What Happened to Christian Doubt?

Gospel of John, Chapter 20

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.

Doubting Thomas was not uniquely doubtful.  He was unique in that his doubt was given expression in John’s Gospel.  Other disciples had an opportunity to view the material indications of Jesus’ resurrected identity.  The text reveals little about either their doubts or their unquestioning faith.  It does hint “Then were the disciples glad…”, in apparent reference to uncertainty they exhibited upon Jesus’ appearance and greeting.

Jesus did not criticize Thomas for his doubt.  He did proceed to display other signs, in a clear indication of approval for the disciples’ need for verification.

This scene contrasts greatly with Christianity today.  There is research regarding historical roots of scripture, an endeavor which is valid and valuable.  Such research does not penetrate appreciably into the greater Christian congregation.  It is not a topic for Sunday School lessons, or sermons, or (I surmise) lay discussions.

Christianity today, and for hundreds of years, has placed priority and value upon acceptance of the articles of faith without evidence apart from the Biblical canons.  It is typical for any degree of questioning or skepticism to be interpreted as disloyal, unfaithful, and heretical.

How did Christianity become a religion which was, first and utterly uniquely, a religion claiming the physical, historical, and evidentiary presence of the Deity on Earth – and which now is a religion which usually demands unswerving adherence both to certain subsets of historical documentation and tradition, and to authorities who define and protect that documentation and tradition?  How did the Protestant Reformationevery man his own priest – utterly fail to remove Christianity from the grasp of intolerant and suspicious authorities?

An example of this is the tradition of Holy Relics.  Imagine the impact, at a time long ago, upon a congregation when it acquired a Holy Relic.  They had, according to the best evidence which they could have had at the time, a certifiable physical connection to (for example) a person who had been a witness to Jesus.  They had the best available equivalent of the print of nails sought by Thomas.  Their priests encouraged them to reinforce their faith by objectively connecting with a fact, not an assertion or a belief.  It is an entirely separate consideration to note that priests benefitted from their association and administration of a Relic.  Whatever motives may have arisen do not detract from the point of this commentary: Christianity, for some time, retained a place for the appreciation of the facts upon which the cult became a major religion.

The famous Shroud of Turin is illustrative of how the attitude of Christianity has changed.  The development of modern forensic methods has made it possible, indeed highly likely, that the provenance and religious value of the shroud may be determined.  Despite several examinations by forensic experts under highly-restrictive protocols, a number of important findings have made it clear that the probability of fraudulent provenance is significant.  Only forensic examinations directed specifically and narrowly at important items may provide definitive conclusions.

The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy has blocked offers for definitive testing.  Many Shroud apologeticists have aggressively criticized the former forensic research, with no attempt to build upon the research and resolve its discrepancies.  They have resorted to inventing pseudo-scientific mechanisms to explain (but not resolve) research discrepancies.

Animus between Christianity and Science is most obviously expressed in the context of the origins of the universe and living organisms, and of the factual and causal history of life.  Additional disputes arise in subjects which have overt sociological and cultural basis.  Sexual and reproductive practices including contraception, abortion, gender identity, and sexual preference, are prominent in this regard.

This situation is both at odds with the Christian objectivism which I posit in this homily, and with rational behavior.  In the vernacular, it’s only common sense to incorporate verifiable reality into religious (innately philosophical) viewpoints.  The value of a belief which ignores, or blatantly contravenes, reality, is tenuous at best.  At its worst, such a belief can be dangerous.

Many people do not, and indeed cannot, accept this formulation of Christian objectivism.  They adhere [not actually] to an organized religion, but to a foundational belief that truth is found in the voice of authority.  For them, ‘facts’ which contradict authority are not merely false.  They are threatening to authority and are suspected of originating from perverse motives.  The force of this foundational belief is evident in commonly-cited adherence to contradictory or inconsistent beliefs, whether from one or from several sources of authority.  The devotion to authority has priority even over logical thought.

Psychologists and sociologists have shown relationships between an authority-based belief system and less-specific personality characteristics such as anxiety level, generalized fearfulness, and negativity.  I cannot cite (and suspect that solid evidence is lacking for) the extent of such relationships in the past.  I believe that much of the demographics of personality characteristics are sociological and cultural.  There are cultures which have very different such demographics than, for example, American and European cultures.

Christianity can access these relationships between personality and belief to improve itself.  Children need to grow up with validation of their value, with freedom to think and speak freely, and with guidance in expressing Christianity in harmony with a factual, rational reality.  They need to learn, as incrementally as they learn mathematics, that uncertainty and skepticism can be valuable to their life and faith.  They need to learn that uncertainty and skepticism are not threats, which engender fear and retaliation, to a faith that is good and true.

Many thanks to a fine Lutheran Pastor for giving me, on a Second Sunday of Easter,
a better perception of the disciples and their relationship to Jesus.


2 Responses to “What Happened to Christian Doubt?”

  1. 1 2bvnot2b
    February 11, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Here is yet another comment or two. Clearly your post has got me thinking about the whole set of related ideas to this. So here goes:
    1. it occurred to me that another passage that fits in with your thesis is the one in which John the Baptist sent his disciples from prison to ask Jesus if He really was the Messiah. It is clear that he was going through a “crisis of faith” as his execution neared and wondered if it had all been a mistake. Jesus was so kind in His reply, it is yet another example of how careful and gentle He was about doubts.
    2. I think the reason so many fundamentalists stigmatize doubt is an inherited mind set from a hundred years or more ago, the reaction of ordinary Christians to the rather savage form of doubt so common in Enlightenment Germany, a radical doubt that sought only to destroy and never to build. It was such a ruthless form of doubt that took such hold on the minds of the “intelligentsia” that many Christian reacted into the opposite extreme: anti-intellectualism, and the associated stigmatization of all forms of doubt whatsoever.
    3. There is a certain sense I think that the Bible views certain kinds of doubt as spiritual weapons. I must think about it some more to see if I can make a case for this…

  2. 2 2bvnot2b
    February 10, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Jim, finally know enough about this blogging business to at least make a comment. I like this post. It reminds me of a book I haven’t thought of in years but which I remember liking called “In Two Minds” by Os Guinness. It is probably out of print and my own copy has unaccountably disappeared. What I do recall is that he did a long discussion of how there are different kinds and degrees of doubt, that some forms of doubt are so insidious as to be destructive, most kinds of doubt are tools to strengthen faith if handled correctly. When churches teach that any doubt is sin, then ultimately they are destroying the faith of those they teach. I will get back to this later; it is important.

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