Saturday, September 10, 2005

Faith and Doubt

"We too often forget that faith is a matter of questioning and struggle before it becomes one of certitude and peace...and after you have begun to believe, your faith itself must be tested and purified. Christianity is not merely a set of forgone conclusions. Faith tends to be defeated by the burning presence of God in mystery, and seeks refuge from him, flying to comfortable social forms and safe convictions in which purification is no longer an inner battle but a matter of outward gesture."

- Thomas Merton

What drew me to this passage was the assertion of the role that doubt plays in faith. As I like to say, if you don't question God, you never get answers. Too many Christians are uncomfortable with doubt; however much they might doubt or question in private, they worry that doubt is weakness, and publicly profess an obnoxious, sanctimonious certitude, "comfortable social forms and safe convictions...a matter of outward gesture." This brand of orthodoxy is spiritually and intellectually damaging, and also injurious to the church because it pushes away those of us of more skeptical natures.

It stems from what I believe is a misreading of a passage in the Gospel of John, where the apostle Thomas rejects the claims of other disciples that they have seen the resurrected Christ: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." (John 20:25) One week later, Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him to examine his wounds: "Stop doubting, and believe." Thomas exclaims, "My Lord and my God!," to which Jesus responds, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed."

This does not mean we are not to doubt; it shows us that, in times of doubt, if we have patience, God will provide us with the answers we require. It is important to note that Jesus does not appear right at that moment, but rather a full week later. Jesus is not angry with Thomas, but instead has illustrated for him, and for us, the beauty and meaning of faith: what credit does it do you to believe only in that which you can see and touch? Blessed are those willing to take that leap of faith, and believe in what they cannot see; more importantly, doubt eventually leads to certitude in faith. One cannot have sufficient faith unless it has been tempered in the fires of doubt.


Jess said...

What an excellent lesson you're teaching here. I've often been troubled by what I've seen as the holdings of some Christian denominations (and those of other religions as well) that questioning is wrong.

In Judaism--or at least in the version of it in which I was raised--questioning is expected and encouraged. We don't always get answers (or answers we like), but we're encouraged to ask even God Himself, "why?" It's how we learn and build.

Marc said...

Excellent post, Andy, and I just have to ask: what faith were you brought up in? You have such principles and speak with such a learned mind (not that I haven't noticed this about you long before). I have come across extremely few gay men (or people of any persuasion for that matter) who embrace and understand Christianity as you do. I was raised in a very strong Christian household and find that there are few people out there who understand the underpinnings of faith and what it is all about: that there is an ability to question and that it doesn't condemn you, but rather identifies your degree of faith; that it helps you come to a more perfect understanding of yourself and your relationship to God; that it teaches you to have patience when we don't get the answers we expect or want, or don't get the answers at all. Well said.

Andy said...

Thank you both for your comments and compliments! I was not brought up in a religious family, but I had a Lutheran Sunday-school education from about the age of 7 until I was 13 or so; long story, but eventually I found my way to the Episcopal church, which is how I like to identify myself at present.

One of the most important things to learn is that God indeed answers all prayers...but Jess is quite right in pointing out that many times we don't like the answer. Too many people think of God as a genie in a bottle. After all, Jesus did say, "Ask and it shall be given unto you," didn't He? So if they "pray" for something and don't get it, they assume God doesn't like them or doesn't exist. The reality is that God knows us and our needs better than we do, and if requests are denied, eventually we come to see that they are denied out of love. A father who granted his child's every wish would never be regarded as a good parent, yes? I believe that God has pefect timing: all questions are answered at the appropriate time.

Esther said...

I totally agree. I have often wondered why people act like Thomas was such a horrible person. I never saw the wrong in his attitude. He did not say that he would not believe, he simply said that he needed proof.

Crash said...

I've always been inspired by the father in Mark 9 whose child Jesus was going to cure, if only the man could believe. The man's response was 'Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.'

If the writer had truly wanted blind faith, there was no reason to go futher than 'Lord, I believe.' But he understood that doubt was human, especially when dealing with the divine. And the father wasn't punished for his doubt.

A good lesson.

matt said...

there are varying levels of doubt, however, as well as varying levels of patience, as well as varying levels of discernment in finding just what might or might not be an answer, both to questions we've asked and questions we haven't thought to ask, but should have. it seems to me that even in faith, there becomes a level past which we can no longer "safely" question, because past that question there is no sacred ground, no common ground, no community of shared belief. for instance, the question of the existence of God/god. once that question is raised, the questioner in practice usually isolates themself from all other communities of faith, partially because there is no longer identification, but also because the communities of "believers" (if that is what we wish to call them) tend to discourage their presence. there are absolutes past which belief-holders will not allow for questioning; what beliefs are unquestionable may vary from individual to individual, but i believe we all have our level of tolerance past which we cannot be questioned. perhaps it is a matter of our own comfort being breached, i don't know.

this is long-winded, but it's something i've been thinking about a lot, and i'd be curious as to other thoughts on the matter.