Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving. - Frederick Buechner
Once in my pre-literate, pre-kindergarten period, I was playing with crayons and wrote randomly chosen block letters on a piece of paper.
I showed the paper to my father and asked him if the letters said anything.
“Yeah,” he said. “It says ‘doubt’.”
I stared dumbfounded at the paper as if it was a revelation on a golden plate.
“Doubt!” That was an over-used word in our house, though I had never seen it written down. When Dad said “doubt” he intended it as a kinder, gentler form of “NO,” and he said it a lot. It was his way of letting us down easy when we proposed some unlikely pleasure, such as asking if we could begin dinner with dessert or if it would be good to keep garter snakes in our underwear drawer. “I doubt it,” he’d say, turning aside to conceal a grin.
Dad’s doubts never turned to yeses, and my siblings and I had no doubt that doubt always meant no. Doubt was a potent word in our young lives, and when the word appeared haphazardly by my own tiny hand on a piece of paper, I was stunned.
In fact, it seemed miraculous. My memories of that childhood incident are extraordinarily clear. It is as if God visited me when I was 4 to reveal that the main element of life is doubt, along with all its components of hesitation, uncertainty, misgiving, and disbelief.
There are few things in life that I have been unable to doubt. For about three days after the 1959 premier of Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I thought it would be charming to believe in leprechauns, but I soon gave it up because their existence seemed patently unlikely, at least in Central New York. My mother believed black panthers roamed the Catskills – that is actual panthera parda indigenous to Africa, Central America and Asia – but I doubt it. I doubt that UFO’s are alien space craft. I doubt the existence of Yetis, Sasquatch, abominable snow persons. I doubt the Loch Ness Monster.
Some of my dismal doubts put me at odds with friends and loved ones, and my spouse believes I am either soft headed or arrogant to believe President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman. But there are few things I doubt with greater conviction than the notion that the 1963 assassination was born in a conspiracy.
Unlike my other doubts, this goes beyond obduracy. In recent years, most of the members of the Dallas Secret Service Detail – the nearest eyewitnesses to the murder – have published their memoirs to refute what they regard as ridiculous rumors that shots were fired from any place other than the sniper’s nest in the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Agent Clint Hill, who this month published Mrs. Kennedy and Me: An Intimate Memoir, heaps more doubt on the conspiracy theory.
Hill (known to history as the agent who jumped on the back of Kennedy’s car) says he recently visited the sniper’s nest in the Schoolbook Depository to get a clearer image of what happened. He emerged more certain than ever that the fatal shots came from Oswald’s perch. “I spent some time out on Elm Street, in the Dealey Plaza area, in the school book depository,” Hill told Paul Brandus of the West Wing Report, “and I finally came to the conclusion that, after looking at everything, that what I did on Nov. 22, 1963, I did as much as I could do. I couldn’t have done more.”
I don’t doubt that at all, and I pray that after 54 years, Hill and the others close to the tragedy will begin to find some peace. But despite the agents’ certainty that Oswald acted alone, millions of people doubt that Kennedy died solely at the hands of a lone nut. Every online review of the Hill book, or an earlier book called The Kennedy Detail, is followed by reader comments disputing the agents’ claims and reasserting the belief (long ago dismissed by forensic experts) that if Kennedy fell backwards, he must have been shot from the front.
No doubt the doubts will persist for centuries. And no doubt – as God revealed unto me in the medium of crayon and paper – doubt is an essential ingredient of life and faith.
Doubt will be on the minds of millions of Christians this week. In most liturgical traditions, the second week of Easter focuses on the biblical account of St. Thomas’ awkward encounter with Jesus following the disciple’s dogged disbelief that Jesus had risen from the dead.
This week Thomas will be the topic of millions of sermons, many of them acknowledging the profound faith that followed his doubt. He is, after all, a missionary whose journeys surpassed St. Paul’s in mileage, and he is the founder of ancient Christian churches in India and South Asia.
But it’s hard to sermonize about Thomas without reflecting, just a little, on the ignominy of his doubt. Thomas reminds all of us that it’s easy to be a believer once you’ve touched the skin of the resurrected Jesus. But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus tells Thomas (John 20:29b), in an observation that was hardly necessary.
The category of those “who have not seen” is pretty broad and it includes us.
In this age of skepticism and doubt, we are self-consciously aware of how difficult it is for us who have never seen the resurrected Jesus to “come to believe”?
But there are records of Christians who didn’t see it and still had no trouble believing.
Another scripture that is often read on the Second Sunday of Easter refers to the earliest Christian congregations described in Acts 4:32-25
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
These are incredible commitments for a group of believers “who have not seen,” although they may have received special inspiration from the “great power” with which the apostles testified of their own encounters with the resurrected Jesus.
Even so, it’s daunting – frightening even – to contemplate the sacrifices these Christians made for their faith. They gave up their real estate, their pastures, their livestock, and their fortunes for the sake of the church. They pooled the proceeds, gave all their assets to the central authority, and rejoiced as they saw their former opulence distributed among the poor.
As a journalist, I’m leery of making sweeping generalities, but I assert this with confidence: this kind of faith is virtually non-existent today, at least in my liberal Protestant tradition.
The concept of redistributing wealth – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – is as Christian as you can get. But we are also mindful that it’s as Marxist as you can get and we’ve buried the awful thought in the deepest recesses of our psychic catacombs.
The idea of giving up all your property in the name of a higher power sounds crazy and we have the anecdotes to prove it.
Who can forget Heaven’s Gate, a San Diego UFO cult led by Marshall Applewhite. On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who gave away everything they owned and committed suicide in anticipation of an alien space craft they believed was following the Comet Hale-Bopp, then nearing its passage with earth.
This is too bizarre and too tragic to be funny. Heaven’s Gate was a community influenced by the “great power” with which Applewhite and other disciples spoke of the heavenly world to come.
Heaven’s Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled, and that the only chance to survive was to leave the planet immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined “suicide” in their own context to mean “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered,” and believed that their “human” bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey. They shed their earthly belongings and drank the kool-aid.
Were these people crazy?
Indisputably. But were they crazier than the Christians in Acts who gave up everything they had for a pie-in-the-sky promise of immortality?
I think the main difference between Heaven’s Gaters and New Testament Christians is that the latter group was more experienced in the art of doubting. If the Heaven’s Gate community had been better doubters - if they had exhibited a little more healthy skepticism - they might have double-doctored Applewhite and sent him to the Cuckoo’s Nest. And they might all be alive today.
Doubt was the common thread that brought the early Christians together, and doubt prepared their minds and hearts for the truth that was to follow.
Thomas was neither the first nor the only disciple to doubt the resurrection until he had seen Jesus. In the biblical accounts, all the disciples doubted all the time, even after Jesus patiently explained to them that he would be killed and would rise again. The women who visited Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning betrayed their doubts when they brought spices to embalm his body. When they found the tomb empty, their doubts persuaded them his body had been stolen. The doubting disciples rushed to the tomb enraged by the terrible crime of body snatching. When doubting Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Jesus in the garden, she thought he was a gardener.
Doubt, suspicion, and mistrust abounded. And the doubt persisted until the Holy Spirit cast the scales from their eyes and enabled them to see God’s truth.
There’s no shame in doubting. Doubt steers us away from false prophets and prepares our hearts to accept God’s true messiah.
“Therefore,” Peter preached to the doubters on the square in Jerusalem, “let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)
And only then did the light begin to flicker in the darkness of their minds.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit.”
The seed of faith was planted in doubt, watered in doubt, nurtured in doubt, and sprouted in doubt.
But when the plant pokes its way into the sunlight, it bursts forth in an exquisite beauty.
Is that the way God always intended it? That the darkness engulfs the faintest embers of faith until, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s eternal truth ignites as a thousand suns?
No doubt. And doubt is where it begins.