Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doubt on Steroids

Then Jesus 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.” John 20:27

I’ve known some serious doubters in my time and quite often I’ve been one of them.

I’ve also known some frivolous doubters who simply wish to distinguish themselves from silly simpletons of faith. They think Christians view God as a white bearded misogynist who sits on a cloud behind pearly gates, glaring at Muslims and grumbling ominously about same sex marriages. 

Those who don’t believe this god exists are welcome to their atheism, and they would include most church attenders.

Some doubters, however, are merely intellectual posers. They find it cool to be an agnostic or atheist. It makes them look smarter than their church going friends and it declares their emancipation from pious, controlling parents.

And there are doubters who doubt out of laziness, either because they don’t wish to trouble themselves with deep questions about the meaning of life, or because it gives them an excuse to stay in bed on Sunday mornings.

But I’m not thinking about bush league doubters. I’m thinking about persons whose doubt is on steroids, mounting daily, cramping the synapses of their frontal cortex, torturing them with illusions of insight while shrinking their cerebral testicles.

For doubters such as this, Thomas is the patron saint. 

His was not the kind of doubt that enabled him to sleep late or feel superior to his believing friends.

His was a throbbing doubt, and the toothy grins of his fellow disciples tortured him. 

What did Thomas want to believe more than anything else? 

That Jesus was alive. 

What did he know could never happen? 

That a dead man could return to life. 

While his friends snickered, he continued to mourn.

Many of us share the pain of knowing a loved one is gone and can never return. The pain may fade slightly over the years, but it never goes away.

As is often the case in social media, I have a Facebook friend I’ve never met. She is a Baptist minister and prison chaplain who contacted me at the National Council of Churches to ask the council’s help in securing clemency for a death row inmate. Interventions from the Council and from the Pope did no good and the prisoner was executed, but I remained in touch with the chaplain in Facebook.

Shortly after the execution of the prisoner, the chaplain learned her young daughter had a particularly dangerous form of cancer. The mother decided to share her pain with her Facebook friends. For months, I was among those who prayed and laughed and wept as this child’s prognosis rose and fell. At first it seemed the chemotherapy was working. Then the cancer returned, and the doctors said one of her legs must be amputated. This was a tough decision for the mother of a child who wanted to be a dancer, but there was still hope the operation would save her life. Nevertheless, a year ago, this beautiful little girl died.

Not long ago, my friend placed this message on Facebook:
Not sure why I want my FB world to know, but I just need to share. I hurt. Being a bereaved mother sucks. I miss her smile, her crystal blue eyes and knowing how she would be thinking about the world. Not worth listing all the things I miss ... because it is every single thing. I know it isn’t realistic, but it doesn't stop my heart from screaming, “Please come home ... please ... I need you back.”
While his glib friends were smiling, Thomas the Doubter was feeling a pain akin to this. “Please come back home, Jesus, please, I need you back,” But as any sensible human being must, he would have added, “I know it isn’t realistic.” He doubted. And so would we.

Doubt is not a trifling thing. Doubt is pain. Doubt is facing the fact that we can never have what we want most, what we need most. Doubt is the ultimate darkness. It’s ironic that we have been raised to think of Thomas as a man of little faith, when in fact his doubts were logical. “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,” he said, “I will not believe.” It was a cry of agony, not arrogance.

In 2008, the National Council of Churches was observing the 100th anniversary of the founding of its predecessor organization, the Federal Council of Churches in the USA.

As webpage editor, I was assigned to develop a monthly series of “ecumenical moments” that highlighted special events in the history of the Council. 

I looked for leaders and events that called attention to the special ministries of the Council. There was Arthur Flemming, a Republican member of President Eisenhower’s cabinet who was an eloquent advocate for Civil Rights; Harold Stassen and J. Irwin Miller, often touted as men who should have been president of the United States; Cynthia Wedel, a pioneering advocate for women’s rights and a member of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women; Eugene Carson Blake, who linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr., on the 1963 “I have a dream” march with Washington.

All were persons of great faith and all were activists for peace, equal rights, and justice.

But as I leafed through the pages of Outlook, a magazine published by the Council from 1950 to 1953, I realized I was missing an important ministry not always associated with the National Council of Churches: evangelism.

I was surprised to discover the Council had a director of evangelism in the early fifties. He was a fiery, energetic preacher named Charles Templeton, who happened to be a good friend of Billy Graham. A long article in Outlook described Templeton’s homiletical zeal and remarkable success in winning souls for Jesus.

Yes! I thought. Perfect! What better example of the Council’s little known evangelical side? Was Templeton still alive? Was he still in the evangelism biz? I jumped on my computer and began searching for him.

I didn’t find Charles, but I found his son and gave him a call.

“I was just reading an old article about your dad’s years as evangelist for the National Council of Churches,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied, sounding interested.

“Is your dad still around?”

“He died in 2001.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You knew, right?”


“You knew he became an atheist and left the Council?”


So much for the NCC evangelism story.

Digging a little further, I discovered Templeton had written a book in 1996, Farewell to God, My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

The book includes an account of his encounter with his old pal, Billy Graham.
In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.” 
“I don’t accept that,” Billy replied.
Charles Templeton had become a man of doubt. And he was no facile doubter. He was a doubter on steroids.

But, like Thomas, his doubts brought him pain.

Lee Strobel, the Christian journalist and author of The Case for Faith, recounts an interview he had with Templeton when he was in his 80s.

Strobel asked the aging atheist to update his thoughts about Jesus. Templeton’s response surprised him.
“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”
“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life ... I know it may sound strange, but I have to say , I adore him.  Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus.
“In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”
That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, “I miss him!”
What happens to the doubters when they near the end of their lives?

Thomas does not reappear in the canonical bible after his encounter with Jesus, but tradition says he sailed to India in A.D. 52 to found some of the world’s oldest Christian churches. It shows what a doubter can do when his faith is renewed.

But – and one might sigh, Alas! – Jesus never appeared to Charles Templeton to invite him to feel his wounds. Templeton remained in doubt to the end of his life.

But Templeton’s words to Strobel remind us of something Frederick Buechner wrote in The Faces of Jesus:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

At the end of his life, Charles Templeton did not retract his doubt. But his words suggest he never lost the ants in his pants, either.

And whatever state his faith was in when he died, it is evident he never lost his fascination – or adoration – for Jesus, “the most important human being who ever existed.”

Jesus has that way of grabbing hold of one, even one who has never encountered his resurrected body or touched his wounds.

What does Thomas have in common with Charles the Doubter and all the other doubters-on-steroids who struggle to understand the secrets of the world?

I think the answer is this:

We may have periods in our lives – long periods, endless periods, when we lose touch with God or Jesus.

But God’s Holy Spirit never lets go of us.

And whether we are able to speak the words or not, whether we know it or not, there will never be a time we are out of the loving presence of our Lord and our God.
In the picture above, the man standing between Charles Templeton and Billy Graham is Torrey Johnson, founder of Youth for Christ; the three are planning an evangelistic trip to Europe.)

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