27 April 2003
Through Doubt to Faith
Robert Tulip
Bible
Reading: John 20:19-31
Doubting Thomas

 

Today, one week after Easter Sunday, we join with the journey of the infant church as they began the process of understanding the awesome events of the Passion of Christ. I would like to use our reading today, the famous story of "Doubting Thomas", to reflect on three aspects of doubt: firstly, the importance of doubt as a step towards real faith; secondly, some comments on how theology has used and perhaps misused doubt; and finally the role of doubt within faith as an essential part of the Christian attitude towards the world.

Letís start by imagining that first resurrection appearance to the disciples. Meeting in a locked room, fearful of what would happen if they were caught by the authorities, the disciples must have been going through terrible internal turmoil as they considered the apparent failure of the messianic hopes they had in Jesus. What a blessed relief and an astonishing experience it must have been for them to then see Jesus, who they were all convinced was dead, join them in the flesh and say "peace be with you". In this momentous occasion their faith in the Risen Lord was confirmed and became unshakeable.

Thomas was not at that first appearance and he did not believe it had happened. I would like now to ask you to put yourself in Thomas' position. How many of us would have had the courage, in the face of the joy and faith of his friends, to openly undermine them, to say "Unless I see in his hands the prints of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe".

It is difficult to engage in strong and robust discussion about what we really believe. For this reason I greatly admire Thomas. He could have kept quiet. He could have thought to himself "I don't want to upset their silly fantasy and pick a fight - but then what if they are right - I don't want to make myself look like an idiot". He could have thought, "They say it, I respect them, they must be right, I will take it on faith." It would have been so much easier for him to keep quiet and avoid testing his faith.

But Thomas didn't fail the test. Perhaps Thomas remembered what Jesus had said straight to the face of Pontius Pilate at his trial "For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth". For Thomas to really follow Jesus, he had to show the integrity of his own doubts, he had to bear his own witness, by demanding evidence. When the Risen Christ then appeared again to the disciples a week later, Thomas was there, and he immediately accepted that his doubts had been wrong. He made the powerful confession directly to Jesus upon which our faith is founded, "My Lord and my God".

Still today this confession of Thomas resonates in our world as we ponder the great mystery of how Jesus Christ can be our Lord and our God. Just think, if Thomas had not given voice to his doubts, and if the other disciples had not respected his right to express his views, a respect shown in his inclusion in the next resurrection meeting, Thomas would have missed the chance to confess Jesus as Lord and God. From the open discussion of his doubts, Thomas clarified his own views, those of the other disciples, and those of millions of believers who have heard his story in the Gospel of Saint John.

Thomas still comes in for criticism for his skepticism from some who regard any doubt as dangerous subversion, or who think Thomas is like a scientist who will only believe what can be proved by experiment and observation. I think these criticisms are unfair and misguided. Thomas wasn't there at the first appearance of Christ, and he only gave voice to the normal view of all reasonable people that miracles are impossible. He immediately changed when he discovered his doubts were unfounded. This willingness to be convinced and change his opinions is a mark of his strength of character. This is most important. Thomas"s doubts were not like the obstinate rejection of faith we sometimes encounter today, from people who have made up their minds in advance and are not interested in learning from conversation.

We can find prejudiced thinking all over the place, among believers, atheists and agnostics. I believe a greater danger than expression of doubts comes from the lack of open discussion of why people believe and whether they could be wrong. I know people who have been turned right off Christianity by the difficulty some Christians have in engaging in open conversation. For example at university, there are groups who want to protect their flock from the skeptical modern culture. They will talk to you to convert you, but will get scared by serious discussion about the foundations of belief. Faith is presented as an all or nothing proposition, either you accept the full story, or you are shunned as outside the faith. I do not believe Christianity needs to be so scared about openly addressing and respecting peoples" doubts.

The American evangelist Billy Graham is a great Christian who has done enormous good and changed the lives of millions of people. I went to hear him speak in Sydney about 25 years ago, and it was one of the most memorable things in my life. Last year I watched a TV interview with Mr Graham, in which he said that part of the power of his faith came from a refusal to consider any doubts, to focus only on the positive message of salvation. While this approach is acceptable to those who agree with him, I would like to respectfully differ from Mr Graham on this point. I fear that refusal to consider any doubts can isolate evangelical Christians from the broader community.

Many people have drifted right away from any contact with Christianity because they don"t see the church engaging them in serious discussion about why they should believe. This creates a dilemma for believers. On the one hand it is essential to hold to the conviction that God is revealed in the Scriptures. As Saint Paul said in Romans we should welcome those who are weak in faith but not for disputes about opinions. On the other hand, however, it is not good enough for the church to be arrogant and narrowly dogmatic, when the church could learn something by respectful dialogue. Modern people are used to ideas being contested, so when the church tries to avoid the contest people sometimes give up on the church.

In trying to find the narrow path through these dilemmas, I would now like to look at how some theologians have dealt with the problem of doubt. Ever since studying philosophy at University, my main interest has been the meeting point of faith and reason. I have read quite widely on this topic, but I often find that authors fail to hold the creative tension between Christian faith and modern reason. One author who I believe does manage this feat is the Swiss theologian Dr Emil Brunner, in his book Revelation and Reason, written in 1941.

Arguing that "a genuine evangelical faith does not suppress doubt, but overcomes it," Dr Brunner sets out principles which I suggest can help us to respond to our own and others" doubts. The first requirement he calls for is mutual respect: on the one hand, "what is recognised as valid in science cannot be untrue for faith." Any apparent conflict is only because our understanding is inadequate. Faith must respect science. Past errors of faith, such as the condemnation of Galileo, should be admitted to be wrong, and faith should not claim that things are literally true which science has proved are impossible.

However, respect in the opposite direction is equally important - science should respect faith. It is precisely this lack of respect which Dr Brunner identifies as the real problem of doubt. The Bible tells us that God is revealed in Jesus Christ for our salvation by grace through faith. In our rebellious hearts, we cannot believe this is possible, and we hide our sinful rebellion behind a facade of doubt. In our rational doubting, we put our desire for freedom above our dependence on God. For such modern thinking, human reason is the sole judge of truth. But, as Dr Brunner says, "this declaration of sovereignty and autonomy by the human reason is simply the desire to be like God ... It does not spring from intellectual honesty, but from arrogance."

The challenge faith makes to reason is to become open to God"s word, so our reason can be in harmony with our nature and our purpose, so we can truly reflect the glory of God as creatures made in His image. The paradox is that real freedom comes from acknowledging our need to depend totally on God. Freedom without God is nothing but a destructive illusion. Study of scripture enables us to make the leap of faith, to understand that Christ is our saviour, to believe in God. No amount of so-called logical proof and argument can replace the encounter with the living God in the Gospels. The doubters should recognise that science cannot answer the question of the meaning of life. The answer to doubts is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who shows us that all meaning and purpose come ultimately from the one true God of grace and love.

I personally believe that Jesus Christ provides us with a unique path to salvation. Some modern theologians seem to find it impossible to hold to this tenet of faith in the face of the challenges of modern philosophy. In the 1960s, the Anglican Bishop John Robinson argued in his book "Honest to God" that we must turn away from the old idea that God is "out there" as an objective external reality. Instead Bishop Robinson said God exists solely within our hearts. This way of thinking, known as relativism, is now quite widespread. It holds that there is no objective truth, that different ways of thinking can have their own truths which can be equally valid even where they conflict.

Another contemporary theologian who has drawn from Bishop Robinson"s ideas is the controversial American Bishop John Shelby Spong. I have read several of Spong"s books and I must confess I find him a powerful thinker. Bishop Spong wants to "modernise" our faith, retaining the centrality of the loving Christ, but leaving behind what he calls "theism", or the belief in the real objective existence of God. This leads him to doubt the stories of the holy trinity, and the incarnation and atonement of Christ. Like Bishop Robinson, he call us to believe in the God within our hearts.

Bishop Spong deserves respect as a man of learning and compassion who has thought deeply about the crisis of the Church and the nature of faith. However, his views are simply incompatible with the confession of Thomas that Jesus is Lord and God. The problem, as I see it, is that by trying too hard to be inclusive, Spong loses the integrity of faith. His focus on the compassion and love of Christ is understandable given the problems of hatred in the world today, but he does not hold the picture together with an understanding of the cosmic dimension of faith. This comes through in his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christian framework of faith which helps us to understand what it means to say that Jesus is Son of the Father. The trinity is hard to understand, but it provides an essential insight into the nature of reality. By rejecting the trinity, Spong completely diminishes his vision of Christianity.

Another modern theologian I would now like to mention is Marcus Borg. He is from a group known as the Jesus Seminar, and is the author of a widely read book called "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time". Drawing from academic research into the Bible, Dr Borg argues, for example, that many sayings in the Gospels, especially the Gospel according to St John, are not from Christ but were made up by the early church. He uses this research to argue that Jesus was more a brilliant healer and storyteller than the cosmic saviour depicted in John.

I learnt a lot from Borg"s book, and I would recommend reading it, but like Robinson and Spong I believe he veers too far in the direction of doubt. A prime example is his use of Jesus" saying about the path of salvation in Matthew 7: "enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many; for the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Borg takes this passage to claim that Jesus identified the broad way of destruction with conventional wisdom, and the narrow gate of life with a subversive reversal of accepted views. He says Jesus "directly attacked the central values of his world"s conventional wisdom: family wealth, honour, purity and religiosity", and "if one does not leave the world of conventional wisdom, one remains in it, living in the land of the dead".

Borg makes a valid point that the critique of established ways is part of the story of the Gospel, but I suggest he is seriously mistaken, and very selective in his reading, to suggest conventional wisdom has nothing to offer for our salvation. He has taken his academic doubts too far and distorted the message of Christ to fit his own agenda. He neglects Jesus" statement that he came to fulfill the law, and imagines Christ as some sort of anarchic rebel. In this Borg reflects the common modern priority given to doubt over faith, and fails to develop a balanced understanding that doubt should be examined from the standpoint of faith.

The narrow path of life is hard to hold on to. My belief, as I have explained today, is that our attitude to doubt is a key to finding the narrow path. With a focus on God as our goal, and guided by the love of Christ, we need to strike a path between the various mistaken approaches. Erring too much on the side of faith can make it hard to learn properly from modern science and broader society. On the other hand, too much doubt undermines belief in God, and prevents us from coming to faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and God. The proper balance, I suggest, was achieved by Saint Thomas the doubter. He had the courage of his convictions to demand evidence, and when the evidence appeared in the person of the Risen Christ, he cast aside his doubts and believed. Today we cannot see the Risen Christ, but we can encounter him through the gospel, and obtain there sufficient evidence for us to believe in him.

As Christians, we need to exercise considerable doubt about the messages we receive in our modern world. Every day our media are telling us that spending money can make us happy, and there are any number of false and harmful teachings, and entertainers with warped values. Doubt can help to protect us from some of the harmful and seductive temptations in our world. In commissioning his disciples Jesus told them "behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves". We should remember this teaching as a guide to the proper place of doubt - not as something to undermine our faith, but to strengthen it.

Like Saint Thomas, we too should have the courage of our convictions to respectfully ask questions when we don"t understand or disagree with something. For example if there is something I have said today that you find problematic, please tell me. Hopefully we can learn something from each other, and build each other up in faith.

In closing I would like share with you some further ideas from Emil Brunner which for me capture the creative tension we need between faith and doubt. Brunner writes " it is not man who is the measure of all things, but God. Within the truth of revelation, all that reason knows and recognises falls into place... People cling to ... the sense of autonomy, our right to be our own master, but something outside of humanity must intervene if we are to be set free... When this intervention takes place our doubts will vanish, since we will once again be returning to our original situation as a dependent being who has to receive everything from God. This intervention occurs in the revelation of Christ in faith."

 

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