Friday, 1 July 2011

2nd Sunday after Trinity : The importance of doubt


Ephesians 2:19-end
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

John 20:24-29
But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Today we celebrate the saint’s day for St. Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as we have all known him, and for that reason I want us to think today about doubt.

How does you favourite creed begin? Is it, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty...” Or maybe it’s. “We believe in one God...”. The Nicene Creed was probably the first of the popular creeds, originally written in 325CE and then revised in 381CE. The Apostles Creed, which is the Prayer Book creed has less clear dates, possibly originating earlier but not appearing in written form until 390CE.

The one thing that they all have in common is that they were written to describe what is normative Christian faith; that is they are there to set boundaries on what people who call themselves Christians should believe. They were forged in the fire of philosophical deliberations over what constituted heresy and who should therefore be excluded from the church.

But there’s one other thing that they all have in common. Many Christians, when they say one of the creeds, will feel it necessary to metaphorically cross their fingers when they reach one of the lines because they’re not sure whether actually they do believe that. The reason for that is that we live in an age of reason, and consequently if something does not make sense then we may well struggle to affirm our belief in it.

For example, someone once confessed to me that they went very quiet at the line, ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ His reason for that, and I use the word ‘reason’ on purpose, was that he was a scientist and he ‘knew’ that the only way a child is conceived is through sex. Consequently he couldn’t say that line.

But then he came back to me a few years later and said that he had taken a good long look at the universe and reasoned in his own mind that if God had created all of this from nothing, however he had done it, and if he had raised Jesus from the dead, then how hard could it have been for him to have had Jesus conceived through a miracle instigated by the Holy Spirit?

He therefore felt able to affirm this part of the creed too. But can you see what he did? He had a problem with a particular line in the creed because of reason, but then he had used further reason to surmount his original objection to bring him to a point of affirmation, a point of faith, and this is typical of our era in the church.

Faith walks hand in hand with reason, and we therefore feel that if we’re not sure about something, then we are not a very good Christian, if indeed we can call ourselves Christian at all! So the first thing we need to do is positively affirm that doubt is a vital part of faith. Listen to this from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, from Matthew 28:16-17. Bear in mind that this is after the resurrection.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.

These were men who had been in the presence of the risen Christ, yet still they doubted. Now our first inclination is to examine their reasons for doubting, and there we go again, typically 21st century westerners, looking for a reasonable explanation, or reasoned explanation so that we can solve the problem. But we don’t need to solve it; just accept it. Listen to these three quotes:

‘You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty that is superior to reason.’ - Plotinus
‘Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.’ —Miguel de Unamuno
‘Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.’ - Paul Tillich
‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.’ – Voltaire

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to wonder about doubt and I think that a large part of the problems we have with it is because on a very deep level we are realising that whatever we say about God cannot be the whole truth.

Let me put this another way. Some of you know that, in common with a lot of clergy, I’m building a model railway. Don’t ask me why; I’m not sure. But imagine if all of the little plastic figures that will populate the platform came alive and started wondering about me, their creator. Anything that they say must be in terms of what they know about. So I would be compared to the malleability of the plastic, the strength of the metal, the vibrant colour of the paint and so on.

Whilst those things would be helpful from the point of their reasoned faculty in working out what I am like in terms of what they know, eventually they will realise that there is actually very little that they can truly say about me because all of their language is based on what they know, and everything that they know is what has been created.

But as for me, their creator, their language would not go far enough, and that I think is the important role that doubt has to play in theology. Think of it like this: Psalm 18:2 says:
‘The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.’
God is also referred to in the same verse as a shield. But God is not a rock, nor a fortress, nor a shield. Those are just things that God is like.

And that is the key role that doubt plays. It causes us to ask things about God that we think we know, and then, if we are wise, it teaches us the limits of language. It shows us that God goes so far beyond language that sometimes our creeds will seem useless to us, and that is absolutely fine, because there is a deep wisdom here in the humility that we find.

Doubt exists to help us realise how much we don’t know and that should teach us to spend more time in God’s presence, just quietly, with all of our senses wide open for what we can learn. Reason is helpful up to a point, so long as we remember that eventually it will run out of words and descriptions, and God still goes on because our words and descriptions will always be inadequate. Then there is silence, and there we may find God. Amen.

This is all about apophatic and cataphatic theology. Those two phrases are worth searching for on here. Wikipedia has a couple of good articles. I’ve also drawn here on the blog by this remarkable PhD student at Durham
and for more on what these types of theology are, the wikipedia articles are worth a look:

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