St Thomas is not the only Thomas to have doubted. R.S Thomas, a Welshman and parish priest of the last century also had his moments. I don’t know if you have ever come across his poems. They are quite beautiful. Sometimes they reveal a sense of God who is present and accessible through prayer, but also there is much poetry where Thomas shows significant periods where God, for him, is uncommunicative and absent.
In one of his poems Folktale RS Thomas creates quite a vivid picture. Prayer is flung at the sky just as gravel might be flung at a window – trying to attract attention, awaiting a response to see if anyone is awake, or indeed at home at all. The window is distant and silent. No-one it seems is in to receive them. No-one it seems is there.
I wonder if that resonates with you? Doubt is not often something we talk about in church. But I suspect there are many of us here who will have experienced it. Perhaps a little niggle. Perhaps something more sustained. It may well be even that doubt completely outweighs faith. You won’t be alone.
Sometimes we can have great guilt about doubt, as though we should be ashamed of questioning what we have been told. Particularly when some Christians link the strength of our faith to how well prayer is answered. It can make us feel that if we don’t believe enough then there are consequences for those we love and prayer for. It is our fault if they don’t recover successfully or such like.
Doubt comes in different guises. There are certainly two types that I can identify. The first is that doubt caused by an emotional detachment – we don’t feel God anymore. Worship leaves us cold rather than sensing a presence. The second is more cognitive in nature: our questions about faith seem to outnumber our certainties. It maybe the faith we were taught in our childhood doesn’t quite hold together. We become aware of inconsistencies in the bible which no one ever mentioned before. We are exposed in a new way to other faiths, or indeed the arguments of atheism and we wonder – what if this isn’t true after all? What if Dawkins and Hitchens and Pullman are right – that there is now no need for God? That science alone is enough?
I think the first thing to understand is that faith is not certainty. It never has been. Certainly certainty feels great. Knowing I am right and they are wrong is always going to be a nicer feeling than maybe I am the one who is deluded. One of the appeals (and of course danger) of any fundamentalist faith, is escaping a world in which we may be wrong. Rather we can feel good knowing we are right. It is totally attractive. That is also I believe the appeal of the relatively new wave of militant atheism. How nice to be certain – even if that certainty takes away hope, at least the person can be right. It gives you that lovely warm glow.
But can we ever be certain, even about our doubts? A little while ago Richard Dawkins in a public dialogue with Rowan Williams in Oxford admitted that he could not be sure there
was no God. Atheism, he admitted, is based on belief rather than fact after all. And I guess then even atheists must have their doubts about their doubts, just as we may have doubts about our faith.
Faith and doubt are not opposites but rather bedfellows. You don’t need Dawkins to give you arguments about the absence of God, you really just need to open the bible. The psalms lament at the absence of God in times of suffering. Job too questions where he is when times are hard. Habbukuk throws prayers at the sky like gravel to no avail. Even Jesus expresses the great darkness of absence as he hangs on the cross. And after the momentousness of Easter we have today Thomas whose gut, at first, still does not allow him to believe.
And maybe one thing we should learn from the bible is the honesty in recording these experiences. It does not seem to be ashamed of questioning the presence of God, or the problem of evil, or unanswered prayer. Rather it lets it sit quite naturally alongside accounts of people who take great risks and leaps of faith because of the smallest encounters with the divine. The bible holds together both inspiring faith and passionate doubt without fear.
Phillip Yancey, A Christian and a writer says: “I have great respect for a God who not only gives us freedom to reject him, but also includes the arguments we can use within the bible. God seems rather doubt-tolerant actually.” And some of us who beat ourselves up over our lack of faith might need to hear that today – that God seems rather doubt-tolerant.
Indeed when we look at the example of Jesus, we see that questions rather than certainty are perhaps closer to the heart of faith than we might have presumed. Out of the 153 recorded times when people came to Jesus with a question – 147 times he responded not with a straight answer but rather with a question himself. If we think faith is about getting easy answers, we are wrong. God, it seems, wants us to question and wrestle and think for ourselves. It is no bad thing, even if it is uncomfortable.So perhaps it is not answers that draw us close to God, but rather questions. Questions about the mystery of death and life and salvation. Questions about purpose and truth and beauty. Questions about the human spirit and its capacity for good and evil. Questions about how the world would look if we did all heed the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.Questions about whether science can really answer all the searches of our souls? Questions about our worth and value and potential. Questions about why we keep flinging our prayers like gravel – even when sometimes the window seems so very far away.
Unlike St Thomas, RS Thomas is not given the solidity of Jesus’ wounds as a certainty to answer all doubt. However it seems to be the smallest and most tentative suggestion and glimpse of God which seems enough to keep him within the folds of faith. He ends his poem about the unreachable window to which his prayers are aimed like this:
I would have refrained long since, but that peering once through my locked fingers I thought I detected the movement of a curtain.
For RS Thomas that glimpse is enough – the twitch of a curtain. That sense that someone was behind the glass, even though they remain in so many ways unseen, was sufficient to stop him from giving up, was enough to tantalise him to keep flinging prayer like gravel.
For some of us faith is easy and a gift – and a lot of what I have said may seem unnecessary. But for others faith will always be coupled with doubt. Yet even if we have only once thought we have caught a glimpse of something other, of the twitch of the curtain, then we can at least doubt our doubts as well as our faith.