This past Sunday, in many churches, the story of “Doubting Thomas” was the reading from the gospels. In churches that follow a lectionary to determine their readings each week, this is the story that follows Easter Sunday every year.
I used to feel a bit sorry for Thomas, having his life as an apostle reduced to the descriptor, “doubting”, simply because he missed a meeting of the disciples and had trouble believing what they were saying about Christ having been risen. Surely, there was more to Thomas than his doubt. But, for most people, he is and always will be “Doubting Thomas.” And I don’t think that title has ever been considered as an honorific, but rather, as an indication of a flaw in his character.
Over the years, however, I have come to admire Thomas and his doubt, and now I think he should wear that title boldly and proudly. This shift in my thinking began over 20 years ago, when I happened to hear a sermon given by an Episcopal monk. Honestly, I don’t remember a thing about that sermon (which pains me as a preacher now myself!), except for two sentences: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
There have been many occasions when I have quoted this line to people, and it has been met with varied reactions. Some people seem relieved to hear it, and find that it seems to open new possibilities to them. These, I think, are people who are in touch with their doubt, and have wanted to embrace it, but have never been given permission before to do so. Other people recoil in horror at the idea that the opposite of faith could be anything other than doubt. These folks are people who, I suspect, are not at all in touch with their own doubt – or, if they are, are so frightened of it that they are always trying to outrun it. These reactions, whether of relief or horror, are initial reactions, of course. I have sometimes wondered whether and how anyone who has heard these words has been worked on by them over time.
For I have been worked on by them, and have found in them a deep truth. I have come to see doubt in the arena of faith not as a weakness, but as a necessity. For doubt, by its very nature, involves spaciousness. When we have doubts about the mystery of God, the mystery of the Risen Christ, our doubts create space in which to struggle and wrestle with these very mysteries. We ask questions, we wonder, we argue, we walk around the mystery poking and prodding. Our doubts open up within us a space that ultimately allows us to go deeper. Of course, this spaciousness does involve some risk, because it also creates enough space that we can walk away from the mystery, turning our backs toward it and deciding not to wrestle with it. But, unless doubt evolves into outright disbelief in the mystery itself, we will always be aware of that mystery behind us – and it is quite likely that, in the right circumstances, we will turn around and allow ourselves to be drawn to it again, to resume our wrestling, our arguing, our wondering. Faith, it seems to me, requires this sort of spaciousness. Faith, by its very nature, asks us to trust a mystery we cannot completely understand.
Certainty, however, provides very little space. Rather than opening us up to possibilities, it closes off all possibilities except the possibility about which we are certain. When we arrive at the point of certainty, we no longer have a reason to argue, to explore, to walk around the mystery poking and prodding. We have made up our minds about it, we have cemented our understanding, and we then vastly reduce the amount of space that we must provide to that mystery. Having arrived at certainty, we are free to close the door and move on to other things, confident that the mystery about which we are certain is, in a sense, now a closed book. Certainty does not ask us to trust; certainty is something we know, and once we know it, that’s the end of the matter. There really isn’t any room for faith once certainty shows up.
Far from being someone we should pity for his doubting ways, Thomas should be our hero. He was unwilling to close himself off by simply accepting what his friends said to him. He insisted on holding on to the spaciousness of doubt, leaving all the possibilities open to him. And within that space, Thomas must have wondered, argued, poked and prodded.
Of course, before too much time passed, Thomas saw the Risen Christ face to face, and his doubt was transmuted into a kind of knowing which is possible only in the context of personal encounter and experience. We, too, shall one day encounter the mystery of God in Christ face to face. But, until we do, we should not shrink from our doubts but use them to propel us deeper into our spiritual lives, embracing the spaciousness those doubts create and keeping ourselves open to possibility, ready to encounter the Christ wherever and however he chooses to meet us.