April 19, 2020 – Between Blind Faith and Blind Doubt

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Rev. Victor Kim
John 20:19-31

When I say the name Thomas, what’s the first word that enters your mind? If you’re like most people, the word that is most associated with Thomas is ‘doubting.’ Doubting Thomas. The two words are so familiar in their pairing that even people who have little or no idea of what’s in the rest of the Bible know that Doubting Thomas refers to that disciple who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had been resurrected unless he was able to see him face to face and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side. The words are used as a pejorative term, to criticize someone who is distrustful, lacking in faith. But for all the criticism that might be directed Thomas’ way, in truth he is a critically important model of belief, a way of belief that is rooted somewhere between blind faith and blind doubt.

What’s the first thing you doubted? Try to remember back as far as you can, maybe as a young child, when was the first time that you thought, maybe things aren’t the way seem? Maybe it was the realization that Santa Claus looked suspiciously like your father with a pillow under his shirt or that the tooth fairy sure looked like your mother when you opened your eyes in the middle of the night to take a peek as your pillow was being lifted up and your tooth being swapped out for a dollar. I remember telling our children about a place called training school, a place where bad children would be taken to if they didn’t listen to their parents. It worked for a while, then they grew up and began to doubt both the possibility of such a place and whether we, their parents, would ever really send them there in any event.

Part of growing up is learning to doubt and question those things that we once took at face value. Being able to question our beliefs leads to new learning, which leads to growth. Doubt is essential for human growth. In his book, “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari writes that modern science is based on the willingness to admit ignorance, in Latin the word is ignoramus, which means, “we do not know.” And because we admit that we do not know, we keep seeking, searching, so that we might learn that which we do not know. So the next time someone calls you an ignoramus, you can thank them for the compliment. In a way, it’s the same for faith. Because we do not know, we search for answers and that searching, that questioning, that even doubting, can take our faith to places we may not have discovered had we never questioned, never doubted in the first place. But there is an important difference between where our scientific doubts lead us and where our doubts in matters of faith should.

How many people do you know that have lived their entire lives without ever doubting what they believe, even just a little bit, especially what they were taught to believe, in particular when it comes to issues of faith? I don’t know a single person who has never questioned their faith, the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It may seem a bit soon after Easter to introduce the topic of doubt, but John’s gospel has Thomas showing up where he does because it is precisely ideas like resurrection that raise the most doubts among people. I mean in an age of empirical proof, of the scientific method, questions of metaphysics, questions like, why is there something rather than nothing, always leave room for doubt, for questioning, for uncertainty.

Even the seemingly most faithful struggle and have moments or even long seasons of doubt. Mother Teresa, that paragon of Christian faith and service, lived the last half century of her life quietly wracked with doubt and once wrote to her spiritual mentor that, Jesus has a very special love for you, (but) as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. Yet, Mother Teresa never abandoned her belief or her work. She found a way to persevere, and perhaps, as others have written, that is to be most admired about her. Between blind faith and blind doubt, isn’t that where our ways lie?

The more I live, the more I learn, and the more I learn, the more I come to understand that I don’t know, that I can’t know, everything. For many of us, as we age, as we grow older and move step by inexorable step toward the end of this life, instead of a growing assurance, there are growing questions, growing anxieties. And possibly that anxiety and those questions are fed by the constant losses we experience around us. The loss of loved ones, of husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbours. The loss of cognitive clarity, physical capability, emotional capacity. When there is so much loss around us, how can we be so sure that there is still One who can overcome all the losses and restore and heal us of our anxieties?

Doubt is part of faith.

Not a blind doubt, which refuses to open the heart, mind or eyes to the possibilities of God, but a doubt that struggles with how we understand and experience the authenticity of that God. Part of that authenticity comes when we are able to be part of communities where our struggles and our doubts can be expressed and shared in safety and understanding. And isn’t that what a church should be?

Shouldn’t our church be a place where people who have doubts, who are struggling with faith, can express those reservations and anxieties without the fear of being embarrassed, exposed, or judged?

Shouldn’t the church be the safest of all places to express our fears and our worries?

Shouldn’t the church be the most authentic of communities, after all, aren’t we disciples of the one who lived the most authentic life? And yet too often don’t we feel that it’s at church that we have to make sure that we keep our guard up, that we have to pretend to be someone we’re really not? Often we bluff our way through our doubt, assuming that everyone else is confident and living with a blessed assurance, and so we put on false airs, trying to compensate. We don’t want to be vulnerable, to be the odd one left out when everyone else seems so have it all together.

But look at Thomas again. Think about the pressure that must have been on him. We don’t know why he wasn’t there when the disciples were together, and Jesus, risen and resurrected, suddenly came to stand in their midst and proclaim, Shalom! Peace be with you.When Thomas returned from wherever he was, the rest of his friends told him the amazing good news that Jesus had risen and had appeared to them. Well a lot of good that did him! He could have just went along, saying that if they said so, he would believe as well. But not Thomas. He wanted to see for himself, just as the others had seen. Why would you blame him for that? Why label him as a doubter when all he wanted was what the others already had been given, a personal experience, an authentic encounter with the risen Christ? Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the same as we think everyone else is. But Thomas shows us that blind faith is just as untenable and unappetizing as blind doubt. Our path lies somewhere in between.

And the good news about that is that Jesus gets it, Jesus gets us. Jesus gets Thomas, Jesus loves Thomas. I get the sense that Jesus came back just for Thomas, just to make sure that he wasn’t left out. But the weird and wonderful thing is that when Jesus appears to Thomas, there’s nothing in the text that would have us believe that Thomas actually ever put his finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands or touched the wound in his side. What he does is cry out, My Lord and my God! He utters the highest confession of Christ’s divinity and identity. It’s what happens when our doubts encounter resurrection. It may not happen to all of us, at least not yet, but for those who struggle honestly with doubt, somewhere between blind faith and blind doubt, this is the outcome God hopes for in us, that we too might come to believe and confess.

This is what I was getting at earlier when I said that our doubting in our faith leads to a different conclusion than our doubts in science. In science you keep asking questions, you keep searching, you keep learning, even if all you learn is that you don’t know, at least yet. But in matters of faith at some point we need to make a decision, after all faith is still faith, it’s not about empirical facts. Faith is a confession; it’s a declaration, its faith. We can keep asking questions, but if our faith is only about asking questions and never making a decision, you wonder what the point is. At some point we have to be like Thomas, who given the chance to put his finger in Jesus’ side, doesn’t and instead cries out, “My Lord and my God!” At some point all our questions and doubts need to come to a decision, and that decision is a leap of faith. But our questioning and doubts have led us to a more mature faith, an examined faith, a place between blind faith and blind doubt.

Jesus alludes to it when he says, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Did you ever stop to wonder to who those words were addressed? Did Jesus speak them to Thomas, in effect taking a shot at his lack of faith? Too bad you aren’t as blessed as those who believe in me without having to see me. But that seems somewhat incongruous with everything we know about Jesus. I don’t get the sense that Jesus was taking a shot at Thomas, but rather leaving the rest of us with a word of encouragement. We’re not living in the same time as Thomas. Most likely we aren’t going to have the risen Christ suddenly appear in physical form among us today, but Jesus makes it clear that there are ways for those who don’t see him physically, to yet come to believe in him, and how blessed it is to have such faith.

Seeing isn’t always believing. There’s a lot of things we take in, but don’t truly embody, don’t truly believe. There are things that make it as far as here (eyes), but never make it to here (heart), or here (guts). We don’t know resurrection, we don’t believe in resurrection because someone told us or because of a logical or reason-based argument. We believe in resurrection because we experience its power, not by our sight, but in our hearts, in our gut. We experience resurrection when we know that our lives have been redeemed, when we are convicted that our hope has been reborn, that our love has been restored.

I was reading a memoir by James M. Houston, who is professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College and its first Principal. Houston writes that one year a woman asked him whether she could enroll in a diploma program at Regent even though she didn’t have the requisite undergraduate degree. He agreed and she ended up getting her diploma, then getting a full scholarship to Cornell University to do her doctorate, then going off to Oxford. Janet Soskice is now professor of philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge and the author of a book called, “The Sisters of Sinai.”

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Soskice recalls that she was an atheist as a young woman, or perhaps she was an agnostic, in any event she didn’t talk much about God one way or another. In her assumed clarity about religion, she realized in retrospect that she, in fact, knew nothing about it at all. It was only a dramatic conversion which turned Soskice around and put her feet on a slower, steadier, more modest path into a truth whose depths are fathomless. She writes, “Can I even say to those who, it seems to me, stand where I once stood (the cultured despisers of religion, as Schleiermacher might have said) what I now feel I know, and don’t know, about God? It would be hard. Because it is not just that faith gives new answers to old questions – it gives new questions, a new world where even the most educated come as babes, born again.”

Soskice’s conversion came, in her own words, while she was in the shower on an ordinary day, “and found myself to be surrounded by a presence of love, a love so real and so personal that I could not doubt it… As for me, I could not doubt the reality of that loving presence, and still cannot. I was turned around. Converted. Above all, I felt myself to have been addressed, not with any words or for any par­ticular reason and certainly not from any merit – it was in that sense gratu­itous – but by one to whom I could speak.”[1] All our doubting, all our searching, our questioning, in matters of faith must move towards conversion. Not a conversion to a blind faith, but a conversion nevertheless, to a place between blind faith and blind doubt, where we live as those who have not seen and yet have come to believe because like Thomas we have been met by the resurrected Lord, and that demands a confession like Thomas’ My Lord and my God!

It’s not always going to be easy. And we need to remember and be honest about why we doubt. We doubt because we seek understanding. We doubt because we care and believe that there is an answer. Those who don’t believe that there is an answer, don’t doubt because there is nothing to understand. But we who doubt do believe. Someone once wrote, “Within every kernel of doubt, there is a tree of life and hope.”

Jesus knows that we seek to believe, that our doubts are pregnant with possibility. And John tells us so clearly that the purpose of his gospel is so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. If we have doubts, we’re in good company. But don’t doubt this, Jesus loves us and will continue to seek us out. And Jesus will pronounce his Shalom on us, his peace on us, and offer us his Holy Spirit, meeting us at the point of our greatest need in ways that we cannot imagine or prepare for. And when we are encountered by the risen Christ, when by the grace of God, we do understand, when that moment comes, I pray that we, like Thomas, will get it and confess, My Lord and my God!

And to God be the glory, now and forevermore, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on 10 April 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church
without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online.

[1] Janet Soskice, Finding God in the Shower, The Guardian, June 28, 2009