He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, May 11, 2015

Love it to Death: The Gospel of Doubt

I attended the Resurrection service at the local Orthodox church this year, and after the service I was talking to the Deacon, who kindly invited me to Vespers the next morning.  He also asked if I would be willing to help read the Gospel passage for the morning in a language other than English, because their tradition is to read the Gospel in as many languages as are used by members of their community.  I was delighted to find that there were Latin and Spanish translations of the Gospel passage available for me to use, and agreed to proclaim it in those languages while others did so in Arabic, French, and Romanian.

I took one of their missals home so that I could practice proclaiming those passages, primarily to make sure that I got the pacing and emphases right the next morning.  When we reached the point in the Vespers when it was my turn to proclaim the Gospel passage in Spanish and then in Latin, I launched into it with a measured pace and careful pronunciation as I had practiced it.  Perhaps because I had practiced it and was now able to concentrate on the content of the reading itself, it struck me in a way that it had not the night before.

A reading from the Gospel of John:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I was overcome with emotion as I read of Thomas' doubts and then of his encounter with Jesus that erased all doubt.  I realized at that moment that I was a proverbial Doubting Thomas, that I had been given the immense, profound, and completely undeserved gift of encountering Christ directly and yet had persisted in my doubts that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I am the product of two parents who are trained scientists, and I have a strong background in philosophy; doubt is as much of a habit for me as breathing. I am a compulsive questioner of what others find to be obvious, which is why I tend to be willing to ask hard questions about topics that seem settled.

Perhaps this is why I have long sympathized with my atheist brothers and sisters more so than most of my fellow Christians.  I have explained my struggle with accepting the idea of the Christian conception of God, suggested to my fellow Christians that we need to treat atheists well, and repeatedly attempted to engage with claims made by atheists like Nietzsche, Penn Jillette, and Sam Harris in a thoughtful rather than a dismissive and accusatory way.  I have argued decisively that atheism is not and cannot be understood coherently as a religion.  I have tried to show that associating all atheists with Satan-worship makes no sense.

Unsurprisingly, I've been accused of being a part of some sort of atheist brotherhood before because I tend to be willing to stick up for atheists, and Christians who find my skeptical bent suspicious are inclined to think me a heretic.  But my friendly rapport with many atheists isn't a matter of agreeing with them; it's a matter of understanding their doubts because I have shared them.  And most of us have doubts at times, particularly when we are struggling deeply in our lives.

We should all understand to some extent what it's like to be a Doubting Thomas.  If the Apostle Thomas who ate and drank and traveled with Jesus had trouble believing that He was who He said He is, then how can we possibly fail to understand how someone who has not been at the Last Supper would be unable to believe without a doubt that Christ is risen?

Nothing less than the visceral encounter with Christ will erase all our doubts, and even then some of us are like Thomas, persisting in our doubts until we see Him as the Risen Lord physically present to us.  Jesus is ready and willing to let Thomas feel the wounds in his hands and side, reaching out in love to the one who has doubts so that he might overcome them in the light of experience.  This is the example we must follow with our brothers and sisters who have doubts; we are called to let them see our wounds and our own doubts, showing them through our experience how they can be overcome.

We are called to be Christ's hands, to display the wounds aggravated by our doubts so that others know that they are not alone in their doubts, that their journey is one we share.  Just as we love to death our doubts about the trustworthiness of our brothers and sisters by developing loving relationships with them, so too we love to death our doubts about the trustworthiness of Christ's promises and teachings by developing a loving relationship with Him, showing by our lives that love can overcome any doubt, even the doubts of someone who has encountered Christ and doubts Him still, even the doubts of the Doubting Thomas so many of us have been at some point in our lives.

By Unknown - This image is available from the National Library of Wales You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44920993

Note: This is called the Incredulity of Thomas, and it shows Thomas placing his hand in Christ's side, as do many of the works of art based on the events described in the New Testament.  The portion of the Gospel of John in which this event is related is the source of the phrase "doubting Thomas" in common parlance.

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