Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Faith and Doubt

The following is drawn from a message delivered at First Friends in Richmond, Indiana on April 14, 2013 by Jeff Wolfe:

I want to preface my thoughts by acknowledging my words are more confessional than many of my sermons.  I have had some stuff bubbling inside of me that found its way onto the page that I choose to share with you.  Early this week, I wrote a draft of a sermon that delved into the portrayal of Jesus’ disciple Thomas in the gospel of John, but I am going to trust my gut and set aside most of that draft so that I may share with you a second incarnation of this week’s message.  My hope is that in the sharing of my experience, you hear something that speaks to your condition.

As long as I can remember, I have always been a person who has had a lot of questions—especially when it comes to matters of religion.  With questions come doubt, and to be frank, faith has never come easily for me.  When I was about twelve years old, I began to record my questions of faith in a notebook that I kept secret from my parents.  I scribbled page after page of religious puzzlers to which I had no answers.  My journal included inquiries like:  does science disprove religion?  Where does evolution fit in?  If scripture is not literally true, is religious faith a charade?  Did the resurrection really happen?  What about miracles?
At some point I figured out mortality meant that one day I would die, and the notion of Heaven struck me as a myth meant to make death palatable.  Though I badly wanted to believe there was more on the other side of death, I was skeptical.
I no longer have my notebook, but I would guess I still have a lot of those same questions now in my thirties that I had as a preteen.  Oh, I am sure after a seminary education there are questions that I could now scratch off the list, feeling that I have answers that now satisfy me.  However, I would guess that for every question I could now mark out of that book, there are probably dozens more that I could add.  Age has certainly not cured me of my curious nature or my propensity to struggle with nagging doubt.

I grew up in a church that spoke in terms of certainty, so I implicitly picked up a message that doubt was not welcome in the life of a Christian.  In the church of my childhood, I heard quite a bit about the virtues of faith and very little about the role doubt played in the life of a believer.  I imagined if faith was such a good thing, than doubt must be a problem.  In my mind, faith and doubt were on opposite poles.  I made the assumption, if I struggled in secret with doubt, I must not be a very good Christian.  Consequently, with every doubtful inquiry that I added to my book of questions, I felt more and more guilty.  Nevertheless, guilt did not and could not stop me from seeking a sense of Truth.  It was a hard place for me to be as a young man.  
The pastorate might seem like an odd profession for a person with a healthy degree of doubt, yet in wrestling with religion, I’ve felt drawn toward a vocation where issues of faith and doubt are in close conversation.  I’ve observed that often two groups that take issues of faith quite seriously are clergy and atheists.  I’ve cast my lot with the ministry, yet I have a respect for skeptics who reject religion.  I appreciate those who are willing to wrestle with the hard questions, even as those difficult questions produce very different answers.  Frankly, I feel more kinship with a thoughtful atheist than I do with a lukewarm theist, for at least with the atheist, I share a common search and passion for Truth. 
Becoming a pastor has not cured me of doubt. And, I still feel uneasy in the church as a doubter—particularly in my role as a pastoral minister.  One theologian* (*recent ESR Willson Lecturer PeterRollins, pictured below) claims that more progressive churches allow their members to give lip service to the value of doubt; individuals have freedom to intellectually voice uncertainty.  Yet, this same theologian goes on to assert, the whole ritual of worship functions to affirm certainty.  The hymns, sermon and the familiarity of a worship service meet a psychological need for comfort; therefore, we need not encounter the unease that comes with taking doubt too seriously.  It’s a powerful system because we can say we have doubts, but worship pushes the consequent anxiety of doubt away.
Let me ask you, is this a good thing? 

As a pastor, I feel a good deal of pressure to contribute to worship services that extend comfort.  It is easier on me to write sermons that come to tidy conclusions—sermons that keep hard questions at bay.  I do believe at times a worship service should be a source of comfort.  Yet, I wonder, do I do a disservice for you as your pastor when I am not honest with my own sense of doubt?  Do I show a lack of leadership when I refuse to model honest confession of my own struggles in the faith?  I will admit there are moments when I wonder, would you all still value my gifts as a pastor if I were vocal about my specific places of doubt?  I am no different than you.  I fear rejection.  I want to be liked.  It is often easier for a pastor to reside safely on the side of the invisible line of certainty.
In less than two months I will no longer be a pastor, at least for a while.  To be very blunt, I look forward to the day when I can let my doubts all hang out without wondering in the back of my mind—how will this affect my pastorate?  I anticipate the meeting for worship where I say, “I’m not sure I believe that”, or “Christian tradition makes such and such a claim, but you know, I really struggle with that”.  It may be that the pressure I feel to deny my places of doubt don’t primarily originate with you guys.  It could very well be that I feel inhibited by carrying internal expectations that a pastor is supposed to be immune to doubt.  I’m not sure.  I still have some maturing yet to do both as a pastor and as a person of faith. 
I have learned one thing about doubt that I would like to share with you this morning:  I no longer believe faith and doubt are polar opposites.  I do not believe doubt is the absence of faith.  Rather, I’ve come to believe doubt and faith are part and parcel of one another.  Doubt and faith are locked in an ongoing dance.  And, as with all good dances, each dance partner responds to the movement of the other.  Faith and doubt constantly interact in this dance of Truth. 
To be honest with you, I don’t have much time for people that seem to have all the answers.  I don’t trust individuals that are so certain of their sense of faith that they cannot entertain the possibility that they could be wrong.  Faith without struggle often seems na├»ve or idolatrous from where I stand.
In John 20:19-31, we meet Thomas, a man identified as the twin.  Many of us probably know Thomas by another name, “Doubting Thomas”.  In my youth, I was very uncomfortable with Thomas because he drew attention to doubting, and most of that attention was negative.  How many sermons have you heard where Thomas’ abundant doubt is lifted up into a positive light?  For me, not many.  In more recent years, I have grown to appreciate the man.  The presence of Thomas in the Biblical texts can be a springboard for conversation about doubt, if we allow it.  Thomas’ doubt gets me thinking about questions like: are we as people of faith willing to entertain hard questions, following them even into unfamiliar territory?  What is the role of testing for followers of Jesus?  Is faith big enough to allow the uncomfortable tension of that for which we don’t have answers?
I refuse to pick on Thomas this morning.  Instead, I am going to choose to value him because he demonstrates that doubt and faith can coexist.  Could it be that Thomas’ path to God, the way of asking hard questions, is a completely legitimate means of faith seeking understanding? 
Thomas isn’t around when Jesus greets his disciples, post-crucifixion.  Thomas shows up late and discovers his friends babbling crazy talk.  The disciples make the outrageous claim that Jesus is alive.  Thomas is not ready to take his fellow disciples’ word on this one.  He declares, “Look guys, I’m not gonna believe you unless I can see the hands where the nails were pounded as well as the hole in his side.  Let me stick my fingers in there and see for myself.  Then I will believe.”
          The other disciples experienced Jesus firsthand, and Thomas wants nothing less.  Here is what I notice when Thomas finally does encounter Jesus:  Jesus meets Thomas where he is.  Jesus offers Thomas exactly what he asked for.  “Go ahead, Thomas.  Check out the holes in my hands.  Look over here.  See the spot where they stuck me with a spear.  You can touch it if you want to.” 
Where is the condemnation for Thomas’ doubt?
          To all those who try to portray Thomas as a lesser man of faith, listen to how Thomas responds.  Don’t miss the reverent words that follow his encounter with Jesus.  Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  Most biblical scholars believe this is the high point in John’s gospel because this is where Jesus’ identity is truly known.  When Thomas gets it, he gets it.  No one else has offered such devotion or recognized divinity in Jesus.  Thomas holds out for an experience of Jesus with skepticism, and only then does he make his statement of faith.  But it is faith.
          Jesus pronounces a blessing upon all who have not seen and yet who believe.  I wonder, do you suppose there is also blessing for all those who have not seen, yet struggle with faith?  It has been said that faith is more a journey than a destination.  Where is the blessing for those of us who are still on the journey, which I suppose really includes all of us?

Jeff Wolfe is a graduate of ESR and is the pastoral minister at First Friends/ Richmond,Indiana.

Pin It


  1. Thanks very much for this post, Jeff.

    If Thomas had a "problem" it wasn't that he doubted. I've often thought he responded to grief at the death of his friend, Jesus, by isolating himself from the very community that could have held him in that pain. Thus, he was nowhere to be found during the early post-resurrection appearances.

    Stigmatizing the man because of a question has led to valorizing certainty and suppressing (whether through institutional power or self-imposed internal compulsion) wondering and critique as well as doubt.

    Doubt is related to naming honestly our world and questioning the answers that are supposed to suffice. Allow me to suggest another angle to complexify this somewhat: suppressing doubt not only leads to dishonesty, it also leads to the loss of imagination. Dreamers of all sorts: poets, lovers, activists, pastors, imagine another world, other possibilities. In order to do that well, one must cultivate a kind of doubt. To dream and imagine requires one to doubt that is all there is the narration of reality offered by institutions, principalities and powers. If doubt is suppressed (devalued or shamed away), not only do we lose the capacity to name honesty what we see and know to be true--or think we know to be true--it also means the managers of grand social narratives silence those who wonder out loud about another way.

  2. Sorry, there is a confusing sentence in my comments above that I bungled by successive (but not successful) editing!

    "To dream and imagine requires we doubt the claim that 'all there is' is the narration of reality offered to us by institutions, principalities and powers."

  3. I wonder, my Friend, if all questions of faith are truly doubt. Yes, doubt is a term all of us use when the answers given don't make sense. I propose another facet to your pondering: are all questions, doubt? Could they actually be the catalyst for further analysis, of deepening the quest for a sense of Divine? Like you, I am not easy with pat answers. I want to delve into my questions. What mysteries may I uncover as I do? More so, what questions do you provide for me today?

    I like Thomas because he is not easily swayed. He has questions and is ok with them.

    I will miss you, Jeff. I love these kinds of conversations with you.


  4. I love your post, Jeff. I say this who feels called to a ministry of calling others into doubt. I think there's a lot of challenging to be done in the Society of Friends today and a need for more Thomases!

  5. you might like the following imagery:

    On my bike ride to work today I was trying to think about how this blog might sound to more conservative Christians and how it might appear to the rest of us. This was the analogy I came up with.

    If your faith and doctrine are like a beautiful house, with the clean lines of certainty and the firm foundation of God's Truth, then letting me into your house would be, I'd expect, quite unsettling. Because I'd always be looking at a wall and saying "Is this a load bearing wall? Let me knock it down to see!" Day in and day out, this is exactly what this blog would feel like. Me trying to knock down every wall in the house. In short, from this vantage point--inside a beautiful house--all my work appears to be inherently destructive, breaking down and tearing up this beautiful building. So of course you'd want me to stop that. You'd want to protect the house.

    But that's not really the best way to understand this blog. See, I had a nice house once. But a hurricane hit it. From a faith perspective I'm in a post-Katrina situation. All I have left is a bunch of rubble.

    So what I do here, week in and week out, is to try to piece this rubble back together. In any given post you'll see me holding up two broken pieces of faith and wondering "Do these go together?" Or, because much of what I find in the rubble is broken and beyond repair, you'll also find me in any given post bulldozing stuff out of the way to clear room for the faith I'm constructing.

    In short, when you read this blog you are watching a person pick through the rubble of his faith, a person trying to find anything useful that has been left behind.

    So if you come here already living in a nice house what I'm doing here is, given your fireside view, going to feel destructive to you. But if you realize I'm actually standing on a heap of rubble hopefully you'll see that what I'm doing is constructive. I'm building, I'm not tearing down.