Affirming Doubt

3 April 2016
The Very Rev Dr Ian Bradley, Principal of St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, and Honorary Church of Scotland Chaplain.

Today is traditionally called Low Sunday in the church calendar in contrast to last week’s high Sunday of Easter. Cynics say this name also reflects the fact that there is usually a low church attendance as people feel they have done their stuff by turning out for Easter.
For me, I have to say, today is anything but a low Sunday. Indeed, I find its gospel reading, as set in the lectionary, and its overall message, among the most compelling and appealing in the entire Christian year because 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 perhaps the patron saint of doubters – and for me this makes it a particular privilege to be preaching here today.
I should say that what I have to say in this sermon is probably not going to be applicable to all of you sitting in this chapel. For those of you who are absolutely certain in your faith, who feel assured of your salvation & feel you know all the answers I fear I have little to offer this morning. I salute and I respect the certainty of your faith and in no way do I want to diminish or undermine it.
My remarks are really addressed to those of you who, like me, live in that state described in the first line of the hymn which we will sing immediately after this sermon and which is printed in your orders of service. It was written by John Shairp, a former professor of Latin and master of the united colleges in this university and begins ‘ ‘Twixt gleams of joy and clouds of doubt our feelings come and go.’ Our own Prime Minister echoed his sentiments when he responded to an interviewer’s question about his faith, ‘it’s a bit like the reception of my local commercial radio station, Chiltern FM, it’s a bit patchy and rather comes and goes’.
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 arbitrary and unfair suffering in the world, especially of those most innocent and least deserving of it – how can we square this with the idea of a good and benevolent deity who has got the whole world in its hands.
Or it may just be that we find ourselves in what might be called a cloud of unknowing and uncertainty and questioning. That is certainly where I often find myself. Across a whole range of issues, theological and spiritual as well as in many other areas, after 25 years in academia and not least in matters of faith after 50 years as a Christian, I find myself increasingly saying and feeling ‘I simply don’t know’ – less and less filled with dogmatic certainty and more and more with a sense of ambiguity and mystery – those two states which I have increasingly come to regard as heavenly twins.
In the case of Thomas, our subject this morning, his doubts were very straightforward and very 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 before he would believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God who had miraculously and uniquely risen from the dead after his Crucifixion. When he meets him, Jesus, typically, does not condemn Thomas for his doubt and lack of faith just as he did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. 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 affirms doubt. Indeed, he almost seems to me to add a new Beatitude here, ‘Blessed are the doubters, for they shall find faith.’ Jesus makes the crucial point in what he says to Thomas that doubt 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 the basis of trust and hope without proof or evidence or certainty. This is brought out very clearly in that great hymn to faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews that formed our second 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, and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens without fixed abode on earth’.
The clear thrust of both Jesus’s remarks in the Gospel reading and the Epistle to the Hebrews, as of other passages in the 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 – as our opening hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule so rightly puts it Jesus does indeed call them, call us indeed, to join together 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 what might be called faithful doubt. In his great poem In Memoriam Alfred Tennyson famously and surely rightly observed that ‘There lives more faith in honest
doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds. ‘ One of the most significant recent treatments of this subject comes in a book entitled ‘Faithful Doubt: The Wisdom of Uncertainty’ by Guy Collins, a priest in the Episcopal Church of the USA published in 2014. Arguing that certainty is antithetical to faith, Collins writes that: ‘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 many of the great Christian mystics and 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 a kind of 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, 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, as I have said, is the patron saint of doubters. As portrayed in John’s Gospel he is the disciple who asks awkward and probing questions – an earlier passage (14.5) has him saying to Jesus ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ prompting that key response ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ which is not without its own ambiguity. In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, it is of course Judas who asks the big, difficult questions – incidentally I know some of you were expecting, hoping or even dreading that I would burst into song this morning as I have been known to do more than once from this pulpit, indeed I have sung in sermons here from Jesus Christ Superstar (duetting with the Chapel Choir) as well as from Les Miserables and the Sound of Music. You will be either sorry or very relieved to know that fleeting reference is the nearest you will get to it this morning although I will be letting rip in the last hymn, with its stirring tune by the blessed Arthur Sullivan.
But back to the sermon – in the Gospels, it is Thomas who asks the big awkward questions. Among the different Christian denominations, or at least so I was assured by a distinguished Anglican of my acquaintance, it is particularly the calling of those like me who stand in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition who are called to ask difficult questions – in which case Thomas would have made a rather good Church of Scotland minister.
But there is, or was, more to Thomas than his rather occasional appearances in the Gospels – and in John’s Gospel in particular – as a doubter and someone who could always be relied on to ask an awkward and penetrating question. He also appears to have been the author of a Gospel of his own which is very different in tone from those four which made it into the New Testament canon. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the hundred or so of the other 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, the Virgin birth, miracles or resurrection. It is rather purely and simply a collection of Jesus’ sayings – and 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 tell his disciples that all 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 indeed 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 distinguished Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels has argued powerfully 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 – for him it could only be grasped through believing in and surrendering to Jesus as the Son of God, the one who is the way, the truth and the life.
The authorities who drew up the approved canon of the New Testament in the early fourth century incorporated John’s Gospel and rejected Thomas’, Pagels argues, because they wanted a unified, central controlled church rather than a diverse one where people were encouraged to pursue their own search for God. As in so many other areas – over the role of women, over different interpretations of the divinity and humanity of Jesus and other doctrinal issues, a narrow authoritarian, hierarchical and male-imposed uniformity won out over diversity and openness.
I am conscious that this is turning into an early church history lecture. But it is relevant, I think, as we conclude our pondering of today’s Gospel reading to ask why John made Thomas the paradigm of the faithless doubter. Yet even as he sought to portray him in these terms, he actually succeeded especially through recording Jesus’ response to him, in making him the first exponent of that open, questioning doubt which is surely closer to faith than either of them 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 what is perhaps that deepest form of faith – a faith that trusts even in the dark, which involves honest doubt and proceeds in hope and expectation rather than certainty, enabling us to pray with the father of the desperately disturbed boy brought to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, ‘Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief’. In the words of the hymn we sang just before this sermon:
How often we, like Thomas,
need proof before we trust.
Lord Jesus, friend of doubters,
come, speak your truth to us.
We long to feel your presence,
and gain new faith from you,
to find, without our seeing,
the blessing Thomas knew.
Blessed are the doubters for they shall find faith