Let’s celebrate doubt as a catalyst for faith


Scripture: John 20: 19-31 Nigel Bunce

Let’s celebrate doubt. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s part of spiritual growing up.

Today’s Gospel story

“That evening, the doors being shut, Jesus came and stood in the midst and said, “Peace be unto you” [John 20: 19]. I’m still trying to unpack whether it’s an irony or a tragedy that the doors of St. George’s Lowville have been locked throughout Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, and remain closed today.

Today, our Gospel consists of two vignettes, a week apart. Thomas wasn’t present the first time. He doubted that the other disciples had really seen the Risen Christ. It seemed too improbable. “Unless I see for myself,” he told them, “I will not believe.”

Let’s face it. Thomas was in good company. Last week, I said that in Mark’s Resurrection story the first witnesses also didn’t believe. So much so that they were too afraid to tell anyone else about it.

Most of us are also kind of shy about the matter once we step outside the safety of the church. Like Thomas, we are “Seeing is believing” kind of folks. How many of us rushed off to Tim Horton’s last Sunday morning and shouted “Alleluia! Christ has risen” to the astonished staff? And I doubt it was only because of the provincial lock-down!

“Doubting Thomas”: an unfair name tag?

Thomas lived in an age when people accepted miracles. Yet even he doubted the Resurrection. He couldn’t accept that the other disciples had really seen the Risen Christ. The next week, Thomas accepted the reality of the Resurrection.

But, Jesus asked him, “Was it just because you saw the marks in my hands and side?” He added, “Blessed are they that have not seen, but yet have believed.” Thus, the post-Resurrection story about Thomas raises two related ideas – “Seeing is believing” and the question of doubt vs. faith.

Because, doubt has real value for our faith journey. John Bell, the Scottish hymn writer, said that doubt allows our faith to develop. For that reason, we can, even should, celebrate doubt. In chemistry language, it is a catalyst for the growth of faith.

James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith, writes about crises of faith. These are wrenching experiences that tear apart our spiritual lives from a place of equilibrium or comfort. There are two outcomes. Either we lose our faith completely. Or, we come to a new and more mature understanding. Often, we come to accept our doubts by re-formulating Scripture in a less literal way.  That’s another way of saying we should celebrate doubts.

But is it “reasonable” to celebrate doubt?

Thus, doubt makes us examine the tenets of our faith more carefully. It’s part of the “reason” in the Anglican “three-legged stool” – Scripture, tradition, and reason. At first glance, the Christian faith seems to be the antithesis of logic, of scientific knowledge. But, isn’t reason “Seeing is believing”?

Then, how can I, someone trained as a scientist, also be a churchgoer? I offer two semi-logical answers. First, faith and science address different aspects of the human experience. Second, faith is like many scientific facts that either refute ordinary observation, or are inherently unseeable. Surely, that’s doubt! 

The fallacy behind “Seeing is believing”

When Copernicus discovered that the sun revolves around the earth, many people doubted what he claimed. It went against common experience. Our eyes tell us is that the sun revolves around us. We even say sunrise and sunset to name what our eyes tell us. Seeing is believing? Not in this case.

However, Copernicus also challenged the religious belief that humanity is God’s greatest creation. That God placed Planet the Earth, and its cargo of human souls at the centre of the universe.

A more modern example. The late Stephen Hawking spent much of his career as a physicist working on theories about black holes. At first, even many physicists were doubtful. Today, most of us believe that black holes exist. Yet none of us has ever seen one. What’s more, few of us we are competent to evaluate Hawking’s theories for ourselves.

We have to take Hawking’s word for it. In other words, we must take it on faith. As a completely contemporary example, many people have doubted the value of vaccines against COVID19. But more and more have “come to believe “ in them as they see their success in protecting against the disease, without harmful side-effects.

Significant details in the Gospel story

To return to our Gospel story. Two things jump out at me. First, the doors were shut when Jesus appeared on both occasions – when Thomas was and wasn’t present. Our doubts (and Thomas’) arise because people can’t walk through walls. So, is this story some kind of parable?

John’s Gospel is clear. He wrote his book, “so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God …” Many people down the centuries have had life-changing experiences of meeting the Risen Christ. St. Paul was one of them. Perhaps, John was trying to make this type of experience concrete.

The other thing that jumped out at me is the name Thomas. John called him “The Twin”. He is mentioned elsewhere, but notably in the opening words of the Gospel of Thomas. “These are the secret sayings the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas recorded.”

Didymus (from the Greek) and Thomas (from the Aramaic) both mean “twin” (Kloppenborg et al, Q-Thomas Reader). So, whose twin was this Judas person? Mary Jane Chaignot discusses this question. 

Why we should celebrate doubt

But, instead of wondering whose twin “Thomas” was, I asked myself something different. Could the Thomas of the Gospel represent doubt? And his twin is faith? Because doubt isn’t the opposite of faith.

Think of the old saying, “Hate is nearer to love than indifference.” For Thomas, and us, I say , “Doubt is nearer to faith than indifference.” Or, to repeat John Bell. Doubt is what allows our faith to develop. So let’s celebrate doubt. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s part of spiritual growing up.

Finally, those locked doors. For Thomas, they seemed at first to destroy his faith. But later, they were a catalyst for coming to believe in the Resurrection. For we at St. George’s, locked doors have kept us apart for most of the past year. But they have also been an opportunity.

They have catalyzed a long-overdue recognition that “church” must mean more than Sunday morning gatherings. That’s “more than”, not “instead of”. We must embrace technology to reach people who cannot come in person to 7051 Guelph Line Campbellville. Amen.