A Master Teacher Reaches Out to Doubters

When schools are founded by devout Christians, it is because they want to nurture their children in the faith that is so precious to their parents. As we think of Jesus’ method and message in the light of the challenges of our secular world, is there any way to tell when a child might become vulnerable to doubt?

Just as the book Ecclesiastes in Scripture represents someone who is full of questions, and the book of Proverbs represents someone who seems to have no questions at all, so our children today will bring different experiences into school and will be effected differently by what is presented to them.

Several years ago, when John Brunt was academic vice president at Walla Walla University, he wandered by my office in the old WWU Administration Building.  He had been listening to Garrison Keillor on the radio as he was driving in his car.  Keillor repeated a poem that really struck home to Brunt. He had the presence of mind to pull over and jot down the title and order it through inter-library loan. When it came, he just had to share it with someone.  So he came to my office. Both he and I had friends who had lost their faith in God when they were in graduate school. The poignant truth of the poem also struck me and I have since memorized it.  It offers a forceful backdrop for our discussion of the Master Teacher.

Stephen Dunn, “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” from Local Time (NY: William Morrow, 1986), 53–55

It was supposed to be Arts and Crafts for a week,

but when she came home

with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art

was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs

            they sang when they weren’t

twisting and folding paper into dolls.

            What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith

in good men was what

we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,

that other sadness.

O.K., we said. One week. But when she came home

singing “Jesus loves me,

the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk.

            Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible

is a great book certain people use

to make you feel bad? We sent her back

without a word.

 

It has been so long since we believed, so long

            since we needed Jesus

            as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was

            sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln

or Thomas Jefferson.

Soon it became clear to us, you can’t teach disbelief

to a child,

            only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story

            nearly as good.

            On parents’ night there were the Arts and Crafts

            all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats

in the church

and the children sang a song about the Ark,

and Hallelujah

            And one in which they had to jump up and down

            for Jesus

            I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain

            about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.

You can’t say to your child

“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks

of extinction and nothing

            exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have

            a wonderful story for my child

            and she was beaming. All the way home in the car

            she sang the songs

occasionally standing up for Jesus.

There was nothing to do

but drive, ride it out, sing along

in silence.

It is a sobering question for all believers: What is it that makes a faith precious to children, only to see it slip away when they become adults? Should we encourage our children to express their doubts at an earlier age?

Among Jesus disciples and followers, two stand out as people who struggled with their doubts and said so: Nicodemus, who was a Jewish leader, but a secret admirer who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1–21), and the disciple Thomas. Neither of these men were young children, so they don’t  help us directly to answer our questions about juvenile faith. Still, Jesus’ handling of people with doubts can be instructive for those who deal with children.

When we listen in to Nicodemus and his nighttime conversation with Jesus, we glimpse  an honest man with an honest question. When Jesus told him that only those who are born again can enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus had to ask his question. The dialogue comes to a point in John 3:4–5. Nicodemus asked: “How can a grown man be born again?  He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time!” To which Jesus responded: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. 6 A person is born physically of human parents, but is born spiritually of the Spirit.” (Good News Translation). In short, Nicodemus had a real question and Jesus took both him and his question seriously.

But now let’s see how Jesus  dealt with Thomas. “Doubting Thomas” is a hero of sorts for those who have questions. And John seems to have taken a special interest in Thomas, an honest man, not given to easy faith.  John mentions him in three separate contexts, all three of them pregnant with issues of doubt and faith.

The first focuses on the tomb of Lazarus. When Jesus said that he wanted to go to Judea again, his disciples responded, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8, NRSV).  In light of that grim question, Thomas declared, “Let us also go that we may die with him” (vs. 16).  In the words of R. H. Strachan, cited by William Barclay, “There was not expectant faith, but loyal despair.” 

This is the same Thomas who asked for clarification after Jesus had said that he was preparing a place for them and that they knew the way. Thomas blurted out, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5, NRSV).

Finally, in John 20, we find the narrative the earned the label “doubting” for Thomas.  Jesus had appeared to the disciples in the upper room and convinced the disciples who were there that both his presence and his resurrection were real. But Thomas was absent that day. And when the other disciples told him what had happened, he famously said: “Unless I . . . put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (vs. 25, NRSV).

But the next verses are crucial:

John 20:2629 (NRSV): A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

With only a gentle rebuke, Jesus made room in the kingdom for the doubter – while praising those who could believe without proof.

The remainder of this week’s lesson in the official study guide focuses not so much on Jesus’ actual teaching methods as on the content of his message, especially as reflected in the writings of Jesus’ followers:

            John 1:1–18: Jesus is the Word made flesh

            2 Cor. 5:16–21: God has reconciled us to himself through Christ

            Philippians 2:1–11: Jesus emptied himself of his divine powers to live among us

            Hebrews 1:1–4: God spoke through the prophets, but Jesus is better than the prophets

The content of these passages is important, but they usually become believable only after a person has answered some basic questions first. Parents, teachers, and children: “Listen up!”  God will listen to your questions. Doubt is not a major obstacle to faith. Indeed, as George MacDonald suggests, doubts are essential to finding the truth:

To deny the existence of God may...involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of His goodness. I say yielding; for a person may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.... Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed. – George MacDonald, 365 Readings, #152, pp. 66–67

Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10818
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"Should we encourage our children to express their doubts at an earlier age?"

Isn’t this a problem when no doubts are ever permissible…because “We have the Truth”? Add to this a suffocating conformity which squashes out creativity and it is no wonder that there is nothing left for many young people.

Unfortunately, they learn that “Jesus Saves”- but doesn’t forgive. It is hard to thrive where one doesn’t see or feel demonstrable love. So, many leave and go where they can be themselves without all the soul-crushing condemnation.

It really is this simple. Sadly enough.

"You have not converted a man because you have silenced him."
Sir John Morley

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The love that woes souls to Jesus is often left in the church when folks go home.

That is too bad. There might be a thousand kingdom bound where there are but a few, if we loved more and learned to put self aside that that love could shine thru.

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I would submit that the love isn’t even found in the church to begin with. It is a huge issue.

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Truth is sometimes painful to hear. Truth spoken in love is not any easier to say or to hear.
By God’s grace, I will rearrange my priority and follow where Jesus leads.

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Uncertainty (sometimes labeled doubt) can be born from a humble admission of imperfection, which condition allows for learning to occur.

But it can also mean stubborn determination to resist knowledge or understanding that is at odds with presently embraced perspectives, denying anything that contradicts those beliefs.

It is not inconsistent to hold both belief (in what we know or of which we have good clues) and doubt (uncertainty) about those things we do not know or cannot know.

Too many are not confortable embracing both and holding them both up to scrutiny on a regular basis. They prefer the comfort of certainty, which most often takes the form of concrete error. Their ‘certainty’ comes from assuming ‘facts’ from ‘filling-in-the-gaps’ or perceptions so out-of-context as to be wrong.

To those who are humble enough to embrace the FACT of their imperfect knowledge, they know that what they know is relative within the frame of omniscience and that what they don’t know is important to admit.

Still, we sometimes MUST assume realities in order to progress thru life. But one should always admit they are traveling on assumed knowledge, rather than certainty, and allow for corrective changes. We also need a loving attitude of understanding that our perspective may be different from others, as they may have assumed different knowledge, but they are doing their best to progress thru life as well as they can.

Holding both (knowledge & uncertainty) to scrutiny on a regular basis means that we question both what we believe and that of which we are uncertain, to see if currently, after all that we have learned since our last examination, thru a life of learning & experience, that knowledge is still valid and the uncertainty is still warranted.

The saying, “An unexamined life is not worth living”, comes to mind.

Most children are (by necessity) taught the certainties of their parents (or teachers), for they are usually too young to make right assessments of their surrounding realities on their own. But, far too few are later taught how to deal with (internal or external) contradictions of that ‘certain knowledge’, with discoveries of incongruent information and with the doubts (uncertainties) that spring from a wider exposure to the world, both physical and mental. This majority lack the skills for self-examination of their knowledge and ignorance during their lifetime.

Rather than a lifetime of ‘certain’ error or one of ‘staggering’ uncertainty, life should consist of reasonable assurance of the validity of your next step forward while being willing to evaluate from that new position whether to step forward, backward or sideways as the next appropriate advancement.

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Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certainty is. Where certainty is established there is no need, there is not even any space for faith.
Jesus’ insistence on faith as the way to approach God should call our reliance on certainty into question.
Even as I write this I am grappling with the tension between faith and certainty, especially as in the context of this article I am a parent of children who have questions that are different from mine.

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There is a very good book on this topic, it is called The Gift of Doubt by Gary E Parker. I found it to be a great help. At this point in history and knowledge there is very little in the 3 dimensional world plus time that is not known. The foundational needs we have as humans, need / desire for Love, Freedom and Equality (sometimes called justice). These things are what the God that Christ asserted to represent has offered freely, but there is one catch, the existence of God can not be proved. I would suggest we free ourselves from all the cultural baggage religion has piled up as preconditions to the promise of the Gospel. Doing this will allow faith to germinate within the human heart which is primed from birth to believe it is loved (of course bad parenting can seriously distort this). Freely given this story would allow for individuals to be free from fear which is cast out. Religion on the other hand is the opposite of free, it maintains authoritarian control thru fear. Removing the authoritarian fear factor from the story is the only way Christ makes any sense, he came to demonstrate the depths of the love they have for this creation. Freely given the story is believable and clearly shows the unconditional love which is represented by Christ and the God of the bible. When freed from the cultural baggage and ignorance of the ancient bible writers / translators the story can germinate faith. Maybe the hardest is for us to remove from the story our own cultural biases. Presented this what the story stands in stark contrast to the alternative, to the way of the world.

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Certainty can be a form of idolatry. I’ve been through this phase - certain that We Have The Truth. Making that certainty the be all and end all of my faith. When study and conversation with trustworthy individuals revealed room for doubt, Christ became much larger than my small convictions, and doors were opened to the largeness and largesse of Jesus. Truly, the benefit of the doubt.

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Thank you for sharing that beautiful note.

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