It’s the feast of St Thomas today–July 3rd being the date Jerome chose to celebrate him.
Doubting Thomas is the uncomplimentary title that Thomas has often been tagged with, and his story is often told as a rebuke to those who doubt, or perhaps more kindly, an encouragement to have more faith. But it would be more accurate, I think, to call him Honest Thomas. He was a man of integrity; he was the disciple that asked the awkward questions everyone else was thinking but didn’t say out loud. “We do not know where you are going, Lord, how can we know the way?” asked Thomas, at the Last Supper. And by the same token he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t really; he didn’t say the words everyone else was saying just to feel part of the crowd. It’s hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and it was brave of him, when he found he was the only one not to be convinced of the resurrection, not to go off and be by himself. For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith, their joy, their stories of visions of the resurrected Christ, must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around. Eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.
Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced, and finding that the people and the ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. To admit to doubt is to stay alive; there is nothing more wooden than a so-called “faith” that is really a repetition of ideas through obedience, coercion, or the desire to fit in, rather than conviction.
Dostoyevsky described the difference well, when he wrote: “I do not believe as a child does; my Hosanna has passed through the crucible of doubt.”
“Dubious questioning”, wrote Coleridge, “is a much better evidence than that senseless deadness which most take for believing. People that know nothing…have no doubts. Never be afraid to doubt, if only you have the disposition to believe, and doubt in order that you may end in believing the truth.”
Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks says that “In Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of a lack of depth.” Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, he says, “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”
If you are looking for certainty, then I guess you want to eliminate doubt. But faith is not certainty: it’s the pursuit of truth that must inevitably include episodes of doubt. And those episodes are, in the end, what open us up to fresh revelation. So Thomas’s doubt is not a rebuke, I think, but an encouragement to us to recognize that faith is the uncomfortable space between asking the awkward questions, and waiting on the answers.
(Originally posted in 2009)