No Belief Without Doubt
There is a stream that runs through the Christian tradition that disparages doubt as an expression of unfaith. The gospels themselves extol those who “believe without seeing.” The most famous or familiar examination of doubt in the Bible occurs after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus made an appearance among the disciples in the upper room, but Thomas was not present. When Thomas did not believe the incredible claims of the disciples that Christ was raised from the dead and they saw him with their own eyes, Jesus appeared again, to Thomas especially, to silence his doubts. So, Thomas is known to history and the tradition as “Doubting Thomas,” and that appellation is understood to be pejorative, a criticism, a disdainful repudiation of Thomas’ weakness.
But I have always been profoundly uncomfortable with what appears in the tradition to castigate the doubter. First, because my own faith has been marked from childhood with constant and nagging questions about the things I have been taught. But also because the condemnation of doubt seems to me to reflect a kind of frantic defensiveness on the part of the faith, fearing that the claims of the faith cannot stand up to scrutiny and the demands of reason, and therefore questioning and scrutiny itself is to be forbidden. But nothing could be more destructive to the natural inquiry of the spiritual seeker, nor as ultimately destructive to faith as well.
It is my view that the doubts with which we may receive the tenets of the faith and approach even our Lord himself are essential to believing, because it is by our doubts that we demonstrate our willingness to take the claims of the faith seriously. Christ asks everything of us and demands our whole selves. The invitation to faith is utterly comprehensive of us and our lives, and if we are to make a meaningful response to God’s call, it must be with discernment, exploration, and the willingness to make the deep dive into all the fears and joys, anticipation and anxiety, of having our lives transformed. Here is where all our natural doubts in the face of the utterly different and fantastic and seemingly irrational meet possibility and promise and gentleness of being, and where the Holy Spirit may rise up within us and bring us to a place we never knew. Perhaps this is what lies behind all those gospel stories of the inability of the disciples to truly cross over into a full understanding of Jesus, even after casting their lives and their lot upon him.
At Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, there is, over the altar, a carved stone reredos which depicts the scene from the Gospel of John where Thomas, in the presence of the risen Christ and in the presence of the other disciples, falls to his knees in humility and adoration, with arms extended, and in the middle of his self-offering makes his declaration: “My Lord and my God.” When I stand at that altar, with my hands on the eucharistic elements and my eyes on that carving, it reminds me that even as we approach the altar, we bring with us not only our belief, but our desire to believe as well, the obstacles to that belief, the questions which plague our hearts, the struggle we make all our lives with the teachings of church and faith, and our deep desire for God. All this we lay before our Lord as we receive his sacrament and blessing. It is a well-executed carving, but its strength comes from its placement immediately over the altar. Doubt and faith and revelation and exaltation are mingled in the image, as they are also, every time, mingled at the altar itself. In the upper room, we see the transformation of Thomas, and it is emotional, searing, terrible and majestic. The fall onto his knees, the exclamation of belief, the sudden, overpowering knowledge of God—all of this had been bound up in Thomas’ doubts and fears, and now pour from him at exactly the place where his doubts meet Jesus Risen.
But one of the most famous images of this biblical scene is a painting by Caravaggio called “The Incredulity of Thomas.” If you don’t know it, look it up on Google; it is an amazingly intimate picture. Jesus is seen drawing his garment aside to expose the spear wound in his side, and in this painting, it is not Thomas who reaches for Jesus, but it is Jesus himself who grasps Thomas’ hand with his own and pulls him in and draws him to that wound and pushes Thomas’ finger into that wound. Thomas, his other hand on his hip, with piercing eyes and with wrinkled brow, stares at his hand and finger and Jesus’ wound with the serious, exploring, inquiring eye of a detective or medical examiner. But along with the encounter between Jesus and Thomas, what I find as striking is the position of two others of Jesus’ disciples, standing behind Thomas, but leaning in, just as intent, with eyes just as searching, staring at the same wound with the same intensity. Because, while Thomas alone may have been made to bear the label of Doubter, the fact is that they all needed to know. They too needed to see. It may be that Caravaggio was pouring his own needs and struggles into his painting, but it is a certainty that he gave picture and life to mine.