Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite nun from Quidenham in Norfolk in the UK. She is the author of a number of bestselling books, including Guidelines for Mystical Prayer and The Essence of Prayer. It is said that she once remarked, “I must not have any faith, because I have never had any doubt.”
What do you think: Is doubt a spiritually destructive force that separates us from God? Were you taught that doubting is a personal spiritual failure? (I was.) Is doubt the enemy of faith? Or can wrestling with issues that may lead us to doubt actually lead us to a more profound and meaningful faith?
Doubt is a recurring theme in all the resurrection appearance stories. The early community struggled to believe what they saw. In GJn, Mary Magdalene struggles to recognize the risen Christ. Thomas struggles to hear what his friends tell him about Jesus’ return. In GLk, even the two disciples walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (next week’s gospel) do not recognize him.
The story of resurrection begins with the first kind of Easter doubt: fear that all is lost. This is the reason that the apostles hid in the upper room: they were terrified that the movement of love and reconciliation that Jesus has initiated was completely undone. They were afraid that all their work was ruined and that they would also die.
Jesus’ actions when he returns to his followers seem designed to allay a second kind of Easter doubt: the fear that death still has dominion, that physical resurrection is impossible, that no one can die and rise again. This fear is rooted in the practical wisdom that death is permanent. Resurrection is implausible. Jesus shows them his scars. He eats fish with them. He seems to want them to know that he really has come through the battle with Death and has vanquished its power.
The third doubt about the resurrection focuses on whether Jesus is truly the Messiah. In the ancient tradition, the genuine Messiah would not arise from death in triumphant, invulnerable splendor, but rather as a suffering servant still marked by vulnerability, fragility, and wounds (Isaiah 53.12). If Jesus is the Word made flesh (GJn 1.14), his risen power is displayed by his wounds, for he is still vulnerable in his divinity, a shepherd who bears all the wounds of the world. If there is a triumph in the resurrection, it is not without scars.
I wonder if we can see in the questions of Thomas a serious process of discernment instead of petulant disbelief. Thomas is no different from the rest of the disciples. On the contrary, he’s an iconic representative of all our doubts, and of our dependence on “signs and wonders” in order to believe.
When Jesus says Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, he is marking a new beginning in the story of salvation, a chapter in which the community will expand to include a more diverse groups of people and what we call the church will begin, all on the basis of testimony. Jesus is continuing the departure which began in Jerusalem. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon his followers and commissions them, sending them out to announce the good news, to persuade on the basis of testimony, of hearing-but-not-seeing.
Do you have doubts and fears about the accuracy of these stories? You’re in good company, both in scripture and in church! Do you believe? You’re in good company, too, in scripture and in church. I might advise you that much of scripture warns against letting our believing become too certain, too rote, or too presumptuous. Possibly the most useful intellectual and spiritual posture is to practice astonishment, because that is the intention of most scripture stories. To follow Jesus means that we neither believe uncritically nor disbelieve reactively. To follow Jesus means that we are committed to questioning our assumptions about what may or may not be “possible” and “impossible” with God. We want to cultivate an open-minded, open-hearted posture of Easter faith, Easter doubt, and Easter joy.
None of us possesses the key to the mind of God. We do not know what sort of books God would read. Or how God would vote. Or what sort of car Jesus would drive. We do not control the Almighty. As we grow in faith, it is inevitable that we shall struggle with the mystery of God.
Anne Lamott says this well. I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.
If you wrestle with doubt, that is a reflection of discernment of faith. It might be more convenient if we were able to explain everything about Jesus and the resurrection, if divine matters were entirely comprehensible to human reason. But then Christ wouldn’t be divine. But I suspect that if we look around, we will perceive the wonder of the light of Christ among us, before our very eyes.
The SALT Project. “Three kinds of Easter doubt.” April 13, 2023.
Anne Lamott. Plan B: Further thoughts on faith.