Sermon: Doubt and Dogma (1)

A sermon preached in anticipation of a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed.

Sunday 11 January 2009

 

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Today in Canada, as people think about the claims of religion,

Doubt is very much in fashion. 

Today in Canada, as people think about traditional Christian claims about Jesus,

Doubt is considered the sophisticated option.

Today in Canada, as people think about the beliefs handed down from generation to generation in the church,

Doubt is thought to be the most responsible position.

 

The fact is that we in western culture live with more than three hundred years of philosophical thought, of literary output, and of historical scholarship – much of which pushes toward doubt, which elevates doubt, which calls into question the things that Christians have confessed and believed for hundreds of years. Otherwise put, we live in a sceptical society – at least, a society that is sceptical about religious claims.

 

This doubt find expression in such books as those recently published by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – their titles are God is not great and The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, of course, are products of their time. They are products of these more than three hundred years in which doubt first gained credence and credibility and in which doubt finally leapt to the front of the class. Today in western societies, doubt about Christianity is fashionable. Doubt is thought to be sophisticated. Doubt is seen as the only logical option for modern people.

 

In view of this great tradition of doubt, and in view of this general scepticism about Christian belief, is there any surprise that many of us wrestle with doubts. Let’s face it – many of us struggle with doubts and questions as we think about our Christian faith. We are described as a people of faith, but we often live with the reality of doubt. No less a figure than Mother Theresa, it has recently been revealed, struggled with decades of doubt and darkness – for so long she was without any sense of God’s presence with and for her. And in some respects, at least, doubt is our experience.

But why do we begin this morning with doubt? Well, in a few weeks I am going to begin a series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. From week to week, all the way into the June, we are going to look at our Christian faith as it is expressed in the Apostles’ Creed – we’re going to look at what the Church believes.

 

But as we look at that ancient confession of faith, that ancient statement of Christian belief, it is perhaps helpful to acknowledge the possibility and reality of doubt. Though not all of us, at least some of us, when we stand to confess the Apostles’ Creed, face doubts in our minds. Doubts that might take this form:

            There’s no evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.

            How could someone be conceived by the Holy Spirit?

            Why should we believe in this God and not in some other God, or no God at all?

           

These challenges, these questions, these doubts, in fact arise from every quarter of our culture. It’s not that doubt didn’t exist before the most recent centuries – it is rather that doubt about religious things has come to define our society. And we are not immune from these doubts. They work their way into our hearts and minds – they have worked their way into the church. Doubt is, in some sense, a fixture in our culture, and to some extent also in the Presbyterian Church.

 

Now in one short sermon I can’t possibly address all of the doubts we might have – nor am I capable of addressing them. And I don’t intend to try.

 

But before coming to our scripture passage for today, perhaps there are a couple of general things that should be said. The first is that we cannot, and should not take too seriously the doubt and scepticism of the culture around us. Of course that is easier said than done. But what we should realize is that Christian communities have good answers to many of the questions that are being asked, to many of the doubts that are being articulated. And perhaps ironically, one of the most effective ways we can respond to doubt and scepticism of our culture is precisely by raising doubts about the thinking and assumptions of those who question our faith. You see, very often those who bring objections against Christian belief haven’t been sufficiently critical of their own thinking and assumptions. They themselves have a misplaced certainty about what they think and believe.

 

One other general comment I would offer is that there are resources to help us push back against the scepticism of our culture, to deal with doubt. In many ways the church has failed to answer the doubts and challenges offered – we have often ignored them or fearfully hidden our heads in the sand. But there are resources to help us think through these questions. This morning I’ve put a reference for just one book on the announcements insert – a book by Timothy Keller, minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It’s entitled The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. There are many other helpful books like it.

 

In this vein I should also mention an article in this month’s Presbyterian Record by Joseph McLelland. He is emeritus Professor at McGill and at Presbyterian College. In his article he reminds us that while science can tell us a great deal about the physical world we inhabit, it can’t give us anywhere near a full picture of what it is to be human – the physical sciences cannot tell us what beauty is, or what love is, or what the meaning of human existence is. The physical sciences cannot tell us anything about realities (like God) that are not a part of the material world of cause and effect. We in western societies remain much enamoured with scientific rationality, but this rationality has a limited place. Faith, a particular way of knowing, also has its appropriate, legitimate place.

 

But these general questions must remain somewhat in the background this morning – today we are exploring the specific reality of doubt, the experience of doubt. And this morning we come up against our own doubts about Christian faith – our sometime doubt that God created this world in delight and joy; our sometime doubt that Jesus actually rose from the dead; our sometime doubt that the darkness and wrong-headedness of our lives is transformed through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

In Living Faith, the most recent Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada there is a section dedicated to the reality of doubt. In section 6.2 of Living Faith we read: “Since we are to love God with our minds, as well as our hearts, the working through of doubt is part of our growth in faith. The church includes many who struggle with doubt.”

 

Perhaps you are one who struggles with doubts about Christian faith, doubts about God’s creation of the world, or about God’s embrace of the world in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are one who wrestles with, struggles with, the belief that Jesus is God with us. You want to see your way through to faith – you want to know the certainty and assurance of faith, but it seems so hard.

 

This morning perhaps we can begin to find some encouragement in the realization that even in scripture we find individuals who experience doubt.

 

Here we turn to our New Testament reading from the gospel of John. And doing so we come face to face with Thomas – that famous doubter. Chapter 20 of John’s gospel, we should know, deals with the time immediately following the resurrection of Jesus. The women have just discovered the empty tomb; Peter and John have run to see for themselves; the risen Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene; then in our reading for today Jesus makes an appearance among his disciples in the upper room. But of course Thomas wasn’t there in the upper room. And the gospel writer continues with these words:

So the other disciples told Thomas: “We have seen the Lord.” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 

Thomas sounds an awful lot like a modern, scientific rationalist, doesn’t he? Unless he can see it with his own eyes, and unless he can feel it with his own hands, he will not believe. On this question, at least, he doesn’t trust anything but his own senses – his eyes, his ears, his hands. He will not believe in the resurrection until he sees and touches the living Jesus for himself.

 

What we have in Thomas, within the gospel narrative itself, is one embodies the possibility and reality of doubt – the possibility and reality of doubt in those who are followers of Jesus. Did he really rise from the dead? How is that possible? I haven’t seen it – I can’t believe it.

 

The inclusion of Thomas within the narrative is a reminder that the experience of doubt does not disqualify us from following Jesus. As Living Faith says, doubt is almost inevitably a part of our growth in faith. There may be times when we are not certain, or assured, of God’s presence with us. There may be moments when we are not certain, or assured, that Jesus Christ, God’s beloved son, actually rose from the dead. The life of faith will almost inevitably be a life attended by moments of doubt.

 

But notice that Thomas is not left in his doubt.

 

We read: “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God.”

 

From the mouth of the one who doubted; from the mouth of the one who was a skeptic; comes a dramatic confession of faith. Thomas the doubter becomes Thomas the believer.

 

But what about you? And what about me? We don’t have the privilege of seeing the risen Jesus in the flesh. We cannot touch the scars in his hands, or put our hand in his side, where the spear pierced him. When we doubt the possibility of a risen Lord; when we doubt the possibility that this Jesus has decisively answered the darkness and wrong-headedness of our lives, how are we to move from doubt to faith.

 

Jesus himself shows awareness of our difficulty, when he says to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

With these words Jesus reveals that in some sense he understands the unique challenge we face – the challenge of believing in him without the kind of evidence our world often demands – the challenge of believing without the kind of certainty that we think science, for example, offers. Jesus anticipates our difficulty, but also expresses the conviction that there is a way through this difficulty. He expresses the conviction that belief remains possible for us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

 

So the question before us is in some sense a stark one. How are we to move beyond doubt to faith? If we are having trouble believing in the risen Jesus Christ and his restorative power for a broken world, how might we begin to make the transition from scepticism to a confident knowledge that God in Christ has been raised and has raised us to new life and joy and hope?

 

Well, alas, here there is no easy answer.

 

However, a strong hint toward an answer is given in the concluding two verses of John chapter 20. The narrator writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

 

It is through encounter with the narratives of Jesus, the stories of Jesus, that we might pass through doubt to faith. As we are confronted with the story of his life, as we wrestle with his announcement of God’s kingdom, as we see him healing the sick and proclaiming God’s justice, as we read of his resurrection life, as we see the church formed through his breathing of the Holy Spirit. Through encounter with this narrative, we might come to the assurance, the knowledge that he is God for us, God with us. That in him is fullness of life.

 

But this is also to say that when we wrestle with doubt, there is no formula that may be applied with assured results, there is no syllogistic argument with a necessary conclusion of faith – there is only an invitation to wrestle – to wrestle more deeply, to wrestle more prayerfully, with this Jesus. As we consider this invitation to wrestle, we may also perhaps find encouragement in the fact that Jesus himself knew what Thomas needed in order to believe. Without prompting, without being asked, Jesus said to him – “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” He knew what Thomas needed in order to pass from doubt to faith.

 

The one through whom all things were made, and who is the light of the world, also knows the doubts we experience – he knows what we need to pass from doubt to faith. He is prepared to answer our own need in heart and mind. He says to us: “Do not doubt, only believe.” As we prayerfully wrestle with him, as we prayerfully wrestle with his story, he will give us what we ask and need on the way to faith.

 

And with Thomas we might suddenly find ourselves making a spontaneous declaration: “My Lord and my God!” Faith makes its appearance. Knowledge of God and of Christ becomes ours: “My Lord and my God”

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