04.03.2016 Preaching Text: “Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)
Today is commonly referred to as “Low Sunday,” a designation that reflects the contrast between today and last Sunday’s great Easter celebration (the Day of Resurrection). Its theme is always the same: doubt.
And every year the lectionary includes the “Doubting Thomas” narrative as our favorite disbelieving disciple refuses to accept that Christ has risen until he has seen and touched for himself Jesus’ “mark of the nails.” Again we’re challenged to consider the meaning of doubt. Is it a problem or not?
I’m not, however, inclined to discuss this again this morning. I’m already on record as saying that doubt is a necessary part of faith. It is indeed one of the ways we seek to understand that which is by nature hard to understand. And what about belief in an unseen God isn’t?
I prefer to discuss not whether doubt is helpful but just how common it is in everyday human affairs. The question is: what should we in the church do about it?
To doubt is to be human. What a sorry lot we’d be if we never doubted. That would mean we’d take everything at face value, naively, gullibly. No, doubt is a necessary part of the search for truth.
Then again, Jesus says to Thomas after finally appearing a second time to the disciples (this time while Thomas is present), “Do not doubt but believe.”
Clearly, Jesus here is affirming that faith is preferable to doubt. It is, as we know, the very basis of Christian witness. Jesus adds to the effect, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Faith therefore is preeminent. And though doubt be may a necessary aspect of faith, it’s not the loftiest. Jesus thus implies, as does the author of the gospel, that Jesus’ followers – those who believe – should assist those who don’t, those who doubt.
This has obvious implications for the church, perhaps especially today. In our increasingly secular society, disbelief, doubt, not faith, is ascendant. What should the church do to address this problem?
Should we go out on the street corners thumping our Bibles? Should we seek legislation to assert Christian legitimacy? Should we stamp our feet and relegate non-believers to the outer realm where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth? Should we threaten, cajole, and demand?
Or should we thoughtfully engage those outside the faith? Should we offer considered arguments and provide helpful, personal testimonies that prove the merits of our belief? What should we tell our friends and neighbors to help them overcome their doubts and disbelief, that they might join in the blessings of Easter faith?
Considering these two options (though there are others), most of us would choose the latter – thoughtful outreach and life-affirming witness.
Yet this approach requires not only that we take our faith seriously but that we recognize its essential value and merit, of just how critical it is, not only in our lives, but in our society and world as well.
This seems increasingly difficult to do in contemporary society where faith is seen increasingly as a purely private affair. Secular society does grant us the freedom to worship as we please (a freedom notably absent in some parts of our world), but we’re mostly supposed to keep it to ourselves.
Attitudes based on faith are not permitted in the “public square” – that metaphorical place where society hashes out its particular values and norms – but only within the privacy of our own home or church. Lamentably, we Christians, well-mannered and well-behaved as we are, often unwittingly buy right into this moral and spiritual cul-du-sac.
Which is to say that in some ways we’ve become “functional Hegelians.” G.W.F. Hegel was and remains a highly influential German philosopher who lived in the late 18th century and early 19th century.
His idea, in short, was that religion as we know it is a holdover from humanity’s primordial past. At the dawn of humanity, in other words, humans needed to create gods to help them cope with the inscrutable mysteries of life.
But now, with advances in science and reason, we can explain many of those erstwhile mysteries (and will figure out the rest in the future). While it may be understandable that pre-rational, pre-scientific humankind needed gods, we today don’t. God is but a comforting though false projection of the human mind.
For Hegel, the Spirit was no longer to be found in the church, but in the culture. And that culture is moving inexorably toward perfection, albeit in stages.
Each age, according to Hegel, improves on the previous one, making adjustments and correcting its “internal contradictions.” What Christians once saw as the Kingdom of God moving in and through the church, which then acted as leaven to the surrounding culture, is now replaced by a culture that, on its own and with inevitably, is progressing ever-closer to the Promised Land.
The real action now by-passes the church which no longer has any formative role. It has done its job and has now been led out to pasture. It is a mere relic of a need now wholly satisfied by culture’s evolutionary and upward-moving twists and turns.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, born of faith, once thought to be the foundation and source of the West’s cultural self-identity and strength, is now deemed unnecessary, and may even be understood as standing in the way of societal progress!
Underlying all this, of course, is a fundamental error. The values and norms we admire and wish to advance within Western culture came from somewhere. We weren’t born with them.
Ever since the Enlightenment the West has naively assumed that all human beings are born with exactly the same notions of truth, justice, and the good. It’s as if these virtues are standard-issue granted us the precise moment our lungs take their first breath of air.
In reality truth, justice, and the good, and this goes for all virtues, are learned, and develop only from specific beliefs and practices. They must be taught, learned, applied, and reinforced. Only later, after the fact, do they seem “natural” to us, as if we’d always known them and lived by them.
It has been said that “God has no grandchildren,” only children. Truth and justice, in other words, aren’t automatically passed down willy-nilly from generation to generation. We don’t inherit virtue. They must be taught, learned, and lived anew by each succeeding generation.
In the Forum this past week, someone asked how it is that values get lost so easily and quickly. I immediately thought of my generation, the Boomers. Many if not most of us had parents who lived through the struggles, hardships, and sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II.
Likewise, many of our parents worked hard following the war to attain a measure of security and affluence previously unthinkable. Yet we Boomers tended to see these benefits not as the result of genuine struggle and sacrifice, but as a given, as our due, as possibly even our right!
Unless and until the next generation learns firsthand the values and norms of those who preceded them, such as, in my case, the “greatest generation,” such values and norms shall not go on indefinitely.
The Hegelian worldview argues instead that each succeeding generation automatically gets better and better, without, that is, the necessities of learning and inculcating the values and norms that give rise to genuine progress.
It’s as if we become a better people simply by flipping the page on our calendars each morning. But without the clarifying, defining, animating spirit that brought Western culture’s life-affirming values and norms into being, the future may turn out quite differently than what we unthinkingly assume.
Faith must be continuously taught, learned, practiced, and reinforced, because without it confusion and doubt shall become the norm. Amen.