Reflections on questions & doubt: Thomas as a model of curiosity, questioning, and courage

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. 
– Frederick Buechner


I talk to God but the sky is empty. ― Sylvia Plath

I think the trouble with me is lack of faith… often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. – C.S. Lewis

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! ― Douglas Adams

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one. ― Voltaire

Who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith?… We’ve all experienced this, me too. – Pope Francis

… the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are. The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners. Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends. — Philip Yancey

Songs about DOUBTS & QUESTIONS:

A Sonnet for St. Thomas the Apostle
Malcolm Guite

“We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
 

QUESTIONING: An Act of Faith

When I speak to college students, I challenge them to find a single argument against God in the older agnostics (Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) that is not already included in books like Psalms, Job, Habakkuk, and Lamentations.  I have respect for a God who not only gives us the freedom to reject him, but also includes the arguments we can use in the Bible.  God seems rather doubt-tolerant, actually. — Philip Yancey

In other words, no matter how strong our faith is, at some point we may experience doubt. But instead of being a sign of weakness, doubt can actually be something that causes us to dig deeper into our relationship with God, and can even make our faith stronger. — Jesse Carey

Certainty is so often overrated. This is especially the case when it comes to faith, or other imponderables. — Julia Baird

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith… Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful. – Paul Tillich

Belief in God does not exempt us from feelings of abandonment by God. Praising God does not inoculate us from doubts about God. – Eugene Peterson

Surely… we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. – John Calvin

I do not believe there ever existed a Christian yet, who did not now and then doubt his interest in Jesus. I think, when a man says, “I never doubt,” it is quite time for us to doubt him.  – Charles Spurgeon

The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men… Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”– Madeleine L’Engle

When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate… I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. – Brennan Manning

We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt. – Dallas Willard

All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.‘  — C. S. Lewis

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. — Anne Lamott

Who among us—everybody, everybody!—who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith? Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them … If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. — Pope Francis

Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God … The torture and pain I can’t explain. — St. Mother Teresa

For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God. — Martin Luther

The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble … Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise amid overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. — Charles Spurgeon

If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. ― Yann Martel

COMMENTARY on THOMAS as a DOUBTER

Here’s my simple contention about this passage: Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a realist. Think about it. Everything we know about Thomas up to this point suggests that he is forthright, genuine, and even courageous …
      Thomas, I would contend, is at heart a pragmatist, one who likes his truth straight up and who relentlessly takes stock of the situation before making a decision.
     
Which leads me to believe that what changes when Thomas is confronted by the risen Lord is not that he is no longer a doubter – he never really was – and certainly not his realism. No, what changes is his perception of reality itself. Of what is possible. Of what God can do. Even of what God can do through him….
     Jesus comes and takes his mocking words and turns them back on him, not to humiliate or scold him, but simply to confront him with the possibility that his reality was too small, his vision of what is possible too limited. And when Jesus calls him to faith, he’s actually inviting him to enter into a whole new world. …
      And this issue of having too small a vision of reality is what I find interesting. Because I also fall into a worldview governed by limitations and am tempted to call that “realism.” Which is when I need to have the community remind me of a grander vision. A vision not defined by failure but possibility, not governed by scarcity but by abundance, not ruled by remembered offenses but set free by forgiveness and reconciliation …
    There are, I suspect, a lot of Thomases in our congregations…. who should not have to surrender their sense of realism, but instead be invited to a whole new reality that God created  — David Lose

So, two things I noticed and wondered about when reading this passage.
     First, Thomas only asks to see what the other disciples have already seen. … Thomas asks for no extraordinary proof to move his extraordinary doubt, but only requests what the others had already been given.
    Second, is Thomas’ reaction one of doubt or realism? Might it be that Thomas was, above all else, a realist? And that reality had come as never before ….— David Lose

This week’s gospel lection offers us a secret room, and, with it, an invitation to touch, to cross more deeply into Jesus’ story and our own… History has labeled this disciple Doubting Thomas, as if his uncertainty were the most memorable thing about this follower of Jesus who, elsewhere, is the first to step up and say he is willing to die with him Yet Jesus, as is his way, gives Thomas what he needs  — Jan Richardson

I was reminded that in the story of the raising of Lazarus, Thomas is the one—the only one—who steps forward and expresses his willingness to die with Jesus. In this week’s reading, Thomas once again crosses into a place where others have not ventured: into the very flesh of the risen Christ… The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison; they are a passage. Thomas’s hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.— Jan Richardson

Inventory ― Dorothy Parker
Four be the things
I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow,
a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things
I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity,
freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things
I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and
sufficient champagne.
Three be the things
I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope
and a sock in the eye.

ON DOUBT

We learn from failure, not from success! ― Bram Stoker

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. ― René Descartes

Doubt everything. Find your own light. ― Gautama Buddha

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.― William Shakespeare

To deny, to believe, and to doubt absolutely — this is for man what running is for a horse. – Blaise Pascal

Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.
― George Carlin

Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned. ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess. ― Walt Whitman

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrased, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

THE GIFT of DOUBT —from Between the Dark and the Daylight by Joan Chittister (Penguin Random House)

As Voltaire remarked, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
      The problem is that certitude seduces us. It enables us to believe that what was said to be true is true because someone else said so. It simply cuts off thought. It arrests discussion in midflight. And yet we yearn for it with a passion. We spend endless, sleepless nights grappling with intellectual options in order to wiggle them into a satisfying kind of certainty without so much as a scintilla of evidence.
     Rulers of all stripe and type dispense certainties—theirs—with great abandon. They do whatever it takes—define cultural dogmas, assert organizational doctrines, impose decrees, and use power, force and penal systems—to suppress the ideas of anyone who dares to question them. Ideas, after all, are dangerous things. Ideas have brought down as many myths and mysteries as they have toppled kingdoms.
     But there is another way to live that runs hot and bright through darkness. There are always some in every population who know that life is not meant to be about certainty. Life, they realize, is about possibility. They see certitude as a direction but not an end.
     Doubt is what shakes our arrogance and makes us look again at what we have never really looked at before. Without doubt there is little room for faith in anything. What we accept without question we will live without morality. It is in populations like this that monarchs become dictators and spiritual leaders become charlatans and knowledge becomes myth.
     An ancient people tell the story of sending out two shamans to study their holy mountain so that they could know what their gods expected of them. The first shaman came back from the north side of the mountain to tell them that it was covered with fruit trees, a sign that their god would always bless them abundantly. The second shaman came back from the south side of the mountain to tell the people that it was barren and covered with rock, a sign that their god would always be with them but intended them to take care of themselves. So, which shaman was right? If both, then it is dangerous to dogmatize either position.
     It is doubt, not certitude, that enables us to believe, because it requires us to think deeply about an entire subject, and not simply depend on the side of reality that is on our side of the mountain. Only when we look beyond absolutes to understand every level of life can we possibly live life to the fullest, with the deepest kind of insight, with the greatest degree of compassion for others.
     Voltaire was right, of course. Certainty is comfortable but always unlikely and forever disruptive. As life changes so must our explanation and response to it.

The Blessing of Thomas
— Maren Tirabassi

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” — John 20:29b

Blessed are the ones, says Thomas,
to those who listen to him, this eastertide,
who don’t need a sanctuary to worship God.
Blessed are those who don’t need a choir to hear holy music,
and who don’t need to sit in a pew
to open their hearts in prayer,
and who don’t need a stained glass window,
or a preacher or even bread and cup
to find the good news.
Blessed are those who really touch
even with gloves on,
who really smile with a mask,
who can be kind on Facetime or Zoom,
who follow a livestream to find Jesus alive.
But also blessed is the Thomas in every one of us
who acknowledges our longing
to hold someone’s real warm hand
not just the story of a hand
that reaches out to someone else, and who wants to feel
not Jesus’ long-ago bleeding side
(we congratulate ourselves about that)
but at least to feel side by side
with other Christians
in order to be side by side with Christ.
Blessed is the Thomas in all of us, who lives with doubts and hopes,
and learns to let go of all expectations
when waiting to meet God.

Meditation on crossing thresholds, entering doors: I Am statements from Gospel of John.

If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate,
you are sure to wake up somebody. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll; I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley

There are 84,000 doors to Enlightenment. — Pali Canon

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should followA way through is what was needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. And the gate rules are compassion, care and grace.— Christopher Burkett

It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
— Bob Dylan
Questions to consider:

  • Name the thresholds you have crossed in life: the moments of change, the milestones that mark transformations.
  • Who and what have you brought with you as you open doors, and walk through them? What have you discovered on the other side of those passages?
  • Who has opened doors for you? For whom have you created opportunities?
  • What has holy Love made available or accessible to you?

Songs:

ON GATES

Breath remains the vehicle to unite body and mind and to open the gate to wisdom. – Thich Nhat Hanh

A Zen master would call the True Self “the face we had before we were born.” Paul would call it who you are “in Christ, hidden in God” (Colossians 3:3). It is who you are before having done anything right or anything wrong, who you are before having thought about who you are. Thinking creates the false self, the ego self, the insecure self. The God-given contemplative mind, on the other hand, recognizes the God Self, the Christ Self, the True Self of abundance and deep inner security. We start with mere seeing; we end up with recognizing. — Richard Rohr

If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. ― Anne Lamott 

Many of us were taught that if you do not fit inside the circle of the church’s behavioral codes, God is not pleased with you, so we whittled ourselves down to a shape that could fit those teachings, or we denied those parts of ourselves entirely. ― Nadia Bolz-Weber
 
We did not choose to be the guardians of the gate, but there is no one else. — Lyndon B. Johnson

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. …  It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. — Thomas Merton

Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom. — Bertrand Russell

And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best … In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’ — CS Lewis

Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear. — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

The hardest thing to find in life is balance – especially the more success you have, the more you look to the other side of the gate. What do I need to stay grounded, in touch, in love, connected, emotionally balanced? Look within yourself. — Celine Dion

No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief. — John Calvin

We have to understand that we should, at all times, have the right and the power to make decisions about our bodies. And that is an idea that must be taught at a young age. You can’t wait until a person is 18 years old and say, ‘Now you have the right’. You have to start that from the gate. — Jada Pinkett Smith

Only a person who has passed through the gate of humility can ascend to the heights of the spirit. — Rudolf Steiner

When I’m in the starting gate, it’s just me and the hill. — Mikaela Shiffrin

The key to heaven’s gate cannot be duplicated. — Douglas Horton

On the king’s gate the moss grew gray; The king came not. They call’d him dead; And made his eldest son, one day, Slave in his father’s stead. — Helen Hunt Jackson

I believe the future is only the past again, entered through another gate. — Arthur Wing Pinero

Giving, loving, helping, forgiving; all these begin to transform us as we wash the feet of those whom society regards as beneath it, and give to those who take from us … It is likely that we ourselves will need to walk through the gate back into the place of sacrifice in far too literal terms for our comfort.   — Andrew Prior

Blessing of the Gate
Jan Richardson

Press your hand
to this blessing,
here along
the side
where you can feel
its seam.

Follow the seam
and you will find
the hinges
on which
this blessing turns.

Feel how
your fingers
catch on them—
top,
bottom,
the slightest pressure
sending the gate
gliding open
in a glad welcome.

Wait, did I say
press your hand
to this blessing?

What I meant was
press your hand
to your heart.

Rest it over that
place in your chest
that has grown
closed and tight,
where the rust,
with its talent
for making decay
look artful,
has bitten into
what you once
held dear.

Breathe deep.
Press on the knot
and feel how it
begins to give way,
turning upon
the hinge
of your heart.

Notice how it
opens wide
and wider still
as you exhale,

spilling you out
into a realm
where you never dreamed
to go
but cannot now imagine
living this life
without.


Heaven’s GateRobert Morgan  
In her nineties and afraid of weather
and of falling if she wandered far outside her door,
my mother took to strolling in the house.
Around and round she’d go,
stalking into corners, backtrack,
then turn and speed down hallway,
stop almost at doorways,
skirt a table, march up to the kitchen sink
and wheel to left, then swing into the bathroom,
almost stumble on a carpet there.
She must have walked a hundred miles
or more among her furniture and family pics,
mementos of her late husband.
Exercising heart and limb,
outwalking stroke, attack,
she strode, not restless like a lion in zoo,
but with a purpose and a gait,
and kept her eyes on heaven’s gate.  

THRESHOLDS

He had the vague sense of standing on a threshold, the crossing of which would change everything. ― Kate Morton

In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors. ― William Blake

Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success. A whole, clear, glorious life lies before you. — Andrew Carnegie

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind. — Khalil Gibran

Luck is everything… My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film. — Alfred Hitchcock

We are ever on the threshold of new journeys and new discoveries. Can you imagine the excitement of the Wright brothers on the morning of that first flight? The anticipation of Jonas Salk as he analyzed the data that demonstrated a way to prevent polio? — Joseph B. Wirthlin

I have a thing for doors. I always think of them as a threshold to something new. — Jada Pinkett Smith

Reflections on humor & doubt, themes from John 20

What is the role of doubt and questioning in our spiritual lives? With whom do we keep company … some of the great matriarchs and patriarchs doubted. And then laughed. And hoped. Humor shines a light into dark places, becomes a wind sweeping through our souls.

(Reflecting on themes of humor and doubt from the Gospel of John while we celebrate Bright Sunday or Holy Humor Sunday: April 8. Wear bright colors. Bring a joke or riddle. Get ready to laugh out loud.)

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Rumi

Continue reading “Reflections on humor & doubt, themes from John 20”

Scroll to top