I really enjoyed church this morning. The sermon was about the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20. The pastor said that it’s unfortunate that Thomas got that nickname, since Thomas was willing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die with him in John 20:26, plus (according to tradition) Thomas spread Christianity as far as India. Whether or not church tradition is right on this, I don’t know, but, after reading scholarly writings that treat the Bible as a bunch of unhistorical stories anyway, my response is “Why not one more?” At church this morning, I just got into the flow of the story, without worrying about whether or not the story is historically accurate.
The pastor noted that Jesus did not put down Thomas for having doubts, but rather encouraged him to continue his quest for reassurance. The pastor also said that the church should be a place that is kind and hospitable to doubters.
I liked the sermon because it related to where I am right now. I myself am on a quest for reassurance. Life for me is like the part of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, in which the universe is supposed to be showing people that they’re on the right path, but it is not doing so. Things are not falling into place. I wonder if I’m doing something wrong, and what I can do instead. There is confusion—inside of me and outside of me. That’s why—although I was bored during much of the Book of Eli movie that I watched last night—I appreciated that little speech that the villainous Gary Oldman character gave for why he wanted to possess the Bible: because it had words that could give people guidance, inspiration, and purpose; otherwise, they were stumbling in the dark, trying to come up with things on their own, which often didn’t produce pretty results. (That was the reason that he gave to the Denzel Washington character for his desire to possess the Bible, but, actually, the villain wanted to use the Bible to wield power over people.) It’s good to have words that fill the void.
Whether or not the Bible eliminates confusion, however, I do not know. It’s not exactly easy for me to determine from the Bible where I stand with God. God rewards the righteous (except when he doesn’t) and punishes the wicked (except when he doesn’t)—and those who are truly saved demonstrate good fruit in their lives. But my life has good fruit and bad fruit, and I can’t exactly “repent” of my character defects because they are an integral part of who I am. So how exactly can I determine how God views me, on the basis of the Bible? That’s why I appreciate something that I see in the Psalms: the Psalmist is talking about his afflictions and troubles, and then his mood suddenly changes for the better. Scholars have contended that the mood-change is in response to an encouraging prophetic word from a temple official. The Psalmist did not have to figure out from a book how God viewed him, for, in a sense, God spoke to him directly.
That brings me back to the story in John 20. Is it true that Jesus did not put down Thomas? After Thomas saw the holes in Jesus’ hands and side and said “My Lord and my God”, Jesus told to Thomas that the people who are blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed. That seems to me like a put-down. Also, it glorifies blind faith, and I don’t see what is so great about that. But I’m just reading words on a page. Maybe Jesus said those words in a tone-of-voice that was not a put-down.
Another point: Do I want Jesus to have been risen from the dead? The pastor and many in the church have an image of Jesus in their minds that is kind and compassionate—of one who reaches out to people where they are and does not put them down when they have doubts. But, for me, Christianity being true entails most of the human race going to hell (unless Christian universalism actually is the correct interpretation of Scripture). It involves God slamming a door in the face of homosexuals. It means believing a certain way and acting a certain way—even if I don’t find within myself the ability to believe and to act in that way. Conservative Christians will probably highlight those views as an ulterior motive for rejecting their way of seeing things—even though there are other reasons that people may not care for conservative Christianity, such as, say, a lack of evidence that it is true. Plus, do conservative Christians recognize that they themselves have desires that function as ulterior motives (i.e., a desire for purpose and security) for the beliefs that they accept ? I think of something that George MacDonald (whose books helped bring C.S. Lewis to theism) said: that the God who exists is one we’d want to exist—the kind, the true. MacDonald rejected versions of Christianity that presented God as a monster who is hard to worship, for he depicted a God who was kind.
What does it mean for the church to be hospitable towards doubters? About ten years ago, I often questioned Christianity in church or Bible study groups. Nowadays, I don’t do that. For one, I tend to shy away from evangelical Bible study groups because I consider them to be in-your-face, oppressive places where group-think is encouraged (or, rather, mandated). But, at church, which is a lot more laid-back, I don’t go up to the pastor or members and start talking about (say) the Documentary Hypothesis. I don’t think it’s my job to tear apart their faith (as if I even can). When the pastor last week referred to a pamphlet that presented apologetic arguments for Jesus’ resurrection, I did not stand up in the middle of the service and recommend to him Maurice Casey’s latest book that takes apart those sorts of apologetic arguments, or books by Bart Ehrman. Nor did I recommend them to anyone after the service. It’s not my job to take apart their faith in the resurrection (as if those books would even do that, for their faith is probably not based on apologetic arguments in the first place—but rather experience, or a desire to hope). I may recommend them to people who are genuinely interesting in hearing another perspective, or to in-your-face evangelicals who cannot imagine why anyone would reject their beliefs, as if they are rock solid. But I tend not to parade my doubts in church anymore.
Indeed, I am on a quest for reassurance. I can bring up some doubts in church (such as certain personal issues, without getting too personal) and receive reassurance, but there are other places that I may turn when it comes to doubts about the Bible, such as C.S. Lewis—who had a way to maintain his faith even with an acceptance of historical-criticism—or the Free Believers Network—whose members try to read the Bible through the lens of God’s grace and love, and who have their own way to interpret the troubling passages of Scripture (unless they reject those passages, which many of them do).
But, back to the pastor’s point: I like the concept of the church being a place that is not threatened by doubt—for people are secure in their faith. And, even if they are not, they are still gathered together, worshiping God, from their own ambiguous standpoint, just like I was this morning.
I’ll stop here.