What do Mother Teresa, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and me have in common?
Umm… best let the Pope answer that one, methinks: ‘Who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith? Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too… It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them.’
Everyone has doubts – be that about matters of faith and belief, work and family, marriage and parenting, friendships and relationships, money and housing, health and illness, life and death… the church… you name it, we have doubts about it.
Left unaddressed or unresolved, doubts can become all-consuming. They have the power to erode away confidence in our ability to make decisions (to the extent that we never make any at all). We can also find ourselves holding on to doubts even with the greatest evidence to the contrary. Paradoxically, having doubts can be one thing we can be certain about.
‘Doubting’ Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest friends. A dedicated companion. Going everywhere and seeing everything. Thomas was one who sought to understand who Jesus was and what his purpose was. Asking questions when Lazarus was reported dead (John 11:16) and again in the minutes that followed Judas’ departure from the Last Supper (John 14:1-6). Three years spent in such company. And yet despite all that, we might say, he had doubts and didn’t believe the other disciples and followers when they told him Jesus had come back to life. (John 20: 24-25)
‘Thomas was not afraid to express his doubt – for that is how he really feels,’ wrote David Adam. He is, as Serene Jones puts it, ‘The incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian – the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof.’
‘Thomas, with his scepticism, is a good model for Christians,’ wrote Jennifer Brown. ‘Yes, we need to have faith, but faith is not believing without evidence or without questioning. We should have the courage and the confidence to ask questions, and to explore the evidence. Only then will we be able to provide a robust explanation of our faith to others.’
A hundred years ago, the German theologian Rudolf Otto wrote about how our feelings about God can be described as ‘rational’ (concepts that can be grasped and analysed by thought) and ‘non-rational’ (responses to the mystery and awesomeness of God). He suggests that ‘the religious consciousness is distorted and disfigured: as may readily happen where through long periods of time the rational aspects of religion have been fostered unduly and at the cost of the non-rational.’
In our desire (and perhaps pressure) to understand everything (combined with a sense of guilt that if we have doubts then somehow our faith isn’t good enough) we can lose some of the non-rational, some of the mystery of faith. I know for me, my rational thinking challenges many of the non-rational aspects of belief: so much so, at times, I could quite easily not believe – and part of the mystery of faith is that I continue to chose to do so.
Thomas believed because he met the risen Christ, whereas we are blessed with being able to do so without seeing him. (John 20:26-29)
How good is that.
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