Faith and Doubt

St. Thomas Church, cradle of Christianity in India, embedded courtesy of Getty Images….

We gather today in a new temporary worship space, but I imagine many of us are still reliving memories from last Sunday. It was a unique day in my ministry, and probably a unique day for most of us. Never again will we leave a church home so well known and loved in quite so dramatic a way.

Many have commented on the way in which they were emotionally moved when the cross came down, and was lifted by crucifers, and carried out, followed by other symbols of faith and relics inherited from our spiritual ancestors. How do you top that? The answer is that you don’t. It’s an especially heightened experience of what usually happens after Easter.

Eleven years I served as an associate pastor, and many of those years I preached the sermon this day, the second Sunday of Easter. All the work neglected during Lent called for urgent attention. When Sunday came, the crowd was thinner, and the feeling of sure faith experienced one week earlier harder to feel. The Sunday after Easter doesn’t present the same sort of trials that Peter was writing about in his first letter that Janet read, but there is at little bit of that feeling that the genuineness of our faith will be tested with occasional doses of doubt.

In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we find a post-resurrection narrative that directly addresses doubt. John tells us that the risen Christ comes into the locked upper room where Jesus’ inner circle has been hiding. It’s evening and dark outside. Inside, I imagine that a single lamp is burning. The disciples are gathered around the table, speaking in whispers, when one of them looks up and sees someone standing beside the door. Moving forward into the circle of light, he says, “Shalom,” holds up a wounded hand, and waits for the truth to sink in.

At the time of this incredible reunion, Thomas is out on an errand. He misses the whole thing. The others tell him that they have seen the Lord. But Thomas seems to suspect delusions born of grief and hysteria. 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.”

Most of us know how the story ends. We know that Jesus appears again, and that this time Thomas is there. We remember that Thomas sees and touches Jesus, then makes one of the most dramatic confessions of faith in the New Testament.

Yet, no matter how many times we hear the story, some of us empathize most with Thomas’ first reaction. He responds like those people (and I’m one of them!) who lead more with their heads than our hearts. We members of this group see nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, if it keeps us honest, if it keeps us open to data that we can verify through our senses. Skepticism is reinforced by our college and university training, where we discover that critical analysis and thinking is what wins us good grades and well-paying jobs.

But those of us with overdeveloped heads and underdeveloped hearts must be especially careful about the limits of rational thought. As the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once put it: “The claim of faith does not summon the rational man to suspend his intellectual habit of control and examination of facts; all that it claims is that he must not try to exercise it in a sphere where it has no function.”[1] Today’s intellectually brilliant atheists and agnostics tend not to see that extreme skepticism is a manifestation of our sinful nature, a form of blinding pride that supplants a humble openness to new data. Doubt that begins as intellectual honesty may end as ideological arrogance.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas perhaps had as much intellectual brilliance as any Christian who ever lived. Yet even he realized that reason could take an individual only so far on life’s spiritual journey. Reason is a starting point, but something else brings you to the finish.

Perhaps, the way that you get to the finish can be described in terms of a story told by my former preaching professor, Tom Long, who was in a very candid conversation with a man in his 70s. The man, let’s call him “Frank,” was telling Tom about a son, in his 30s, confined to a nursing home following a car accident, and in more-or-less permanent comatose state.

Frank startled Tom by saying, “We had stopped loving our son. We visited very week, it was our duty as parents, but we had stopped loving him. Love is … giving and receiving. Our son could not receive, our son could not give. We went to see him, but we had stopped loving him. Until one day, we went to visit our son and were surprised by the visitor in his room, whom we didn’t know. It turned out he was a Lutheran minister who had a regular role at the home. We just waited at the door while this visitor engaged in a conversation toward our son, while I thought to myself, ‘As if my son could appreciate a conversation.’ Then he took a Bible out, and read my son a psalm. As if my son could appreciate a psalm. And then he prayed a prayer, as if my son could appreciate a prayer. Then it dawned on me. He does not see my son simply through clinical eyes, but through the eyes of faith” — through the eyes of love — “and he treats my son as a child of God.”[2] Frank’s story, and the witness of the Lutheran chaplain, remind us that there is a power stronger than intellect, and spiritual truth we will never understand until we feel it.

When I was a young Christian and new pastor, I spent a lot of energy in sermons summarizing great thinkers and arguments, trying to convince listeners to put aside their intellectual doubts, and believe. Somewhere along the way, I learned that was not a particularly efficient or effective use of my limited energy. Frederick Buechner says, “In my head there is almost nothing I can’t doubt when the fit is upon me – the divinity of Christ, the efficacy of the sacraments, the significance of the church, the existence of God ….(But) when our faith is strongest, we believe with our hearts as well as our heads.”[3]

In order to live abundantly in light of Christ’s resurrection, we must not merely learn to think profoundly; we must also learn to love deeply. In this season of Easter, may it be so among us.

NOTES

[1] Emil Brunner, Reason and Revelation, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961, p. 208.

[2] Pulpit Resource Vol. 27, No. 2, 18 April 1999, p. 17.

[3] Frederick Buechner, “Doubt,” Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p.86.

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~ by JohnH1962 on April 23, 2017.