On the Necessity of Doubt
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
April 24, 2022
If you’re going to get a place in history, be sure you get a good epithet to accompany your name. Like “the Great,” if you can swing it. King Alfred the Great—the only “the Great” in all of English history—earned that distinction likely for his promotion of Anglo-Saxon literature. Pope Gregory the Great earned that epithet for his guidance of the church into the post-Imperial world and his presiding over the collection of the Gregorian Sacramentary and Gregorian Chant.
You’ll want to aim high, of course, and go for epithets like “the Conqueror” or “the Magnificent” or “the Powerful”. And if they called you “the Fair” or “the Just” or “the Merciful” that wouldn’t be bad either.
Of course, there are other epithets you could earn like “Pepin the Short,” “Charles the Bald,” or “John the Theologian.” Those are mostly harmless. But definitely try to avoid ones like “the Accursed,” “the Impaler,” or “the Apostate.” You wouldn’t want to go through life with an epithet like that hanging over you.
Which is why I always feel so bad for poor Thomas. Thomas the Douxbter. Doubting Thomas. That’s a rough nickname to live down, especially in church, right?
II. DOUBTING THOMAS
Here it is, still on the first day of the week, still on that first Easter Sunday. The disciples are all huddled together and afraid and Jesus appears among them. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them and tells everyone “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Well, he tells everyone but Thomas because Thomas, for some reason, isn’t there.
Now that merits a whole sermon in and of itself, I think. Where on earth is Thomas? Seriously, why isn’t he there with the rest of them? I guess we’ll never know.
But when he does return and the other disciples all tell him that Jesus has appeared to them, he says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
Now let me ask you something: is there any one of us, having been through the week that the disciples have just been through, entering into Jerusalem with Jesus in triumph, witnessing conflict and controversy, his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, who upon hearing that Jesus had been raised from the dead wouldn’t say exactly what Thomas does? Forget us, would any of the other disciples have answered any differently? You remember the disciples, right? The ones who all scattered and fled when Jesus was arrested, who betrayed or denied him, who’ve been hiding out in an upper room for three days. These paragons of faithfulness. Will anyone insist that had it been Peter out running errands (or whatever it was Thomas was doing), or James, or John, that their responses would be any different?
Of course not.
But it was Thomas who wasn’t there and so he gets to go through history known as Doubting Thomas. Now, he will later come to believe, after seeing Jesus, but Jesus will remind him (and the reader) that happy are those who do not see and yet still believe. So even though Thomas now believes, it’s only because he’s had proof. Without the proof, he’d still have his doubts.
III. FAITH AND DOUBT
A. Belief and Certainty
And see, that’s a problem. Because Christianity is all about faith. And Thomas doubts. And we’re not supposed to do that. We’re supposed to have faith.
It’s a dilemma for Christians, especially those of us of the Protestant variety. See, we led the Reformation centered on the principle that salvation was by God’s grace through faith. The saving was God’s doing but the confirmation of that salvation came through our faith. So, faith is pretty important.
And what does faith entail? Well, we had dismissed the notion that faith was all about works—the mass, the prayers, the indulgences, etc. etc.—but we quickly transitioned to the notion that faith was about belief. I mean, we had all these creeds, you know, that all begin with things like “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” and talk about things we’re supposed to believe.
In the Nineteenth Century, certain segments of the church even doubled-down on this idea. As new scientific understandings were emerging that challenged traditional beliefs, certain Christians publish a list of five “fundamentals” that were essential to Christian faith. They were five things that had to be believed in order to maintain authentic Christian faith, in their minds. Things like Biblical inerrancy, Virgin Birth, and so on. This gave rise to the term “Fundamentalist”. But if we’re honest, the emphasis on certainty in faith and on belief in certain doctrines has a much wider area of application than the Fundamentalists alone.
Very often in religion, we equate faith with assent to doctrine or blind acceptance of certain things to be true. And we require certainty.
I once went to a Maundy Thursday service at a church of another denomination. As the pastor broke the bread for communion, he stated—as we do here—that this is the Lord’s table not our own. “However,” he continued, “If you have any doubt as to your commitment to Christ, you should not partake of this meal because then you are drinking the Cup of Judgment.” Any doubt? Any?
That seemed like a tall order. For anyone. How could anyone not have doubt? I doubt all the time.
I doubt a lot. There are times when I doubt that I’m any good at what I do. Or that it has any meaning in the long run. I have doubts that I know what I’m talking about. I have doubts that any of this matters. I have doubts that there’s meaning to anything in this world or that the world is proceeding along any kind of plan. I have doubts about whether we’re not all just in some absurdist farce of utterly pointless endeavors against the background of an unfeeling, uncaring abyss. Of course I doubt.
The pastor’s question at that Maundy Thursday service seemed to me an absurdity. How could you be certain of anything?
But not for the people in the pews around me, I guess. They were certain. Or at least weren’t about to admit otherwise.
Lest you think this is a problem limited to particular denominations, it exists in all of them. A few years ago, one of the United Methodist conferences—I won’t say which one, but it was located somewhere between Baltimore and Washington—realized that they needed to tackle the question of doubt. And so they put out a well-meaning video letting people know that doubt was okay. But a curious thing happened in that video. Everyone who spoke said some version of, “I used to doubt, so it’s okay if you are…” But implicit in all of these statements was the notion that doubt was something that you could be cured of. The message was that doubt was okay because it was temporary and you’d eventually get past it. No one said anything like, “I doubt all the time; it’s fine. You’re fine, too.”
But so many people are reluctant to admit doubt because they think that faith requires a kind of certainty. If you’re uncertain now, eventually you’ll get to a point of certainty. That’s the goal.
B. The Impossibility of Certainty
But can that certainty ever really be found? I doubt it. It seems to be everywhere we go. It even shows up in the scriptures, in places we don’t expect.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, right after the Easter story, we have a curious scene. The women have returned from the empty tomb. They have told the eleven disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that the angel of God has told them to go back to Galilee where they will see him. And we read:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
They hear this fantastic story from the women. They go back to Galilee to the mountain they were told to go to. There they encounter the Resurrected Christ and fall down before him, but some doubted? What?
People doubt all kinds of things. That’s not strange or unusual. But here the disciples encounter Jesus raised from the dead and they still aren’t sure? What are they waiting for, a sign from God? I mean, another sign from God? This is even worse than the story of Thomas from John’s gospel, because while he doubts what he has not seen, they doubt what they have. It seems that even with those who were present with Jesus, there was doubt. Perhaps doubt is inescapable after all.
The more we learn about the universe we inhabit, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion. The universe seemed to be such a predictable place. The physicists had it all worked out. Action and reaction. Motion and inertia. Kinetic and potential energy. Force equals mass times acceleration. Everything nice and consistent.
Except that certain observations of the universe brought some of those understandings into doubt. Either our observations were wrong or our physics was wrong. Along comes Einstein and turns the whole world on its head by promoting a Theory of Relativity in which time itself can be a variable. Once even time became a variable, the sense that the world had become a lot less certain took hold. This was due in large measure to the advancement of relativity in a host of other disciplines. If velocity and acceleration were variable based on the observer’s point of view, then perhaps everything else was relative, too. Morality. Ideology. Culture. Religion. This kind of uncertainty terrified everyone, religious folks, especially.
And then along came the quantum physicists. Werner Heisenberg argued that it was impossible to know both the location and the momentum of a subatomic particle. One could know either where it was, or where it was going, but not both things at once. It was a claim that caused Einstein to object famously, “God does not play dice with the universe!” Einstein later retracted that objection when the evidence was clear.
And quantum mechanics only gets weirder. It appears that an unobserved electron takes every single path on its way to a target, such that its position can only be stated as a function of probability. That is, when asked whether an electron is in a given place, all a scientist can say is, “Probably.” Probably? This is science. The folks with the microscopes and the slide-rules and all that precision equipment and the best description they can give of something that should be fairly easy is “probably.”
It seems, my friends, that uncertainty is written into the very fabric of the universe. Doubt, it seems, is unavoidable.
C. Faith and Doubt
And not only unavoidable. It’s necessary.
We often fall into the trap of equating faith with belief. But faith is not belief. Faith is trust. And there’s an interesting thing about trust—it is not rooted in certainty.
In one of the best lines ever uttered on television, one character in Battlestar Galactica asks another, “How do you know you can trust me?” to which the other responds, “I don’t; that’s what trust is.”
How is it that the writers of a science fiction television series can articulate a truth that is seemingly so hard for the church to get? Faith is trust, and trust is not about certainty. Trust is about setting out in spite of uncertainty. Were we to have certainty we could not trust. We would just simply know. And that’s not what we’re called to do. We are not Gnostics, saved by what we know. We are saved by trusting.
Our faith has never been about knowing. It has never been about certainty. It has never been about belief. It has been about stepping into the unknown, about taking that leap of faith.
Now, this is not a blind leap. It is not a leap of ignorance. It is not a leap wherein we cover our ears and our eyes and ignore what the world has to say. It’s where we acknowledge what we don’t know; we acknowledge our own limitations, our own gaps in understanding, our own fears, our own doubts… and we go anyway.
IV. THE TWIN
Another thought occurs to me about our friend Thomas. Did you know that Thomas isn’t even his real name? It’s his nickname. Thomas (called Didymus) is just the Aramaic word for “twin.” Which is what “Didymus” means in Greek, by the way. Thomas is “Twin” (called “Twin”). So, let me ask you this question: whose twin is he? How can you have just one twin? It stands to reason that Thomas must be somebody’s twin.
Maybe the term is just a nickname like Peter (“the Rock”) or Paul (“Shorty”). But even if the term “twin” is just a nickname because he really looks like someone else, who is the person that he looks like? Isn’t it weird to call someone “twin” or “lookalike” and not say who it is he is a twin to or who it is he looks like?
Unless you stop and think about it. This isn’t just any old grouping of friends. This is a group of a master and his disciples. It you’re going to call one of the members of that group “the twin” and his twin is unspoken, it’s pretty obvious that it’s got to be the master. Thomas is Jesus’ “twin” or “lookalike.”
Now, if true, this would certainly explain why Judas needed to identify Jesus to the Temple Guard in the garden—because there was another guy there who looked a lot like him. And of course, if you really want to run with this, as a friend of mine once did, you can invent all kinds of conspiracy theories where it was Thomas who was crucified and Jesus who went to India to found Christianity there.
But let’s consider the implications of Thomas being Jesus’ “twin.” If Jesus is the model of perfect faith, and his twin is Thomas, who models doubt, then what we understand is that faith and doubt are not antitheses, they are twins. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Faith and doubt are paired together. Bound up in relationship. Just as you cannot have just one twin, you cannot have faith without its twin, doubt. Like a yin and yang, the two go hand in hand.
Perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world to go through life known as Doubting Thomas. Perhaps of all the epithets we could earn, it would be the most honest of them all. And the most indicative of the kind of trust that we as disciples are meant to have.
So, are we lost if we doubt? Not at all. As Paul Tillich said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And an element of a strong, meaningful faith.
Faith is at its best when it embraces doubt, its twin. In embracing uncertainty, faith does not wind up depleted, but enriched. When we stand at the edge of the abyss of unknowing, we can turn our backs to it and pretend it does not exist, or we can stretch our arms wide and embrace it. When we embrace our unknowing, we find that faith is not lost in the profound depths but becomes profound itself. In embracing the emptiness, both faith and life become filled.
And that’s a comforting thing.
Because it means we no longer have to pretend. We do not have to present ourselves as something we’re not. We no longer have to deny the basic reality of the world we live in or the way we feel about it. We are free to doubt.
For it is in that doubt that we open ourselves up to wonder and mystery. It is in that doubt that we keep ourselves humble and away from the idolatry of certainty. It is in that doubt that we create the space for taking a leap of faith, of genuine trust.
For we will not always have the answers. We will not have perfect knowledge. We will wonder. We, like the disciples atop that mountain in Matthew’s gospel and Thomas in John’s, will doubt. Yet that doubt does not prevent us from setting out in faith. It does not prevent us from living into the reality we claim.
It does not prevent us from seeking to follow the one who said to us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came.
The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
 Kahlil Gibran, Jesus the Son of Man, 92.