Is it faithless to doubt? (part 1)

Hopefully, over the last few posts, we’ve managed to rescue the reputation of Thomas, the disciple known through the ages for doubting the resurrection of Jesus. Realistically, he was no more skeptical than the other disciples. And to be fair, we should remember that he made a marvelous profession of faith, and was treated with compassion and grace by his risen Lord.

But now comes the question: what about all the other Doubting Thomases in the world? After all, whenever we use that name for someone, even in jest, there’s a bit of literal or implied finger-wagging that goes with it. Many of us have been taught that true faith means believing what you’re supposed to believe, and not asking impertinent questions.

And aren’t there passages of Scripture that suggest that doubt is a bad thing? Doesn’t Jesus himself scold his disciples for not believing?

Yes and yes. But let’s take this slowly.

First of all, we need to acknowledge the emotional side of the issue. Imagine children coming home with their parents on a Sunday morning after church. The kids have heard a thing or two that they don’t understand. How can God be everywhere at the same time? How can God be three and one at the same time? (That’s not even “new math.”) And how can Jesus be both a man and God at the same time?

Let it be said that children live in a more magical and imaginative world than most adults do, so many are able to take a bit of paradox in stride. Sooner or later, though, they will have questions. How will the adults in their lives respond? In a way that encourages openness, curiosity, and conversation? One hopes. But too often, adults (whether parents, Sunday School teachers, or others) respond in ways that say, “Look, kid, that’s just the way it is. Good people just believe this stuff. So don’t ask stupid questions.”

Implication: if you persist in asking, you’re being rebellious. Or worse: maybe you’re a bad person. And chances are, adults who respond that way to children have had their own curiosity squashed in turn.

What’s going on here? Part of it is that adults don’t like feeling like kids have caught them in their ignorance: I’m the big person, and I’m supposed to have the answers. That question makes me really uncomfortable. When adults respond defensively, kids get the message that it’s dangerous to be curious, and eventually learn to keep their questions to themselves.

A bigger issue, though, has to do with the way that belief functions in the life of the church. People have a natural tendency to define themselves by dividing the social world into in-groups and out-groups. If you believe what you’re told without question, you get to stay in the club. If you start asking questions, you may find yourself being edged toward the margins. Ask too many questions, and you’re out.

Acknowledging this as a fact of our life together doesn’t mean running in the opposite direction and claiming that “anything goes.” Much of the history of the church and of theology revolves around controversy and debate: what’s heresy, and what’s not? And some articles of faith are more central than others. It’s one thing to differ on the mode and meaning of baptism; it’s another to differ on the very existence of God.

But the point is that it’s natural to be curious, to want to understand. If we read the Bible at all closely, we will probably notice lots of things that will raise questions in our minds. Or what we read may not match what we’ve been taught. Or what we hear from the pulpit may not fit with what we see in our own lives and in the lives of others around us. Or life just simply doesn’t go the way we expect it to and we’re taken by surprise by one setback after another.

With all of these questions and concerns may come the seeds of doubt: doubt that the Bible is trustworthy, doubt that Christians are anything more than pious hypocrites, doubt that we’re saved, doubt that God really loves us.

But if we’ve learned anything from the story of Thomas, it’s this: Jesus unfailingly meets us with grace, even in the midst of our doubts. The community that meets in his name needs to do the same.

We’ll continue our exploration of doubt in the next post.