or questions.  In some churches, to raise doubts indicates that the doubter is not really a Christian; they are an imposter and need to be rooted out of the Body of Christ.  In those churches, doubters and questioners are ostracized as well as denigrated for not being truly faithful.

            I will argue that it is this negative attitude towards doubts and questions which is actually unfaithful to the teachings and example of Christ.  As we have seen in our analysis of “doubting Thomas,” Jesus did not condemn Thomas because of his doubts.  Instead, Jesus affirmed the legitimacy of Thomas’ questions and then sought to help Thomas answer his questions.

            But what if the Church actually did as Jesus?  What if the Church actually welcomed questioners and doubters?  What if the Church was willing to accompany doubters and questioners on the quest for answers, just as Jesus accompanied Thomas? 

Of course, there are some people who are looking for a church that will provide them with a definitive answer to all their questions about religion and spirituality.  Yet, at the same time, there are many, many other people who would like to have a church that does not claim to have all of the answers.  Rather than having a church which tells them what they must believe, many persons are looking for a safe place, with theological resources, to help them work out their own answers to their doubts and questions.

I think that the British theologian John Polkinghorne sums it up well, when he writes:  “For many in the Western-educated world today, [there is] a kind of wistful fellow-travelling with religion, able neither to accept [Christianity] nor wholly to dismiss it, retaining a memory of old talks of [God] kept echoing in the caverns of mind more by poetry than by argument.”[iii]  Among so many of our neighbors, our work colleagues, our family members, there is this huge spiritual hunger.  Yet, at the same time these individuals do not feel that they can join us in church because they still retain some significant doubts.  There are individuals who say, I would like to be more spiritual, but how can I be part of a church, when I have these questions? 

But, what if the Church…

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 20th.  As we continue our series on the “Upside Down Church,” we will examine the opportunities which doubt presents and why faithful Christians should embrace questions and doubt, just as Jesus embraced the questions and doubt of Thomas. 

Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street.  We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.   

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Gail R. O’Day, Commentary on the Gospel of John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1952).
[iii] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist:  Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 14.

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