On Doubt: Thomas as a role model

The gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter is always the story of the Risen Christ’s appearance to Thomas with its themes of doubt and faith. Most of us want our spiritual lives to be comfortable, our faith certain. Unfortunately, it’s seldom quite like that. Doubt is real. It can be debilitating and lead to despair. It can also lead to deeper faith. Sometimes it leads to more doubt. Thomas’ disbelief did not prevent him from an encounter with the Risen Christ; when that occurred, his doubt was transformed into faith. It’s important to recognize the role doubt can have within the life of faith, something theologians, mystics, and ordinary Christians have known and experienced for themselves over the centuries. As St. Augustine said, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

Some contemporary reflections on the role of doubt in faith (and on the need to doubt doubt):

Doubt as spiritual practice:

Because in our world, much removed from theirs, none have seen as Thomas did. And while coming to belief can be a joyous, full-of-conviction experience—it can also be a rocky road filled with various potholes and doubts.

From Christian Wiman:

“Live long enough in secular culture, long enough to forget that it is secular culture, and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you. Atavistic. Laughable. I know this was true for me. Never mind that many of my favorite writers were quite obviously religious–Simone Weil, Marilynne Robinson, T.S. Eliot, George Herbert–or that I retained some intellectual respect for the “intellectual” side of Christianity…still, the idea of giving my inchoate feelings of faith some actual content, never mind the thought of attending a church, this seemed not only absurd to me but an obvious weakness. To be a Christian was to flinch from contingency and death, both of which were the defining realities of contemporary life. To be a Christian was death for art, which depends on an attitude of openness and unknowingness (never mind the irony of an imperative of opennness and unknowningness). It took a radical disruption of my life to allow me to see the sanity and vitality of this strange, ancient thing. There was no bolt-from-the-blue revelation or conversion or any of that. My old ideas simply were not adequate for the extremes of joy and grief that I experienced, but when I looked at my life through the lens of Christianity–or, more specifically, through the lens of Christ, as much of Christianity seemed (and still seems) uselessly absurd to me–it made sense. The world made sense. This distance between culture and Christ seems like a modern phenomenon, but I think it’s probably always been the case. Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.”

Reviews of Wiman’s memoir are here.

From Lauren Winner:

I didn’t really know, even when writing the book, that many Christian communities in times gone by would have said “Oh, this is normal, this dark night of the soul, this doubt. This is part of the expected choreography of a Christian life.”  If I had known that, while writing Still, there probably would have been a chapter: “dark night choreopgrahy,” or somesuch.

From Ryan Dueck:

I recently read a delightful little book by Rainer Maria Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. In one of his letters to a certain “Mr. Kappus,” Rilke offers these wise words about the nature and purpose of doubt.:

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

In other words, make sure that you include “doubt” in the category of things that you doubt. Demand answers from doubt. Press it, interrogate it, require an account for the privileged status it is so often assumes for itself. Insist that it justify its presuppositions, ask it to construct in addition to the much easier task of deconstructing. And, above all, remember that there are higher goals for a human life than doubt. It can be useful, yes, even essential in the building and maintaining of a life; but it must be disciplined and trained. It must be reminded frequently of its limits and of its value as one tool among (many) others in the task of becoming a genuinely human being.

Faith and unbelief: some links

I’ve gathered some beautiful and challenging writing on faith and doubt and the struggles many have with identifying as “Christian” in the twentieth century

First, Christian Wiman, raised Southern Baptist, estranged from the church, now exploring that complex relationship between faith and doubt in our contemporary world:

I do feel that some people may be called to unbelief—or what looks like unbelief—in order that faith may take new forms. Emily Dickinson is a good example of this, or Albert Camus. But I also believe that God requires every last cell of yourself to bow down. Or perhaps that verb, requires, is wrong, or that it’s God doing the requiring: It’s more like your nature requires, in order to be your nature, that every last cell of yourself bow down. There is still some satanic pride in me, for which I pay a high price.

Casey Cep on the spiritual journey of Reynolds Price (part I, part II):

It pains me to know that Price considered himself “a literal outlaw” of Christian churches because of his homosexuality. In one of his final books, A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined (2003), Price confessed “though I’m not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I’ve read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I’ve thought of myself as a Christian.”

Like the mystic Simone Weil, who resigned herself to “the conclusion that my vocation is to be a Christian outside the Church,” Price found his community with Christ beyond the sanctuary.

I never met Reynolds Price, but I carry his meeting with Christ in my consciousness, hold the words of his translations in my heart. Here was a writer, who many assumed would appeal to me for all his imaginary worlds, but who I only ever understood as a brother in the faith.

Pained as I am that he felt himself an outlaw of Christianity, I cherish the knowledge that he and I meet forever in the communion of saints.

Justin Erik Haldor Schmidt writes beautifully of “coming out of the closet” as a Christian, and the difficulties he has in confessing his faith publicly:

Those who know me or have read me will probably know that I have often claimed that I am an atheist. I would like to stop doing this, but if I had to justify myself, I would say that it is for fear of being confused with that blowhard with the ‘John 3:16’ banner that I am unforthcoming about what I actually believe. I am infinitely closer, in the condition of my soul, to the people who feel God’s absence– the reasons for this feeling are a profound theological problem, and one might say that it is only smugness that enables people, atheists and dogmatists alike, to avoid grappling with this problem. I am with the people who detect God’s hand, perhaps without even realizing it, where the smug banner-holder sees only sin: in jungle music, dirty jokes, seduction, and swearing. I am with the preacher who puts out a gospel album, then goes to prison on fraud and drug charges for a while, then puts out a hip-grinding soul album, and then another gospel album. I am with the animals, who can’t even read, but can still talk to the saints of divine things. I am sooner an atheist, if what we understand by Christianity is a sort of supernatural monarchism; if we understand by it that God is love, though, then, I say, I am a Christian.