Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When in Doubt

One of the things that I love about being a liturgical Christian is that the liturgical year never lets you pretend it's all glory and angels and sparkly shiny goodness. (This may, indeed, be why some people choose NOT to be a liturgical Christian!) Right after Christmas, we have the feasts of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the slaughter of the children we remember as the Holy Innocents.

Easter is a little easier on us, but every year, the second Sunday of Easter gives us John 20:19-31 as the Gospel text. Without you having to surf over to, I'll tell you: this is the text of Thomas not accepting anyone's word for the resurrection. Thomas has to see, in fact touch for himself.

We're reminded this following Jesus thing is a little hard to accept, even for those who walked all over Palestine with him. No wonder this generation is having some trouble with believing.

But I'm not really interested in Thomas tonight. I'm just reminded of him and his place in our liturgical year because the last few days have had dear friends and complete strangers express doubt, or maybe just unbelief. I've heard a an anguished confession of finding no comfort in the faith that once comforted. I've seen faith disregarded as "belief in an invisible overlord."

I suppose Flannery O'Connor was on to something when she remarked in a letter, "
It is much harder to believe than not to believe." But when I've heard this quoted as a sort of bravado, a sort of "look at me, I'm doing more difficult thing!" brag, I've always felt it was a shallow thing to say in the face of someone expressing unbelief. (Flannery didn't mean it in that way, I don't think. Click the link to see her slightly larger context.)

So what do I have to say about doubt and unbelief? Maybe more than I do about faith, actually. More than could possibly fit in a blog post.

But here's a couple of things I'll acknowledge tonight.

I doubt many things. Even as I find myself wrapped up in a life of faith, I question much of it. (And I do not believe my questions are "of the devil" as one questioning friend has been told by her church circles.)

In fact, there was an incident in 2000, an incident that I've tried writing about and still haven't found the right way to talk about it, that caused the bottom of all my beliefs and theologies to fall away. I tried to walk away from the church for a bit (and failed miserably). In the years since, I've found myself rebuilding a faith, a theology even, that is far from systematic and more than a little messy, but it is real and full of surprises. It is a faith that is comfortable enough with lost faith for a friend to actually tell me she has lost her faith. It is a faith that lets us sit with that without having to convince anyone that one or the other is right or wrong or going to hell or going to heaven. It is a faith that loves in the face of faithlessness. It is a faith that has found a love that loves through the faithlessness.

Here's the thing I know for sure, for absolutely certain, that I don't believe. I don't believe in the magical faith, the superstitious faith. This is the faith of the "if you just believe and pray the right way" folks. Listen, "praying the right way" is just another way of saying you have to know the incantation. I don't believe that living a moral life and making precise statements of faith will protect you from harm. I don't believe faith is about protection. I overheard a woman on her cell phone one day telling someone "you got to read your Bible day and night so God will give you a house." I'd sooner expect to win the lottery without buying a ticket. If my friend has lost this kind of faith, good riddance. It's the faith in an "invisible overlord" and it'll just make you crazy. (See much religious programming on tv.)

I guess I've been at this faith thing so long that I've come to expect the questions, the doubts, the periodic bouts of unbelief. I'm not alarmed by them. I think it was Frederick Buechner (and someone correct me if I remember wrong) that said "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a component of it." Yes. Absolutely. My faith has little meaning outside the context of my doubts. I embrace this. I don't know what comfort this is for someone going through a crisis of faith. Maybe it's not meant to comfort.

But who knows . . . maybe Thomas knew this, too. Maybe Thomas had lived with Jesus and his miracles enough to know that he was safe questioning and doubting. Perhaps it is more blessed to believe without seeing or touching, but to see and touch is still a blessing.

One thing more: My seeing and touching may be more metaphorical than what is recorded in the Gospel of John, but I have seen and I have touched and, perhaps when I least believe, maybe I will again.

Being metaphorical will not lessen the impact. Without a doubt, the response will still be an awestruck, "My Lord and my God!"


  1. Thanks, Neil. I loved this piece and have a lot to say about it, as you can well imagine. But for now, I'll just offer a clarification about the attribution for "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a component of it."

    In 1957's Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich wrote "Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is one element of it." This statement sums up the theme of the entire book.

  2. I'm not surprised you're the one to know a source for that. :)

    I googled around a bit (after-the-fact, which was lazy of me) and I found a similar quote attributed to Buechner, but it's quite likely Buechner was quoting or at least influenced by Tillich. I suppose it's not that profound of a statement once you encounter it (and live it). I imagine more than one person has found that idea to resonate with their experience and repeated it in some way.

  3. Tillich! (happy sigh) I love Tillich. Alas, someone borrowed a half dozen of his books from us years ago and we never got them back (sad sigh).

    "I don't believe in the magical faith, the superstitious faith." Me, either! In fact, I have a blog stewing on this subject, or some components of it. Name it and Claim it and all its myriad descendants, getting the correct phrase or lifestyle to get God to do your bidding, these are simply sorcery with a "Jesus" label slapped over it. At its very best, living the "right" lifestyle to get something from God is kissing cousin to works salvation-- which is practically blashpemy yet it's perhaps the most common doctrine in Christendom today.