THE INTEGRITY OF DOUBT
A Sermon by
The Rev Barbara Mraz
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
April 3, 2016
In the beginning, there was ….. doubt.
Adam and Eve doubted that God would punish them if they ate the forbidden fruit, so they did. They survived, but no longer in the Garden. The subsequent pages of Scripture are full of those very human people for whom doubt is a regular companion. In today’s Gospel we encounter the most famous Scriptural “doubter” of them all, the disciple Thomas, who insisted that only seeing could lead to believing.
In my thirty-plus-year preaching career, there is no topic that has drawn me more than doubt, probably because of what I learned in the church in which I grew up: that belief — specifically in Jesus–was the criteria for admission to heaven. Many times from this pulpit—and other pulpits– I have questioned that idea, wondering how much belief is needed to get you into heaven, how much doubt keeps you out, and if God knows if you’re faking. In the same vein, there is no topic that I have seen cause more anxiety among churchgoers than a fear they doubt too much. The Church acknowledges this quandary because in our lectionary, the Sunday after Easter is always devoted to doubt – it is always the story of Thomas.
So this is a sermon about the Integrity of Doubt.
Doubt —- what?
Writer Phillip Yancy says that “the great divide separating belief and unbelief reduces down to one simple question: Is the visible world around us all there is?” That is, is belief in any unseen world wishful thinking? And if not, what is that world like and who inhabits it? Does it include a higher power, a supreme being, what we call “God”? Is part of this unseen world an afterlife? Is Jesus a real connection between us and that world? All of these questions relate to doubt, belief and faith.
Belief is defined as an acceptance or agreement that something is true or that something exists. But “belief” is a fickle mistress. At various times in my life, I have believed passionately that Elvis was the greatest “artist” that ever lived, that OJ was guilty, that we would overcome some day, that I was through with church for good, and that writing speeches for politicians would be “fun.”
We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples in the room the Sunday night of Easter. But he’s not in a panic about missing the supposed appearance of Jesus; he has the courage to wait. And Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt, but calmly offers him evidence to negate it.
Thomas is clearly a thinking disciple who calls Jesus on his vagueness. When Jesus tells the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them and that he is the way to get there, Thomas responds, “Master, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Thomas validates our desire to know. But he must have figured things out because later he becomes a passionate advocate for Christianity, in what is now Iran, Iraq, and Egypt.
So first some observations about doubt and then some ideas about what we are to do with it.
Actually, God seems pretty doubt-tolerant. Abraham and Sarah doubted God would give them a child; Sarah even laughed at the idea – but God did. Job didn’t doubt the existence of God, but doubted if he could withstand the trials coming his way. Paul not only doubted Jesus but persecuted Christians. Jesus himself fought doubts about who he was and what he was to do throughout his life. On the cross he is swept up in his own sense of God’s absence:” My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, acknowledging the presence of doubt, what are we to do? What does God ask of us, especially in this season of Easter?
One way to deal with doubt is to ask questions. The writer Martin Copenhaver notes that in Scripture Jesus himself asks 307 questions. He says, “Through the questions Jesus asks, he models the struggle, the wondering, the thinking-it-through that helps us better better understand not just God but ourselves.”
Of course, God answers Job’s doubts and anguish with the Best Question Ever: “Where were you when I created the world?”
Our questions can be spiritual tools but not if we are too afraid or too lazy to ask them. Even atheists at certain point question their atheism. A “reasonable doubt” is an element of faith as much as it is part of the legal system.
Secondly, perhaps we are not called to believe but to behold – to see, to witness, to encounter. Thomas didn’t run away to nurture his doubt and his disappointment with Jesus. He doesn’t call and register a complaint. He doesn’t say you’re all nuts; I’m so done with this. He comes back. He stays with it. And this is our call as well.
A few weeks ago there was a Diocesan conference here with Karoline Lewis who is a professor at Luther Seminary and a widely-published author. I was delighted because I again expose the fallacy in the concept that belief in Jesus was necessary for salvation. “I speak Lutheran,” I whispered to Jered next to me. “Watch this. She’s going to say the same they always do.”
I asked my question with as much openness as I could fake. Her response to the question gave me pause. She said that we are not required to “believe in” Jesus as much as we are asked to “abide” with him. To spend time with the Scriptures, not to walk away, to be faithful to our traditions and to pray, as Jesus tells us.
So I wiped the arrogance off my face and nodded in agreement.
Easter, specifically, insists that we combat our cynicism. And there is a lot to be cynical about right now! I have friends in the Black Lives Matter movement who are clear-thinking, passionate believers in their cause. I have also worked for Hennepin Country Attorney Mike Freeman and know him to be a good and decent man. The perceptions of reality are so far apart regarding the shooting of Jamar Clark; it’s tempting to say that it’s all just hopeless.
I also understand the fear that the threat of terrorism instills; it has made me been afraid to go to the Mall of America on more than one occasion. I am sickened my ruthless attacks on innocent people and the futility of preventing them. But as writer Nancy Rockwell says, “Easter insists on an end to thinking we are victimized by such events and believe that there can be enough light to dispel the darkness.”
But we have to be realistic and remember that Resurrection takes work. “April is the cruelest month,” says T.S. Elliot, and it’s easy to understand why. All that rebirth to midwife, the garden to plant and weed and water, new projects to start, old relationship to renew, new alliances to forge. The demands can seem as exhausting, as they are exciting.
So the opposite of doubt is not faith; I think it is trust. Trust of our experience, trust that we will be given strength to keep at it; trust that we are loved by God, and abiding in these things.
This trust is warranted because we have seen more than we let on. A question you have wrestled with for weeks is answered. A moment of peace arrives after months of deep pain. We look at the face of a threatening looking young man in a hoodie on University Avenue and are flooded with deep compassion for his struggles. Our life is invaded by the sound of music that makes us weep, by the vision of the florescent full moon glowing in the spring sky, or the phone call that comes at just the right moment. But too often we dismiss these things as coincidence or wishful thinking. We go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened—even though we don’t understand it and may not be able to articulate it—is to enter that realm that “religion” is a word for. The poet Denise Levertov describes what might have happened to Thomas:
“But when my hand’
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone a pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain shame for my
but light light streaming
into me over me filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling,
all things quicken to color, to form,
not answered but given
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.”
If we can say that at some point we have stood in that light – or something akin to it– our search has a validity.
In my first sermon a long time ago, I quoted what is still one of most profound statements of faith I have ever heard, found on the walls of Auschwitz. It’s almost a kind of creed, but also defiance in the face of suffering:
“I believe in the sun
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love
Even when I feel it not
I believe in God
Even when he is silent.”
So ask your questions (Jesus did); don’t run away (Thomas didn’t); curb the cynicism that nothing can be done. Use your doubt as a tool to move deeper into the heart of things. A goo definition of belief is “I turn my heart toward this.” When we say the Creed I a few minutes, you may not believe it all but you an “turn your heart” towards it with humility and trust.
Barbara Brown Taylor remands us that there were three crosses on Calvary that day. On one was a cynical thief who mocked Jesus; on another was a thief who believed enough in Jesus to beg him to bring him with him to heaven. And in the middle was Jesus, arms outstretched, embracing all of the complexities of the human heart – and mind. As Taylor says, “One cross makes a crucifix. Three crosses make a church.”
Phillip Yankee, “Faith and Doubt,” Internet blog
Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question, 2014.
Denise Levertov, “St. Thomas Didymus,” Collected Poems
Cullen Murphy, “The Certainty of Doubt,” New York Times Feb 11, 2012.
Nancy Rockwell, “The Bite in the Apple,” in Patheos, Internet magazine