‘Saved by doubt’

Revd Dr David Cornick, General Secretary, Churches Together in England

8th April 2018

John 20:19f

The first Sunday after Easter. Low Sunday. There is a Methodist mantra – ‘Low Sunday. Low congregations. Local preachers’. Such is the genius of the Christian year that its not only Low Sunday, but doubt Sunday. Today’s gospel takes us back to that the extraordinary events of last Sunday, when the risen Christ was suddenly in their midst, gifting them with the Spirit, as John conflates Easter and Pentecost.

But one of the them wasn’t there. For whatever reason Thomas wasn’t in the room. Out shopping, gone for a long walk, visiting relatives – not there. And when they gathered round, chattering ten to a dozen – ‘He’s risen! He was here! It was him, we saw the wounds. We heard his voice. He breathed the Spirit on us.’ –  Thomas gave them a look which made them suspect that he thought they’d been at the whisky or something stronger and said, flatly, bluntly, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (Jn 20:25)

A week goes by in a narrative sentence, and then, suddenly, Jesus is in their midst again, and this time Thomas is there. ‘Put your finger here’, says Jesus; ‘Reach out your hand and put it into my side’. The scene is a gift to that most dramatic and earthy of artists, Caravaggio. Jesus draws aside his shroud, and gently guides Thomas’s finger to his side. Thomas, shaven headed, wrinkled, the shoulder of his tunic unstitched is the epitome of a poor peasant, the dirt still under his thumb nail, his hands rough, his face intense furrowed concentration as his mind does somersaults.

That’s how tradition sees it, doubting Thomas seeing and only then believing.  But Caravaggio has gone a step beyond John. John doesn’t tell us that Thomas actually reached out his hand like that. John tells us that Thomas responded with what might have been the earliest of creeds, ‘My Lord, and my God’. In other words, ‘seeing is believing’ and ‘doubting Thomas’ is far too simple a response.

As the resurrection bursts normality apart, everyone in the story is caught up in a saga of seeing and believing.  Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple arrive at the tomb. Mary assumes that the body has been taken somewhere else, the beloved disciples sees the empty grave clothes. So does Peter, and (John tells us) he believed – but what does he believe, because John immediately tells us that they didn’t yet understand the Scriptures that he must rise again. Most probably they remembered Lazarus, their once dead friend whom Jesus raised to die again. Even Mary, after that exquisite encounter in the garden, was caught in the natural processes of seeing and believing. He had come back to life. He was himself. She could hold him again, and Jesus has to warn her ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (v 17). This isn’t a restoration of the old order of cause and effect, this is a radically new creation.

What makes Thomas unique then, is not the evidential cycle of seeing and believing, it is his remarkable confession of faith. ‘My Lord’, yes kurios was a normal mode of address to a teacher, one they were accustomed to using, but not ‘my God’. John reserves the climax of his gospel for Thomas the doubter.  Unlike the rest of them, he gets it. At the very beginning of his gospel we read that the Word was with God and was God, that the Word became flesh, ‘..yet the world did not know him’; until now. Thomas knows, and Thomas believes.

Do not doubt, says Jesus, but believe. The Greek is odd. It could mean that Jesus is identifying Thomas as caught between belief and unbelief, and is urging him to believe. What Thomas does is make a conceptual leap into a new universe. For a Jew to proclaim even the greatest teacher as God was inconceivable, but for Thomas the penny has dropped. He gets it. He understands. Generations of theologians will unpack the genetic code of incarnation with forensic carefulness, but Thomas just knows. That is what was going on. Incarnation. Suddenly it all fell into a new shape. As his own discipleship flashed before his eyes, he must have smiled. When Jesus had insisted on returning to volatile, dangerous Judea when Lazarus was ill, what had he unwittingly said, ‘Let’s go that we may die with him.’ What had he said when Jesus was teaching them about his Father’s house – ‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?’  Now he knew. We don’t die with him, he dies for us. Now he knows that the way is that cross, the tomb, redemption’s highway, the truth, God’s will before the foundation of the world played out before his eyes, the life – this wasn’t Lazarus raised to die again, this was the universe re-ordered, mortality put in its place, the impossible comedy, the resurrection dance.

What is remarkable about Thomas is that moment of insight, and its that moment of insight and the way Thomas arrives at it which should make him the patron saint of academia. Wilson Poon, who teaches physics at Edinburgh, has written about how Thomas’s moment of insight ‘…resonates deeply with my experience as a practising scientist, but not because he demanded visual evidence. Instead the resonance pertains to the way he went beyond what he saw – that the man Jesus he knew had risen – to reach an even more profound conclusion: that this Jesus was divine.’

Scientists, he says, take a similar plunge across the ‘logical gaps’ separating data and evidence to reach ‘another shore of reality’. Just as Thomas was, as it were, given a gift of understanding, scientists often say ‘it came to me’. Suddenly something that is beyond the evidence makes it all make sense. It is his ability to plunge across logical gaps which should make Thomas the patron saint of scientists, suggests Professor Poon, not his demands for visible proof. [1]

Faith is not an insane adventure, believing six impossible things before breakfast like the White Queen in Through the looking glass. When we talk about faith and doubt we’re in that territory of evidence, understanding and leaping ‘logical gaps’, and that’s territory we know well in universities as we push at the edges of human understanding and knowledge, continually looking at evidence, assessing it, doubting it, re-shaping it in a continual process of interpretation and re-interpretation.

In that sense then, doubt is integral to faith, because without doubt, that ability to stand aside contemplate the evidence, interpret and re-interpret it, faith would not be possible. Years ago an Anglican priest, Robert Winnett wrote a poem called To an agnostic:

You say you don’t believe and I do,
Up to a point that judgement may be true,
And yet it fails to sound our complex state,
For doubt is not faith’s foe but its correlate.

‘Doubt’, suggested Paul Tillich ‘is not the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith’. Its certainly woven through the Easter story, the sub-text of which is a sorry saga of misunderstanding, betrayal and fear. Even though the tomb was empty, the disciples locked themselves away ‘for fear of the Jews’ which suggests a more than a little scepticism about ‘and after three days rise again’. From the first then, there was cycle of doubt and deepening faith.  It happened to dogged, faithful Thomas. The doubt, the leap of the logical gap, the deepening faith which, if tradition is to be believed, led him to journey with the gospel to Asia, maybe even to southern India. Mar Thoma Christians still revere him as their founding father.

In the Christian life, in my experience at least, faith and doubt are in a continual dance, and it is doubt that leads us deeper into the reality of Christ as we encounter what Richard Harries has called ‘the beauty and the horror of life’. School shootings, nerve gas assassinations, state brutality, famine, rioting cancer cells – the whole panoply of evil and evidences of the world coming out wrong are doubt’s triggers, and so they should be. But they lead us not to atheism, but deeper into the mystery of God – to Good Friday, to a gaunt cross, a tortured dying man. This is who God is. This is the God who absorbs the whole cauldron of the world’s sins and evils, and fashions them into the raw materials of resurrection and redemption.

The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Faith is not faith without doubt. Sometimes when the clouds of doubt obscure the light, we want to rail at God like Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?

And he prays, ‘O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.’ And the rain comes, just as surely and regularly as the clouds of doubt. Just as Jesus came to Thomas and said “Put your finger here…”’, so too he says to us, contemplate the beauty and goodness of the world as well as its shadows. Balance the beauty against the horror.

And to those of us who have the privilege of being in universities like this, God says – take heart from Thomas, follow the truth, let your minds loose in the wonderland of creation and the intellectual economy of knowledge, understanding and science, of evidence and leaping logical gaps. And remember, says God,  Jesus is the Truth as well as the Life, you’ll never be far from him if you seek what is true. For all who seek the truth, as Thomas did, doubt is not an enemy to be feared, but a companion who leads us ever deeper  into the wonder, mystery and love of God.

[1] Wilson Poon ‘Thomas: the apostle of scientists’ Theology and science vol 15 (2017) issue 2, accessed 23.3.18