Saturday, January 17, 2015

Believing Thomas

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 28, 2002

The disciples were understandably excited. Just three days before, their leader had been nailed to a cross between two thieves, executed as a traitor by the Roman government occupying their territory. Things seemed pretty bleak for a while. They didn’t know what they were going to do next; perhaps some of their lives were in danger now, as well. The disciples were downright confused; they were dispirited, downtrodden, and depressed.
But then—according to the Gospel accounts—a truly amazing thing happened. The disciples—ten of them, at least, according to the Gospel of John—saw Jesus. He appeared to them, alive again, resurrected from the dead!
But Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared that first time. When the others came to him and told him their amazing story, Thomas wasn’t buying it: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and… put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” No, Thomas was one of those who wouldn’t believe unless he had what King Lear would later call “ocular proof”. He wouldn’t believe unless he saw with his own eyes.
Now, in most religious quarters, the skepticism of “Doubting Thomas” isn’t generally something praised or lauded. It isn’t generally alluded to as one of the most prized attributes of a “true Christian believer”. Nor would Thomas go down in the Christian mind as one of the more admirable disciples. He never quite wore off the stigma of his original doubts.
But I think that there is something in Thomas’s attitude which I, personally, find refreshingly honest and straightforward. He simply refused to believe what his eyes had not seen. Do you blame him? He refused to give in to “public opinion” or “peer pressure”. There are certainly worse “sins” than that. How much more noble it can be to cling tenaciously to our own common sense, than to give in to majority opinion for the sake of expediency alone. Thomas refused to give in; I think that’s behavior better suited for praise than for condemnation.
In the 13th chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul deals primarily with the supremacy and the glories of the spiritual gift of love. “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” That’s how the passage ends; I know that you’ve all heard it.
But Paul does not consider love in and of itself; he is also looking at it in relation to other aspects of human experience, and in relation to other gifts of the Spirit. Paul writes: “as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.”
Here Paul is reminding us of some of the limitations of our humanness. We are simply human beings, he is saying. We may be great and accomplished human beings—indeed, if we are loving human beings, we can reach sublime heights indeed. But the bottom line for Paul is our mortality, and by its very nature, this mortality imposes upon us certain limitations:
    Our minds may be brilliant, but they cannot contain all brilliance.
    Our words may be beautiful, but they do not contain all beauty.
    Our knowledge may be vast, but it does not contain all vastness.
Paul reminds us that, as great as our individual accomplishments may be, that the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Reality, belongs to no one person, or faction, or group of factions. None of us owns the Truth. We may be dedicated to finding the Truth, but none of us can ever own it. “For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect.” Indeed, at any one point in our lives, we cannot hold more than the barest finger-hold on the truth. “For now we see but in a mirror dimly,” he goes on. In a mirror dimly: the perceptions we may have of Ultimate Reality are hazy, clouded, obscured, imperfect.
Of course, modern science allows us to know so many more things about the world than people did in the time of Jesus or St. Paul or “Doubting Thomas”:
We know that the Sun will rise in the east and set in the west. We know that the Earth is not the center of the universe (in spite of what a roomful of bishops said back in 1642; rooms full of bishops can be wrong sometimes—then and now). We know that if we heat water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it will boil; if we chill it to 32 degrees, it will freeze. We know a lot of things like that about the world of nature.
But we don’t inhabit a world of atoms and molecules and material reality alone. There is a deeper reality in which we live and move and have our being. We also exist within the realm of the spirit and the intellect, a realm of ideals or ideas.
In this realm, we can claim that we know certain things as well. We can affirm that the beliefs we hold are “true”. We can “know” that a certain place is home to us. We can “know” that freedom is better than tyranny. We can “know” that God is in Her heaven, and all is right with the world…
But on this deeper level, in this domain beyond cause and effect, our “knowing” takes a much more complicated form. On this deeper level, we can never really prove what we know. It is within this deeper domain that we see but “in a mirror dimly”, as Paul wrote. It is here that we can “know” widely differing, even contradictory things. It is here that our “knowing” is often tentative, obscure, sometimes fuzzy-headed. It is within the domain of the speculative—the domain of faith and belief—that a new character enters the field. That character is Doubt.
“A doubt is an idea that is still alive,” wrote Kenneth Patton. Central to all life is the idea of movement, of growth. Life is based in change—from season to season, toward ever-deepening maturity. Stagnation is fundamentally antithetical to life. It stands in direct opposition to growth, in direct opposition to life itself. As physical organisms, we are constantly involved in a dialectical relationship—in dialogue—with our environment, As we adjust to our environment—and it changes us and we change it—we move forward, we mature, we grow.
So it should be with our beliefs and our ideas. Our ideas must be constantly in dialogue with the whole world of ideas. When we doubt that our idea contains the whole truth, we’re not slamming shut a window, but throwing one wide open. Then it is that our mind is thrust out of its stagnation and is forced to deal with this whole world of ideas. Doubt thrusts us out of the realm of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness and into the realm of new discovery and new life. “What I believe is a process rather than a finality,” said Emma Goldman. “Finalities are for gods and governments, [but] not for the human intellect.”
Doubt is a great fertilizer for the human mind and soul; it augments and furthers growth. It helps us to know better our place in the world, so that we can better appreciate the places of others. When we know that we’re not the center of the universe—that our particular insights and beliefs are not the All-in-All, then we gain a valuable helping of humility. Humility is the hidden key of wisdom, and the person who knows that he or she doesn’t know everything is the person who will learn the most.
The existence of doubt also allows us to appreciate others the ways they deserve to be appreciated. The next time we’re tempted to pass severe judgment on someone, let’s just stop and say to ourselves “I do not know it all.” How often have we passed judgment without knowing all the facts? How many valuable relationships may have been strained and broken in this way! When we come to realize our personal limitations, we’ll also understand just a bit more clearly our need for constant dialogue, for give and take, with the people around us. We shall learn to listen just as effectively as we’ve learned to speak; then, we can come to some profound sense of just how much our fellow human beings have to offer us in our journeys.
“Doubt is the attendant of truth,” Robert Terry Weston reminds us in the responsive reading we shared this morning. I like the original, non-degenderized version of Weston’s words better: “Doubt is the handmaiden or truth.” (Doubt is Faith’s most trusted and intimate confidant}. Doubt is also the cornerstone of a deep and abiding and genuine faith. A stronger faith arises out of doubt—doubt that the existing system and structures are adequate to meet the changing needs of humanity. True faith grows through doubt; it is constantly tested and refined in the crucible of harsh reality. Faith without doubt is, in my opinion, a stagnant faith. It can too easily become a faith which does not open itself up to let the fresh breezes freshen it. It is probably not a faith that will be able to meet the needs of fully actualized women and men.
Faith without doubt all too quickly turns into religious Bolshevism, religious totalitarianism. It declares that it owns the truth, that it can explain away all the mysteries of the past, present, and future. We know how savagely littered human history has been by political and religious despots who claimed to possess the whole truth:
The Athenian nobles who condemned Socrates declared that truth was immutable, and that any efforts to teach new ways were morally corrupt.
The deranged Roman emperor Caligula declared that he alone knew the truth; he even declared himself to be a god. He bled Rome white during the few short years of his reign.
The Soviet Communists under Stalin declared that “objective reality” (that is, the capital-T “Truth”) could only be found in Marxist-Leninist dogma and the pronouncements of the Party. By 1953, when Stalin died, it is estimated that the murder and madness and mayhem set in motion by his policies may have cost as many as 30 million lives.
The Nazis under Hitler massacred millions as well, and plunged the world into a devastating world war. Hitler declared that his Reich, the epitome of human wisdom and civilization, would last a thousand years. Mercifully, it came crashing to an end after only twelve years and four months.
Let us beware then, as we look out at a new generation of religious fundamentalists, of whatever persuasion, who seem hell-bent on imposing their version of Islam, or Hinduism, or Christianity, or Judaism, on everyone else—who declare that we ought not to be guided by human reason and the rule of law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—but rather, by a voice from heaven speaking over some kind of celestial short wave that only they can hear.
Let us remember that it is our doubting, and not our certainty, which reminds us that we do not know it all—that the Kingdom is still to be built—that new heavens and new earths are yet to be discovered—that there is still something to live for—that there are always new possibilities yet to be explored.
During the tragic years of the Holocaust, a group of Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz was trying to make sense of the horrors of their lives. They wondered how could God have done this to them. And so, they decided to put God on trial, and to charge Him with cruelty and betrayal. A Rabbi was found to serve as judge, and a trial was held. The defense made the usual theological arguments about suffering and evil and why bad things happen: that the ways of God were not for human to question; that suffering, too, has a place in the divine plan. Ultimately, though, the jury didn’t buy it; they didn’t accept any of these excuses offered for God; so they found God guilty, and presumably, sentenced God to death. The Rabbi then looked up, pronounced the verdict, and then said, “It is time now for us to go to evening prayer.”
There is something within us which keeps the fires of faith alive, especially at those times of our deepest, darkest doubts. There are times when we need the safety and security and the comfort and solace of the well-worn, comfortable ways to which we have become accustomed.
Certainly, not all doubting is life-affirming. As Dana Greeley wrote: “There are doubts which enervate the soul and immobilize the will. There are doubts that are like clouds, shutting out all the sunshine of life. There are clouds that represent cold rationalization and complete insensitivity to the wonder and the beauty and the spirituality of life.”
May we be bold in our daring and our dreaming, and cautious in our certainties.
Good, honest doubt is not some phantom haunting the darkest corners of our souls. It can be, rather, the Blessed Summoner, beckoning us ever toward a new and better tomorrow.
To doubt is not to deny our faith that love and good exist, or even to deny our belief that we exist as part of a greater spiritual reality which we but vaguely apprehend. It is, rather, a challenge to us to go on, always pushing back the boundaries of the mind and spirit just a little more, always seeking new manifestations of the true and beautiful and good, in places we never believed possible.
To doubt is not to deny the insights and the lessons which the past has taught us. It is, rather, to learn from those lessons. It is to give ideas new life, to lead them into a period of new vitality and growth.
There will always be those voices out there (an in here, in each of us) imploring us simply to give in, to go along, to say that we subscribe to a faith borrowed second hand, to just accept other people’s views of God or truth or salvation.
May there always be those, like that wonderful doubting, believing Thomas who refuse to accept the experience of others as valid for themselves. We need to see for ourselves, too; we need to touch, to feel, in order for us to know. We will know that we have found our own salvation when we have seen it face to face, and soul to soul, and felt it rumbling in our very beings.
    Hold fast to dreams,
    For if dreams die,
    Life is broken-winged bird
    Which cannot fly…
    Hold fast to dreams
    For when dreams go
    Life is a barren field
    Frozen with snow.
May we hold fast to our doubts, as well:
Doubt not as an end in itself, but as a doorway to faith, a doorway to truth, a doorway to our souls.
Cherish your hopes. Cherish your dreams. Cherish your faith. But cherish your doubts, as well.

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