Monday, April 24, 2017

The Light of Doubt

"Darkness and Light"
- sunrise in the wilderness -

While most people have probably heard the phrase, “Doubting Thomas,” many may be unfamiliar with its origins in the Christian Gospels – a story that is often told in many Christian churches during this “Easter” season.  As the story goes, the Apostle Thomas initially had some serious doubts about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although Thomas’s initial doubt ultimately led him to greater faith, historically Thomas has been disparaged for his doubt and to this very day, a “Doubting Thomas” is a phrase that often carries a rather negative connotation, especially when it comes to matters of faith.

A few years back I remember being in church as this “Doubting Thomas” gospel was read. More specifically, I recall singing a line from a hymn chosen to accompany the reading of this Gospel: “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the dark of doubt away!”  I had to stop singing the hymn as I realized that I didn’t want a faith that had no doubt.  In fact, as I see it, doubt is a light that I need and want to be shed on my path of faith.

The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed;

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
It is a necessary element of faith.

I actually take this a step further. For me, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. In fact, certainty is the enemy of any deeper wisdom and greater truth because when you are certain of the truth you are no longer living in the realm of mystery and surprises, and “God” is a Great Mystery always filled with surprises.

I recall an article published in the New York Times by Philosophy Professor, William Irwin, who wisely observed that “God” is never the final, given answer; rather “God” is always an initial question to be explored over and over again by believers as well as non-believers alike. He said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me,
both those who believe and those who do not believe.
Those who are certain really never listen to the other side of conversations
and are all too ready to impose their views.
It is impossible to be certain about God.

Professor Irwin further suggested that, in all “God” conversations, atheists, agnostics, humanists and people of various faith traditions should try to be less strident and rigid, always willing to embrace and encourage doubt when it comes to what it is that they believe or what they don’t believe:

When it comes to God,
rather than seeking the surety of an answer,
we would all do well to collectively celebrate
 the uncertainty of the question.

I am reminded of something the poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once told a young student who came to him seeking advice:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves.

For me, this one little line beautifully expresses what a spiritual quest is all about.  We dive into the ocean of mystery we call “God” and together we learn to explore the questions that arise unresolved in our hearts.  “We try to love the questions.”

It seems to me that maybe “Doubting Thomas” is a model to be embraced on any spiritual path rather than a figure to be disdained.

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