Where There Is Doubt, There Is Hope
As a practicing psychotherapist, I frequently encounter individuals who doubt to a fault, as well as those who fail to suffer doubt at all. The former are more likely to respond well to psychodynamic psychotherapy; the latter are more resistant to therapeutic interventions and more likely to persist in destructive behavior—even behavior that is dangerous to self and others.
Those who doubt to a fault and those who fail to experience doubt both present problems with critical thinking. Their thoughts and emotions are rooted in beliefs that cannot be verified, but nonetheless have a powerful hold on their behavior. Those who doubt to a fault are more likely to experience anxiety, insecurity, lack of confidence, and indecisiveness, as well as other symptoms that compromise their thinking and performance in life; they are therefore more likely to seek out therapy. For other doubters, their own solutions to their psychological problems, such as dependence on alcohol, drugs, or sex, have become problems in their own right that lead to their seeking, or being persuaded to seek, therapy. Those who fail to experience doubt, however, risk further compromising their sanity to shore up their beliefs and can become hostile and sometimes dangerous to those who challenge those beliefs, whom they perceive as a threat.
One definition of doubt is a hesitancy to believe without proof and verifiable facts. But there are few things in life of which to be certain, other than death: Belief without doubt therefore requires an absence of critical thinking, questioning, and intellectual curiosity. It’s what we find in White supremacy, authoritarianism, classism, misogyny, environmental exploitation, all forms of oppression, and too many other evils to mention—and it has led to wars and all forms of atrocities.
Our social systems and institutions too often fail to teach critical thinking or encourage doubt and questioning. We are taught what to think, not how to think; and we are too often indoctrinated rather than educated. Our Episcopal Church, founded though it is on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, has been no exception. Though we are commanded to love God with all our heart and soul and minds, we have often failed to use our minds well and to respect the minds of all our neighbors.
In her book, The Church Cracked Open, Stephanie Spellers tells us that “Southern slaveholders were encouraged to use tools like the catechism written especially for slaves by Bishop William Meade of Virginia. It read in part:
- What is the duty of servants?
- To be obedient to their masters, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ…
- What directions are given servants?
- Servants, obey in all things your masters…”
In John 20:24-29, Jesus says to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe…” and “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This text implies that belief without doubt is a higher level of piety: it thereby discourages critical thinking and can contribute to confusion and even guilt in those who engage in it. “Doubting Thomas” has always been given a bad rap. But how sure can we be that this is what Jesus actually said, when the rest of his life and his teachings counter it? Jesus challenged conventional wisdom, religious beliefs, and traditions. He was not an obedient follower; but rather the perfect role model for critical thinking, for having a mind of one’s own, and for having the freedom and courage to speak and act on what can be proven to be right and good and true.
I have chosen to understand “Doubting Thomas” as a metaphor for the known meeting the unknown, and the not yet known; not in conflict with, but in pursuit of greater knowledge, wisdom, and truth; a journey, not a destination fixed in time. I believe that our faith is in conflict neither with reason nor with science and history—and that assures me that where there is doubt, there is indeed hope.