The journey of a believer traverses deep valleys of doubt which can lead to the abyss of unbelief. Doubt is serious business and whether you like it or not, it most likely will pay you a visit. The life of a truth-seeker will hit snags, pitfalls, some real challenges in their trek through belief. It is a normal occurrence, at least in the life of this pilgrim. My valleys of doubt are not unlike the wilderness many truth-seekers experience. Suddenly you find your faith barren, on life support, struggling to breathe in the sweltering heat of the unknown, and wondering where is God? It’s a deserted lonely place where rationality mocks my faith and doubt is the vehicle.
I am not a cynic, more a religious skeptic. There’s a significant difference: a skeptic has an opened mind, the cynic does not. The Pharisees were cynics. Nothing Jesus did — walk on water, feed five thousand, raise Lazarus from the dead, etc. — could change their minds. The religious administration of Jesus’ day gave Him heartburn with their entrenched hatred and opposition to His Gospel message. To prove their point they killed Him. A skeptic is different. She asks questions, challenges status quo, shakes orthodoxy — and unorthodoxy — hoping answers fall out. A religious skeptic is on a journey seeking meaning and purpose not found in traditional narratives she finds problematic. She is open to new facts, new interpretations, new ways of conducting a meaningful life. She wants to understand the anatomy of faith. She believes and she doubts.
In my view, Doubting Thomas gets a bad rap for doubting, for wanting to see the risen Lord with his own eyes to verify His resurrection.
In a church that thrives on belief conformity, any person asking probing questions or expressing doubt about church doctrine stands likely to be judged as having stepped over the line, exceeded the sanctified confines, wandered into apostasy, and fallen from grace. Doubt interrogates church dogma, asking if it is worthy of my faith. Though doubt isn’t sought after, nevertheless, like nightfall, it shows up. What’s comforting, even after a gentle chiding for his skepticism, the Lord granted Thomas’ request. Jesus understood human nature.
Maybe I was born with an unorthodox brain. Even as a youngster I questioned the “why” of instructions, orders, events, and the confusing world of adults. How could disgusting salmon patties be good for you? Why can’t I attend birthday celebrations on Sabbath? Why do I have to go to bed before ten o’clock? How come older siblings get to do things I can’t? My juggernaut questioning was endless and often annoying to authority figures, but grew in sophistication and persistence as my brain developed. Some examples: Why is one author inspired and not another when writing on the same subject? Are we certain we are the True Church? Is ours the only approved theology? Does God dismiss other world religions? Does Grace cover unbelief? Why do many prayers go unanswered? How come Jesus hasn’t returned? I thought He was coming “quickly.” In the church hierarchy, why is patriarchy superior? Adam’s sin condemned us ALL but the Savior’s sacrifice only saves some? Exactly how does culture influence interpretation of Scripture? Troubling, how could a God of love create an environment where blood-curdling suffering was a distinct possibility? What if there is no God? And so on...
I was born with more questions than answers could satisfy. Often, I was the recipient of “Just do what you are told,” or “believe because the Bibles says so.” Parental authority or church authority were there to be grilled; I needed answers to the questions their authority generated. I view my rebellious nature, my questioning mind, as a blessing. Sometimes it unlocks doors that have been shut for years. Receiving hackneyed answers leave me uneasy, often confused, and frequently angry. But the quest for seeking understanding is worth it, and like Thomas, I search from an honest mind.
We seem so certain we know the truth when discussing the God of mystery, whose ways and thoughts are far beyond our comprehension (Isaiah 55:8, 9). How can the finite mind be so certain about the Infinite? Certainty of truth is a big deal in the church. Then why are there 39,000+ Christian denominations in 238 countries (as of 2007) if there is only one true truth? Is everyone else deceived? That large number almost seems scandalous. How did it get so complicated?
In part, the answer is found in orthodox and unorthodox churches, cults, schisms, cultural differences, and ethic organizations worldwide, etc. If the foundational answer to this question is “sinful humanity,” then apparently whatever you come up with in terms of YOUR interpretation of Scripture, guided by your cultural/ethnic emphasis is okay with the Creator. I assume all 39,000+ denominations believe Jesus is the Savior. Shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps this huge number of denominations conveys the malleability of truth when infused into the culture and community of humankind. If you tweak interpretation, that’s okay — so do 39,000+ denominations. Start your own church — everyone else has.
Asking deep questions about a God who operates behind the scenes, talks and acts through others — never directly — never in the flesh like in the Gospels, a hidden God whose understanding dwarfs ours, would naturally give rise to some serious inquiry on the part of the believer determined to know what’s real. It certainly does with me, for a God shrouded in mystery piques intense scrutiny.
God’s love is of another dimension from human perception, experience, and aesthetics. Joan Baez sings “God is God...I believe in God and God ain’t me.” God’s love seems peculiar to me. We are born to be hugged, fed, spoken to, laughed with, to think, to be seen and heard, even the scent of another is helpful. God lives and loves through others vicariously. It’s called Incarnation. We Doubting Thomases sometime speculate about this phenomenon. We have difficulty loving the Unseen. “We would see Jesus,” touch him, listen to Him, and so on, just because that’s how we are wired. I was raised learning to love others where my five senses were compulsory and involved, yet God says more is obligatory, you must have faith, which is an exercise of mental rearranging, seeing things not there, accepting “truths” without evidence. Conceivably, I must learn to love God without my senses. Faith commands it and it pleases the Lord, (Hebrews 11:1, 6). I have ruminated on if Faith is what we do in defeat, a fallback position. We can’t find evidence, we’ve hit a dead-end, and we choose to believe anyway.
Some have mystical encounters, mysterium tremendum, where they are overwhelmed by a perceived divine presence, a compelling emotional experience. In my lifetime I have had a few, after which my spirit soared, my belief burgeoned, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” I have wondered about these exceedingly rare occurrences over the years and I am not ready to dismiss them. They are as close as I will get in this life to placing my hand in His wounds. Still, doubt remains. Even the disciples after several years following the Lord, witnessing the dead raised, storms calmed, water traversed on foot, thousands fed by a small boy’s lunch, still doubted, even after the resurrection. See Matt 28:17.
When I became a Christian at age 19, I came from a home with a religious mother and an alcoholic father. My father often disappeared for weeks, lost jobs, failed to attend family outings, my sporting events and school conferences, i.e., missing in action. I was told God the Father would never abandon me, was always attentive and would never forget me. I was assured He was the complete opposite of my earthly father. That appealed to me and led me to accept Christ as my Savior.
However, over time, I found Him often not there, aloof and opaque, not unlike my earthly father. Feckless prayers buffeted my faith, often fueling a trend towards Deism, or worse. St. Therese of Lisieux, an 18th century Carmelite nun, also known as “Little Flower of Jesus,” said the following, “Jesus isn’t doing much to keep the conversation going.” St. John of the Cross, (16th c.) suffered a similar maddening detached God and described it as “dark night of the soul.” Having read Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light, she confessed she felt God’s dark absence for the last 50 years of her life. Then there’s Jesus, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” Doubt’s dark confrontation with Light has good company.
I’ve learned never to look for a miracle. I perceive His love in the actions of others, often a perplexing conundrum, but don’t expect anything else. I don’t anticipate Divine intervention; God doesn’t play that way. Believing is a leap into trusting the Divine in spite of nothing there.
Thomas earned his moniker, Doubting Thomas, by reacting in a normal human fashion. God gave us our senses and our reason to help us navigate our fast-changing puzzling world. Scientists hypothesize then, after weighing, measuring, and analyzing, form a theory utilizing their brains and senses to evaluate, then declare something likely true or not. It’s a measured process where empirical evidence rules the day. What Thomas did in expressing his need to see and feel — empirically — was nothing more than being true to his human nature. It’s what happens when impermanence meets Permanence.
If everything was certain, visible and evident, why would you need faith? But life contains more mystery than we can possibly examine. Faith is the tool that accesses the mute and invisible God. God declares indisputably His Being is way over our heads and beyond human comprehension (again, Isaiah 55). Isn’t that why He sent Jesus to make His revelation more readable, more relatable, more understandable? After all, if you have seen Jesus you have seen God (John 14:9), thus countering doubt by providing physical presence. The Incarnation is God saying, “They will never get it unless I visit them as one of them.” Jesus was visible, approachable, you could hear His words, share His meals, exchange an embrace, and seeing for yourself, you could know God human style. I do not have that luxury. Now, God asks me to trust in the Unfathomable in spite of doubt, in spite of mind-numbing nothingness. That is my touch, my sight, my embrace God style.
Believing is not easy. Finding answers can be a vain attempt and often a circular exercise returning me to the darkness. Blaise Pascal once said, “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows for those who don’t.”
He is also famous for his Pascal Wager where he advises me to act like I believe in God even if I don’t because if there is a God, things will go well for me. But I’m not into faking a relationship with God. God prefers I was a spewing red-hot fissure of faith or a frozen glacial iceberg of doubt, but what He finds unacceptable is the phony room temperature pretension of unexamined belief. God seeks candor.
But I need hope. An attentive heavenly Father, an abiding risen Savior, seeing deceased family and friends again, and seeing what is beyond the horizon and behind the curtain, but For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12).
This is my hope and upon this my faith persists.
Notes & References:
 Some interpret Matthew 28:17 as the disciples “doubting” how to behave in the unprecedented Presence of the Risen Lord, as opposed to doubting the reality of His resurrection.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of five, and has been happily married for 36+ years to Mary Ventresca.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9706