Thursday, 12 April 2018

Faith in Doubt

In the world of religion, doubt is generally seen as a bad thing. Religious groups run much more comfortably when all the members share a common set of beliefs. When someone questions those accepted beliefs, or expresses an alternative understanding, they tend to be seen as a problem that needs to be solved. Through the long and tangled history of religion (and politics), very many people have been exiled, tortured or killed for expressing doubt. It is, unsurprisingly, a common feature of human culture that we keep our doubts to ourselves. It’s safer that way.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ core group of pupils, and the only one of that group who was not present when a surprisingly alive Jesus joined his disciples for supper just two days after his execution. It must have been very difficult for Thomas. While he was working through the first phases of grief following Jesus’ brutal demise, his best friends were bouncing around with unprecedented joy, claiming that they had seen Jesus alive. Thomas’s doubt is entirely understandable. His friends’ story was absurd. People do not calmly turn up to supper two days after their own (very public) death. It was a reasonable doubt.
I suspect that for the whole of the following week, Thomas was repeatedly criticised by his friends for not understanding things the way that they did. Since then, centuries of Christian tradition has looked down its collective nose at 'Doubting Thomas'. Jesus, however, did not criticise or reprimand Thomas for doubting; he simply showed his nail-pierced hands and feet and allowed Thomas time to recalibrate his understanding of reality.
There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is a fundamental part of faith. It is what separates faith from certainty. And that is good, because certainty is brittle, whereas faith is robust.
Thomas wasn’t the only one of Jesus’ disciples to doubt the story of the resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel informs us that others did too. What marks Thomas out is that he was the one who was honest about his doubt. 
Most of us, like Matthew’s unnamed doubters, keep our questions and uncertainties to ourselves. We are secret doubters, afraid of how others will react if we admit the points on which our grasp of things is different from the prevailing trend. That is a weakness - both in us and in the communities to which we belong. It would be so much better if we learned to trust our uncertainties, if we could have faith in our doubts, and in the doubts of the people around us.

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