How to Doubt Like Thomas
Okay Zoomers, here’s a long sermon…. But then again on this occasion you’re not a captive audience, you can quite literally switch off.
In these our rapidly changing times, many like their religion to be timeless. The Church of England is of course only too happy to oblige. Not changing is easy, or so it thinks. Predictably therefore every year on Low Sunday, we read the story of Thomas doubting the resurrection of Jesus. It’s timeless. One week we preach on the miraculous reality of Jesus conquering death once and for all, only to move to those who doubt it but a week afterwards.
Doubts, now, there’s all sorts of them. I think you can tell a lot about who people are by looking at the things they doubt. Some people for instance will admit that they could be wrong, but they seriously doubt it; other people think it’s seriously wrong to doubt. James Ussher, Archbishop or Armagh and primate of all Ireland famously doubted the science of his day and calculated that the earth was created on the 23rd of October 4004 BC. Fossils? Meh. Bishop Ussher said meh to geology.
To this day, the Flat Earth Society doubts most of the findings of modern astronomy. To them, it’s all a vast conspiracy theory engineered by liberal elites to lure good Christians away from their Bibles. All doubts have a flip side, you see –if you don’t like it, it must be untrue—and the flip side of their doubt is a deep attachment to the literal truth of Holy Scripture, like Archbishop Ussher. Doubts and certainties walk hand in hand: people only doubt certain realities because they’re quite certain of others they prefer.
Our society is rife with such unacknowledged desires. Doubt, particularly self-doubt, has become a curse. ‘Just believe in yourself!’ ‘You can do it!’ ‘If you can dream it hard enough, you can achieve it!’ These mantras are everywhere. Do you remember Catherine Tate? She seems to have taken a break from our TV screens but she had a character called Helen Marsh devised to lampoon self-belief at every turn: “I can do that,” was Helen’s motto. Play the drums for a famous rock band? ‘I can do that.’ Help train a professional tennis-player, ‘I can do that.’ The poor woman ended up disgracing herself every time of course… but ‘can do’ has nonetheless become the cliched motto of our government and of the whole self-development industry that has our great country in its grip. ‘Believe in yourself.’ Just believe in Britain and it’ll be alright on the night.
My advice is just the opposite: a little dose of self-doubt has never hurt anyone. I do not care a jot if my GP believes in herself but I do want her to have a healthy degree of self-doubt. As Paul put it: weigh everything, hold on to what is good… but ditch the rest, or improve it. Self-doubt, uncertainty and all forms of butterflies in your tummy are incredible useful. I’d go so far as to say they’re crucial to any kind of success, spiritual or secular. Most people are currently being taught to silence their inner critic, to put the kibosh on anything that picks away at their hopes and dreams, but if you look at them closely, the “believe in yourself” mantras are just so many pathetic attempts to silence the inner dialogue we must have, to listen to the flip side of your doubts… for we doubt too easily what stands in the way of what we desire most.
Which brings us to Thomas in today’s gospel, doubting Thomas as he became known, which is a little unfair as we do not label Simon: ‘denying Peter,’ nor do we talk of ‘naked Peter’ or ‘naked Mark…’ we’ve elevated this moment of Thomas’ life into a life-defining feature, but it may very well reveal more about us, about our fears and desires, than about Thomas’. Thomas was no 1st century doubting atheist, at any rate the text gives no indication that he stopped believing in God. He remained a good Jewish guy. What he could not bring himself to believe was the bodily resurrection of the Christ he had seen being murdered, dying a long, painful death on the cross, gasping for air. You see, the ghastliness of crucifixion is its very public character: you were exposed, naked (Jesus almost certainly never wore a modesty loin cloth) and you died slowly of asphyxia, just like with Covid, as exhaustion made it progressively more difficult, and then eventually impossible to raise your body in order to breathe. So Thomas had his doubts about Jesus being alive after such a public display, a death witnessed by huge, jeering crowds, and not only about that, he had misgivings about his appearing to close friends in a hidden room, the doors of which were shut tight for fear of the mob. Let’s read again: ‘when the others told him: “We have seen the Lord,” 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.”’ Visions were not enough for Thomas, and he was right. The messiah was not supposed to die like this, nor was he meant to rise from the dead for that matter, that was not what his childhood’s faith had taught him, the messiah was supposed to free the people of Israel; and as for the resurrection from the dead, it would take place on the last day. No one had mentioned ghostly apparitions in a locked room. So Thomas’s doubts were the flip-side of his traditional faith as a Jew and a pharisee. He did not doubt the existence of G-d, but he had to rejig his entire religious education. His doubt was thus incredibly useful. Had he but believed in himself a little too hard, he would never have come to accept a new faith.
Neither can we. We must not shun doubt else our understanding of the faith will never grow. We must also not silence doubt because we simply cannot: doubt is woven in the fabric of our human minds. We learn to doubt whether or not foodstuffs are really edible before we eat them, or we die. We learn to doubt whether people hate us or love us, whether animals are harmless or dangerous, deadly even… all these things are life-skills and we cannot silence them simply because we are dealing with religion.
Doubt will not push you into the cold arms of atheism; and if it does, consider this. It may sound like a haughty thing to say but it is nevertheless true: atheistic materialism is quite extraordinarily naïve. All these big names who speak so confidently and so dismissively of religion in the name of science: their widespread belief that matter, stuff, is all there is, is incredibly naïve. The idea that matter is all there is, is not a conclusion you can draw from the observation of said matter, any more than you can conclude that the colour red is the only colour there is by looking at red things only; or that planet earth is the one and only planet by looking at planet earth only. So again, scientific materialism to give it its proper name naïve, it looks at matter with quite extraordinary precision, it enhances its sight with amazing technology, but it can never conclude that therefore matter is all there is. That conviction of is a presumption, a creed, it can never be arrived at empirically.
Stephen Hawking, God rest his soul, famously said that he regarded his own brain as a computer which would stop working when its components failed. ‘There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers, that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,’ he said… but again his conviction that the brain is but a computer is not something he’s arrived at by observing the brain. The conclusion that consciousness is a material fact is not arrived at by looking at consciousness is the first place. It is no more based on experience than the afterlife or fairy stories he decries.
So that’s how you doubt your way out of atheism. You doubt atheism’s presumptions too! This Zoom session looks a bit like a madrasa to me; so repeat it as you would a verse of Holy Writ: a lot of atheists believe that matter is all there is but they have not arrived at this conclusion by their observation of matter. They just take it as a given, an article of faith.
So doubt is also useful even when it comes to dealing with atheism. But at the moment, the question on everyone’s lips has little to do with epistemology. People –people around you too, I’m sure, relatives, friends, people of faith or none—many ask: how can you believe that your God allows frail grandparents, and nurses and babies to die gasping for air like that? Well, how do we reconcile the existence of God with the current coronavirus rampage?
It’s not a new question, quite unfortunately. The frail have always died first. There have been far worse epidemics, far worse disasters… nothing new here. What is truly astonishing is that people phone the vicarage thinking that I may have the answer. I don’t. We’ll all die with the question. But unlike most I think I know why I do not have the answer.
When I look at the material world in all its awesome complexity, when science tells me of its staggering intricacy, when I see its untold beauties and countless horrors too, movement of forces too vast for me even to imagine, things that need to be put in equations with lots and lots of exponents… I find it hard to escape the conclusion that we are like two-year old toddlers in G-d’s sight; indeed that there’s an even bigger gap between G-d and us than between me and a two year old… We are like toddlers in his sight and that’s a comforting thought. We can only understand so much. Our language is frightfully limited. Our moral agency too, for that matter, which is why G-d so freely forgives as a Father forgives.
The person I heard it say best was not a Christian, but a Korean Zen master (or more correctly Seon master) called Seung Sahn. He was taken to task by a seven-year-old girl, after the death of a cat called Katz, that was beloved at the Cambridge Zen Centre. The cat was actually given a traditional Buddhist burial, but one day after that the little girl came to the great Zen teacher for some explanation.
“What happened to Katz? And where did he go?” She asked.
“Where do you come from?” He replied
“From my mother’s belly.” She said.
“Where does your mother come from?”
Seung Sahn said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same… People give them many different names, but in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’ So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”
“I shouldn’t use words.” The girl ventured?
Seung Sahn said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”
She remained silent so Seung Sahn said, “Now you ask me.”
“What is Buddha?”
Seung Sahn hit the floor.
Seung Sahn said, “Now I ask you: “What is God?”
She hit the floor.
“What is your mother?”
She hit the floor.
“What are you?”
She hit the floor.
“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”
(From Dropping Ashes on the Buddha)
We are all parts of one another. I think someone said something eerily similar in the New Testament: for in God we live and move and have our being. God is that which is all in all. It’s also in the fifteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘For he (Christ) must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death… And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.’
As the waters cover the sea. (Habbakuk 2.14)