Blessed are the doubters
Preacher: Revd Prof Ian Bradley
Readings: Hebrews 11:1-13a; John 20: 19-31
Today is traditionally called Low Sunday in the church calendar in contrast to last week’s high Sunday of Easter. Cynics say this is also a reflection of the fact that there is usually a low church attendance as people feel they have done their stuff by turning out for Easter. This morning, of course, we gather in our own homes and we may be feeling low for a rather different reason, contemplating at least another three weeks of lockdown and with all sorts of anxieties and fears of what lies ahead.
For me, I have to say, today is anything but a low Sunday. That’s partly because we have just let rip with one of my favourite hymns, kindly inserted this morning by the chaplain, Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s great Resurrection hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, hearts to heaven and voices raise’ set the wonderful tune Lux Eoi by the blessed Arthur Sullivan. But it is also because I find the Gospel reading set for this Sunday in the lectionary and which we heard just before the hymn among the most compelling and appealing in the entire Christian year. This is the one day when we are encouraged to think about and perhaps even to affirm doubt – when our central focus is on Thomas, the doubting disciple and indeed the patron saint of doubters.
I imagine that many of you, like me, live in that state described in the hymn which will sing immediately after this sermon, written 150 years ago by John Shairp, a former professor of Latin and master of the united colleges in this university. It begins ‘Twixt gleams of joy and clouds of doubt our feelings come and go, Our daily state is tossed about in ceaseless ebb and flow. No mood of feeling, form of thought, is constant for a day’. Those words perhaps particularly describe our feelings at this present time, when our mood is so up and down and when we are surely more than usually assailed by doubts and fears.
Doubt in respect of the Christian faith comes in many forms – for some it is predominantly intellectual and centres around the difficulty of believing doctrines like the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. For others it is moral doubt prompted by the almost unbearable amount of seemingly arbitrary suffering in the world, which is especially inflicted on those most innocent and least deserving of it. Why, we might well ask, is a supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God allowing the Covid-19 virus to wreak havoc, illness and death throughout the world, and indeed allowing it to take a particularly heavy toll on the most vulnerable and on those helping them? It is hardly surprising if we find ourselves in what might be called a cloud of unknowing and uncertainty and questioning.
In the case of Thomas, the subject of this morning’s Gospel, his doubts were rather different, more straightforward and clear. He would not believe what the other disciples told him about their encounter with the resurrected Jesus until he had actually seen the mark of the nails in his hands and put his finger into the places where the nails were. He wanted hard evidence and proof before he would believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God who had miraculously and uniquely risen from the dead after his Crucifixion. He has, indeed, been described in his approach as the first scientist. When he meets him, Jesus, typically, does not condemn Thomas for his doubt and lack of faith. He encourages him to look at his hands and to put his fingers in his side so that he has the proof that he seeks and can believe. When Thomas responds after getting this confirmation, ‘My Lord and my God’, Jesus says: ‘Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.’
This seems to me a tremendously important statement by Jesus because in a very real sense it actually affirms faithful doubt. Jesus makes the crucial point in what he says to Thomas that doubt – in terms of having a degree of uncertainty in the face of a lack of evidence and proof – is not the opposite of faith – no, the opposite of faith is certainty. Doubt is actually a very close handmaiden of faith because they are both about proceeding with honesty on trust and hope without proof or evidence. This is also brought out very clearly in that great hymn to faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews that formed our first lesson this morning. In it we are given a whole series of portraits of those – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham – who were motivated by faith and trust rather than certainty, who looked forward to things hoped for, rather than resting on the hard evidence of things accomplished – in the closing words of the passage we read: ‘Although they had not received the things promised, yet they had seen them far ahead and welcomed them’.
The clear thrust of both Jesus’s remarks in the Gospel reading and the Epistle to the Hebrews, as of other passages in the Christian New Testament, is that faith is not a matter of certainty based on uncontrovertible proof and hard evidence – rather it is a matter of hoping and trusting where we do not see and cannot be sure – walking on in the darkness, embracing the mystery, not abandoning our questions or our doubts – in that enterprise the faithful and the doubter are indeed very close in their common search for truth.
Much has been written down the centuries about the closeness of doubt and faith and the importance in Christian life and witness of honest doubt. In his great poem In Memoriam, Alfred Tennyson famously observed that ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds’. In a recent book entitled ‘Faithful Doubt: The Wisdom of Uncertainty’ , Guy Collins, a priest in the Episcopal Church of the USA argues that certainty is antithetical to faith. In his words, ‘Christianity’s worst enemies are not intelligent questioners but those who produce the most noise in proclaiming their trust in Christ. Religious fundamentalism and militant atheism have a number of compelling similarities’. He goes on: ‘Admitting that we do not know much about God should be one of the tenets of orthodox Christian belief. Faith needs to have looked doubt in the eyes and seen its own reflection. Faith can no longer be held up as an antidote to doubt’.
Collins’ cry for a certain agnosticism to be preserved at the heart of Christian belief echoes the whole apophatic tradition in Christian theology which has emphasized the unknowability of God – the cloud of unknowing as it has been called, or the dark night of the soul. It also echoes a central theme of Jesus’ own teaching where ambiguity and open-ended mystery and uncertainty seem to be encouraged by the way he preaches in parables, stories, riddles and conundrums rather than dogmatic obiter dicta, the way he constantly turns questions and questioners back on themselves and teaches through dialogue rather than monologue. Jesus encouraged those he met to work out their own answers and come to their own conclusions. He often left them guessing and pondering and seems almost deliberately to have led them into ambiguity and mystery, responding to simple straightforward questions with a cryptic phrase or by himself asking a question.
Thomas is presented in St John’s Gospel as the patron saint of doubters. He is the disciple who asks awkward and probing questions – an earlier passage has him saying to Jesus ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? But there is, or was, more to Thomas than his rather occasional appearances in the Gospels – and John’s Gospel in particular – as a doubter and someone who could always be relied on to ask a tricky, penetrating question. He also appears to have been the author of a Gospel of his own which is very different in tone from the four that made it into the New Testament canon. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the hundred or more so-called apocryphal Gospels which circulated in the early church and were clearly read by early Christians. The text of it was among the documents found in stone jars in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 – other fragments have been found dating from the second century and scholars think that it probably goes back at least as far as the four canonical gospels which made it into the authorised New Testament of the church in the later fourth century. It seems to represent early Syrian Christianity and is perhaps the oldest text to come from what was later known as the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Now there are several very striking features about the Gospel of Thomas. It makes no mention of Jesus’ Nativity, Virgin birth, miracles or resurrection. It is purely and simply a collection of his sayings. Several eminent Biblical scholars, especially those involved in the so-called Jesus Seminar, have concluded that alongside John’s Gospel, it probably has the highest proportion of authentic quotations from Jesus of any Gospel. The thrust of what Thomas records Jesus is saying is very different from what is in the four canonical gospels. He has Jesus state that all of us come forth from divine light and all are children of the light – it is up to us to find the light within us – in his words: ‘The kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known’.
This message, with its strong similarities to the beliefs of Quakers and to the theology of several of the early Greek church fathers, is very different from the emphasis in John’s Gospel where the divine light is contrasted with the darkness of the world and it is clearly stated that only through believing in Jesus can we find divine truth. The Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels has argued in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, that John set out to refute Thomas’ claim that we all have the divine light and image within us and that we can know God through our own divinely given capacity as beings created in the image of God and as children of his light. John was uneasy about Thomas’ emphasis on the human capacity to discover truth lying within us. The authorities who drew up the approved canon of the New Testament in the early fourth century incorporated John’s Gospel and rejected Thomas’ one because they wanted a unified, central controlled church rather than a diverse community where people were encouraged to pursue their own search for God. As in other areas, like the role of women and the approach to other faiths, a narrow authoritarian, hierarchical and male-imposed uniformity won out over diversity and openness.
This little excursus into early church history is relevant, I think, as we conclude our pondering of today’s Gospel reading in which John made Thomas the paradigm of the faithless doubter. Even as he sought to portray him in these terms, he actually succeeded especially through recording Jesus’ response, in making him Thomas first exponent of that open, questioning doubt which is closer to faith than either is to certainty. Doubting Thomas may well be the patron saint of doubters and all who ask awkward questions – he also prompts Jesus to point to that highest form of faith – a faith that trusts even in the dark, involves honest doubt and proceeds in hope and expectation rather than certainty.
In his extraordinarily moving autobiography, Leaving Alexandra, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, suggests that hard and punishing certainty and fear of doubt have fuelled the fundamentalism which is now so rampant across the world’s major faiths. ‘What do you do’, he writes, ‘if you can no longer live with the doubt that is co-active with faith? You try to cure yourself – and the best cure is over-conviction, over-confidence. Doubt, like pity, erodes certainty. If you are desperate for certainty because you believe only it can hold chaos at bay, then you have to repress your doubt and pump up your convictions’. He quotes a short poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Its message that it is OK to have doubts and anxieties seems to me to speak particularly to us in our present situation:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow in the Spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world like a mole, like a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Blessed are the doubters for they shall find true faith, Amen