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April 8, 2018

“Called to Unbelief so that Faith May Take New Forms”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Open our eyes that we might see the value of our doubt, Amen.<<

Back in February, Jessica Hindman wrote an op-ed recommending Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” to readers.[1]  Hindman begins that piece by pointing out that Vivaldi’s “Winter” is not as well-known as Vivaldi’s “Spring.”  “‘Spring,’” she writes, “has more than twice as many film credits as any of its counterparts in [Vivaldi’s] Baroque masterpiece, ‘The Four Seasons.’”  “‘Spring,’” she continues, “is weddings and day spas, your toddler’s I.Q.-inflating sleep aid.  ‘Spring’ is … sassy, classical … , music to accompany an anniversary toast at an expensive French restaurant.”  But “Winter,” she writes, “is the most carnal [of The Four Seasons].  Finger-trembling trills on the violin’s thin, high-pitched E-string emulate shivering and teeth-chattering.  The violin solo runs up and down the ebony fingerboard, conjuring the feeling of feet slipping on thin ice, bodies crashing into snowy embankments.  But there is also comfort:  the warmth of the hearth fire, tranquil and legato on the bow; lazy days punctuated only by the pizzicato of ice droplets on the roof.  It is difficult music for a difficult season … .”

Hindman says she first heard “Winter” as a four year old in 1985, while watching a children’s film.  “Having heard the music,” she writes, “I was desperate to hear it again. … Before I fell asleep each night, I mentally played the few notes I could remember. … ”  She begged her parents to pay for violin lessons so she could learn to play the piece.  “[More than] ten years of lessons later,” she says, “my violin skills won me college acceptances and scholarships.  I decamped to New York City, where I planned to study music. … [But] despite a lifetime of wanting to, I have never been able to play ‘Winter’ [the way I think it should be played, she admits]; it comes too fast, in too challenging a key.  The finger-tangling high notes in the first movement require a dexterity in F minor that I was never fully able to achieve.  For now, I am content to listen to recordings while silently following the sheet music, my fingers twitching involuntarily … .  The companion sonnet [to the piece, she concludes,] ends on these lines:  This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.”

…Hindman’s piece struck a chord – so to speak – with me this week not just because, living in the northeast in April, the seasons of winter and spring are battling daily for dominance, which makes me think of Vivaldi, but also because the Lectionary gospel reading for the Sunday after the warmth and light of Easter is always the same:  the story of doubting Thomas, whose stubborn questions dampened the other disciples’ Easter elation with a wintry chill.  Thomas was the skeptic in the crowd, refusing to believe the empty tomb story unless he met the risen Christ for himself.  The way John, today’s gospel writer, tells the story, you can almost feel a shift in mood from the spring of Easter to the winter of Thomas’ doubt.  John’s Easter story is told in four scenes.  Scene I:  Easter morning when Mary Magdalene first peered into the empty tomb and then ran to tell Peter and the other disciples that the body was missing.  Peter and another disciple raced to the tomb to see for themselves, but kept quiet out of fear.  Scene II:  Mary stays behind in a garden near the tomb, and mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener before realizing who she was speaking with.  She then tells the other disciples that she has seen the Lord.  Scene III:  all of the disciples except Thomas are gathered together when Jesus appears in their midst, and they are all filled with God’s spirit and with excitement.  Scene IV:  today’s reading.  The elated disciples share with Thomas the news of Easter’s spring, but Thomas chills the air with his steadfast empiricism:  he insists on seeing and touching before believing.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

I’m not sure why the Lectionary committee – that committee comprised of representatives from every major Protestant denomination – chose this wintry reading about doubt to follow the springtime of Easter.  The Revised Common Lectionary, which we typically follow in our church, contains scripture readings on a three-year cycle to match the seasons of the church calendar.  The readings change week-to-week and year to year, except on handful of occasions.  We hear the same readings every year at special times like Christmas and Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and Pentecost; and every year on the Sunday after Easter, we hear the story of Doubting Thomas from John’s gospel.  It’s a story with a special history in our tradition.  For centuries, Christian theologians have read into Thomas’ doubt the questions of their times:[2]  third century Christians saw in doubting Thomas the trinitarian debates about whether God could die on a cross and still be divine.  Medieval theologians saw in Thomas the metaphysical question about whether resurrection is even possible.  Mystics have seen in Thomas’ doubt what they call the “dark night of the soul” that can afflict any person of faith.  And on it goes.  Elaine Pagels of Princeton argues that the doubting Thomas story reflects debates within first century churches over the nature of faith.[3]  On one side, were the readers of John’s gospel who insisted on belief without the empirical evidence of seeing and touching.  John’s Jesus in our text for today says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  On the other side of the debate, were readers of the Gospel of Thomas – a text not found in our New Testament.  Thomas Christians insisted on belief informed by knowledge and discovery.  Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas says, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.”  (Some scholars have even argued that the Gospel of John was written as a response to the Gospel of Thomas).

Every Sunday after Easter we are reminded of the timelessness of Thomas’ doubt – relevant in every age as Christians have wrestled with the tension between firm faith and constant seeking, between believing and continuing to search for answers.  So, maybe we need to hear this story every year after Easter – a story “with its own delights,” to paraphrase Jessica Hindman when she quotes the sonnet from Winter’s Allegro.  The Doubting Thomas story is refreshingly true, timelessly true – true because, as commentator Serene Jones writes,[4] Thomas “is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside [all of us] – the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof.”  Thomas reminds us, she goes on, that “doubt follows faith’s lead, stalking its edges with quizzical uncertainties, poking at belief’s soft spots … .”[5]  The story of Doubting Thomas is a reminder that there’s a little bit of Thomas’ wintry skepticism inside all of us – it’s a story that welcomes such skepticism; it’s a reminder that the life of faith isn’t always, or perhaps isn’t mostly, a life of springtime Easters with trumpets and fanfares and Handel’s Hallelujah chorus resounding – a reminder that spring and winter, faith and doubt wage a constant struggle inside the April of our souls.

And maybe we need to hear about Thomas’ doubt every Sunday after Easter, because it reminds us that authentic faith cannot be forced.  In his book Insurrection, Peter Rollins tells a funny story about trying to force belief.[6]  “At the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland,” writes Rollins, “a major piece of funding was secured from the European Union in order to help train the … [Royal Ulster Constabulary, the] RUC.  As a result, some of the RUC’s top officers were sent over to America to work alongside the FBI and the CIA in series of team-building exercises.  When they arrived, the officers met with their counterparts and were then driven to a large forest … .  Each group was given instructions to go into the forest and retrieve a rabbit.  The FBI went first.  Ten [people], fully armed, threw canisters of tear gas into the forest before storming into the trees.  After about ten minutes of intense shouting, the sound of a single gunshot rang through the air.  Moments later the FBI returned with a small rabbit … .  Next the CIA had their opportunity to prove themselves.  In contrast to the FBI, they disappeared into the forest without a sound.  Thirty minutes [of silence] passed … .  Eventually the faint echo of a single twig snapping broke the silence.  Shortly afterwards the CIA merged from the undergrowth with a … rabbit, not a mark on its body.  Finally it was the RUC’s turn.  The[y] … put on their flak jackets, loaded their weapons, and charged into the forest with batons raised.  Eventually [after some time,] they emerged from amidst the trees dragging behind them a huge bear.  The instructor shook his head in disbelief and said, ‘Firstly, you were in there for three weeks; and secondly, that’s not a rabbit, that’s a bear.’  But the largest RUC [officer] simply smiled at the instructor, then turned to the bear and looked deep into its eyes.  Immediately, the bear … shouted, ‘I’m a rabbit!  I’m a rabbit!’”

Yes, maybe we welcome Thomas’ bold, post-Easter doubting because it reminds us that faith can’t be forced, that faith and doubt, as theologian Paul Tillich once said, are of a piece; doubt can be the engine of faith.  Faith reaches higher, opening us to awe and wonder, while doubt keeps our feet planted in the material world, keeps us seeking and searching and asking questions.  They’re like two sides of a coin – like spring and winter wrestling each April in Ithaca.  Asking questions, demanding more, “‘purifies faith,’” says George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  “‘Faith without [doubt, he says,] risks descending into superstition,’” while doubt “‘without faith builds a world without windows, doors or skylights.’”[7]  “[D]oubt,” writes one columnist, is “honest”;[8] doubt “compel[s] [faith] to renew itself.”  “Certainty is so … overrated,” wrote another columnist.[9]  So, maybe we need to hear about Thomas every year after Easter, because, as writer Boualem Sansal points out in his novel 2084, “religion weakens and loses some of its [potency] if nothing comes along to give it a rough time.”[10]  Maybe the spring of Easter faith looks brighter when roughed up by winter’s chill of doubt.  Yes, maybe the story of doubting Thomas is essential to faith, because as poet Christian Wiman writes, “sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”[11]  Doubting and seeking and questioning are the spurs that can jolt faith toward resurrection life.

…What I love most about this story we hear every Sunday after Easter is how Jesus responds to his doubting disciple.  Jesus is unfazed by Thomas’ doubts, unthreatened by Thomas’ persistent questions.  The disciples, including Thomas, writes John, were huddled together in a locked room when Easter Jesus marches right through the locked door, appears before them all, saying “Peace be with you,” heads straight for Thomas, and displays his crucifixion wounds, determined to reach this “stalwart skeptic”[12] – a scene depicted so powerfully in that Caravaggio painting of Thomas touching the risen Christ.  It’s a story that tells me that Christ meets us where we’re at on the journey of faith – a story that suggests to us that whenever we hear the words “peace be with you,” and see an honest and open display of brokenness – hands, feet, and sides marred by violence – we can find some answers.  And notice that these answers don’t come to Thomas in private.  Christ shows himself in the context of community, the community of his committed followers – committed to spreading the spirit of peace, and unafraid to speak about crucifixion wounds in lives torn apart by hardship and tragedy.  This story of doubting Thomas is shamelessly honest about doubt; and equally honest about how the divine is revealed in communities of peace and vulnerability.

…Let me close this morning with two quotes from writers I respect on the topic of doubt.  The first quote comes from Serene Jones, who writes about the ways Christ appears to us.  “One moment [Christ] may come to us dressed in golden garb,” she writes, “calling us to celebrate joyously the richness of … faith[’s] promises.  The next, however, he may come wearing beggar’s rags, reminding us that the love which saves is vulnerable and costly, and that the glory which awaits us is humble in texture and well worn in feel.  At still other times, he may come to us wrapped in the wool shawl of the wise old grandmother who simply holds us as we weep.  Whatever his appearance may be, though, we will know it is he if inside those golden garbs, street-faded rags, or warm knitted cape, we find not a logically argued response to our questioning faith but a surprising proclamation of peace and touching love that is stronger than even violent death itself.”[13]

The second quote comes from Christian Wiman, whose faith was rekindled after a cancer diagnosis.  Wiman writes, “We may think it would be a great deal easier if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side [in the people around us].  What we call doubt is [actually] … the faith that is latent within [us.][14]  Amen.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-vivaldis-winter.html

[2] Following Serene Jones, “Theological Perspective on John 20:19-31,” in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, vol. 2; Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), 400.

[3] See Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief:  The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York:  Vintage, 2003).

[4] Jones, “Theological Perspective, 400.

[5] Jones, “Theological Perspective,” 402.

[6] Peter Rollins, Insurrection:  To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine (New York:  Howard Books, 2011), 8-9.

[7] Quoted in:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/25/opinion/faith-christmas-religion.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fpeter-wehner&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection

[8] https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/26/god-is-a-question-not-an-answer/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/26/opinion/julia-baird-doubt-as-a-sign-of-faith.html

[10] Boualem Sansal, 2084:  The End of the World (New York:  Europa, 2017), 129.

[11] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 61.

[12] Jones, “Theological Perspective,” 402.

[13] Jones, “Theological Perspective,” 404.

[14] I have merged two quotes about faith and doubt from Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 77 and 12.