A Celebration of Doubt

This Column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spiritualiy Forum on April 16, 2007.

One of the most compelling stories of the Easter season is found in the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to John, when Thomas the apostle doubts. According to John’s narrative, Thomas was away when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, and he refused to believe in the resurrection until with his own eyes he could see Jesus alive, and with his own hands touch the wounds of Jesus crucifixion.

Over the years, Thomas’ doubts have earned him a reputation for being somewhat spineless in the faith department, but to my mind Thomas deserves more credit that he tends to receive. Because he had the courage to voice his doubts, Thomas is one of the great unsung heroes of the Bible.

Doubting is important work. Doubting can be painful at times, especially when the doubts are focused on long and dearly held beliefs, but the courage to doubt is a necessary part of what it takes to make the world a better place.

I cannot think of a positive social movement that has not been rooted, somehow, in doubt.

When Rosa Parks was told she belonged on the back of the bus she refused to cede her forward seat, and her refusal was an expression of doubt about the justice of a segregated society. Her doubts lent inspiration to the dreams of the civil rights movement.

When Cesar Chavez was confronted with the suffering of farm workers in California, he doubted the fairness of a system that allowed laborers to be mistreated. In the San Juaquin Valley he saw grape pickers exposed to pesticides without protection, and in the Salinas Valley he saw brazeros weeding with short-handled hoes, injuring their backs, and he doubted the notion that farm workers could not be treated with greater dignity. His doubts helped to bring about greater workplace safety for agrarian laborers, not just in California, but across the Untied States.

Mahatma Ghandi doubted the justice of the European colonization of places like India and Africa. And he challenged others to join him in his doubts until India gained its independence from the English crown. This remarkable achievement was won without an armed uprising because Ghandi doubted the idea that violence is the best way to bring about change.

The world needs more doubters. Wherever there is want of justice, wherever people are harmed, wherever there is hunger or sickness, we need people with the courage to look at the sadness, the infirmity, the hurt, the injustice and say, “I doubt the goodness of this.”

The world especially need religious doubters like Thomas.

On March 25 of this year, at ATT Park in San Francisco, California (a venue normally filled with Giants’ fans—disappointed ones so far this season, I’m afraid) a coalition of Evangelical leaders and organizations held one of its many “Battle Cry” rallies, aimed at getting America’s youth to be committed to the Evangelical cause. Using the language of warfare to promote the idea of a “Christian America,” the event was marked by a paranoia around the idea that American is being ruined by lax sexuality and secular values.

If the world is to be a better place, we must doubt the idea that Christianity should be a religion formed by martial metaphor and with aspirations to wage holy war in the service of theocracy.

It’s not just Christianity. Every religion must be preserved by doubt. When Judaism gets twisted to excuse the grave mistreatment of Palestinians we must doubt the rightness of it. When Buddhists and Hindus kill each other in Sri Lanka we need to doubt the sanity of it. When violent misinterpretations of Islam spawn terrorism around the world we are correct to doubt the holiness of it. Whenever religion is misused for violent and oppressive ends, people of good faith must be empowered by doubt to voice dissent.

Throughout history, some of the best religious thinkers have talked about how belief can change the world, making it a better place, and certainly belief can improve peoples’ lives in important ways. But belief must be tempered and tested by doubt. Doubt gives life balance and keeps faith keen; doubt prevents a blithe acceptance of the status quo and it stands as a bulwark against fanaticism and other forms of pernicious malarkey. This Easter Season, I will celebrate the many benefits of doubt.

2 thoughts on “A Celebration of Doubt

  1. Doubting Thomas has been getting quite a bit of attention here at HDS lately; many of our “distinguished faculty” can be seen perusing the stacks of the library for literature and research on this individual…. I often wonder what they are looking for. Personally, I find myself connected to Thomas in music– when Nickelcreek, one of my all-time favorite music groups of my adult life came out with a song called “Doubting Thomas” on their last album, it became an instant favorite for me because the artists vocalize what I often interpret in my own spiritual journey, positively or negatively depending on the moment.

    Ultimately, being an aspiring Protestant minister at HDS fosters doubt on a daily basis for me. My experience of what it means to worship, to spend time with the divine and to seek him/her out in my daily life requires that I constant redefine. Sometimes I resent that about HDS, probably because that doubt manifests itself in a way that seems dangerous, if only because I do not know what will come of it. However, at other moments it is what is most glorious about this place. As my friend Luke puts it, HDS gives voice to alternatives, to other modes of seeking and believing, or even not believing, and the value of that is incomparable, if only because the various avenues it suggests to us allows us to determine what we are in the face of what we are not.

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for you thoughtful note. The good news about doubts is that while they often change us, they never change God. Thomas’ doubts didn’t put Jesus back in the tomb, they brought Jesus to Thomas. I’ve found that to be true in my own doubting. The only effect they ever have upon God is to bring God closer to me.

    Ben

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