When in Doubt…

by Andy Zell

Let’s talk about Doubting Thomas.

First off, he’s got a branding problem: he’s forever known as a doubter.  He can never simply be Thomas anymore.  He can no longer hide in the back with Bartholomew or Jude when the Twelve get together.  He’s recognizable.  He can now be summarized in a single word.  Talk about pigeon-holed.  A one dimensional character.

It’s not like he denied Christ three times in one night.  He didn’t sell out Jesus for pieces of silver.  He didn’t even cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest with a sword.  All he did was doubt the resurrection of Jesus.  He wanted proof that Jesus wasn’t still in the tomb.  Specifically, he wanted to see Jesus with his own eyes and put his hand on the wounds of Jesus.  Sounds reasonable to me.

When faced with the incomprehensible, with apparent contradictions, with paradoxes both divine and human, doubt is only natural. I used to think doubt was the enemy of faith.  That it was a slow destroyer of true belief, eating away and hollowing out from the inside.  If faith is like a seed that grows into a tree, then doubt is like Dutch Elm disease.  But now I think doubt is more like digestion.  It allows beliefs to be broken down into usable bits and pieces, to be absorbed and to nourish a person while what is left over can be discarded.

Beliefs really can originate in the gut.  Or our metaphorical gut, anyway.  According to Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionism theory of moral psychology, we often make moral judgments based on feelings and intuitions rather than rational thought.  It’s only later that we then justify those judgments with reasoning.  Here’s how it worked for me.

The things I believed spiritually growing up were fed to me at home, at church, and at school.  It was my milk.  It was pre-selected for me and fortified with everything I needed to grow.  And it made sense when my spiritual digestive system wasn’t fully developed yet.  I was still in what Robert E. Webber in Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail calls “familial faith,” the faith I grew up with.  I still had to transition through “searching faith” until I settled into “owned faith.”  My familial faith had all of the essentials: Jesus’ death and resurrection, love and grace, creation and covenant, sin and salvation.  But it had a lot of other beliefs as well, including all manner of extrapolations heaped on top of those essentials.  For instance, I believed that the creation had to be six literal days and that homosexuals chose to live in sin.

I was in college when I started to have doubts about the creation narrative in Genesis.  I didn’t understand how that six day account of the beginning of the universe could line up with my growing sense of wonder at the big bang and the evolution of life.  How could I still believe in the Bible?  The old formulas weren’t working for me anymore. Instead, the scientific explanations made sense to me.  They felt right somehow.  A recent study suggests that belief in evolution can come down to a quick intuitive response.  But did I have to reject modern scientific explanations in order to hold onto faith?

After college I had more doubts when friends from high school and college started to come out of the closet and reveal that they were gay.  I loved and cared about my friends, but I didn’t see any way out of my interpretation of the Bible that prohibited same sex relationships.  It nagged at me, though. I asked myself why my friends would have chosen to have the attractions that they did.  It went against everything they had been taught, and certainly didn’t make their lives any easier.  And if they didn’t choose, then I didn’t understand how God could make someone desire relationships and intimacy that they could never have.  I was at a loss, floundering in my confusion.  Could I continue to trust my old interpretations of the Bible?  Did I have to believe my friends were living in sin?  And if so, how could I believe in the goodness of God?

The cognitive dissonance I experienced with these doubts caused a lot of inner turmoil.  I felt uncertain much of the time, like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, and if I fell off, I might not land safely.  It took me years of processing to come to the beliefs I now hold, that are part of me.  Those doubts worked like all the elements of digestion (saliva, gastric juices, intestinal villi, even bacteria in the colon!) to extract what was most important in my belief.  In the end I didn’t have to discard my faith.  I could hold onto the nourishing elements of belief and let the rest of the crap go.

You know, Thomas wasn’t alone in his doubt.  He had good company, actually.  His infamous time in the spotlight comes from John’s gospel.  But over in Luke’s account, all of the disciples doubted until they too had concrete proof that Jesus was truly resurrected.  It wasn’t even enough for them to see him. They weren’t able to come to terms with his resurrected body until he ate fish with them.

As for me, I still have lots of doubts.  It’s the only way I can process my belief.  But I think now I’m okay with the label of a Doubter.  After the next church potluck, I’ll just be sitting over with the rest of the Thomases, digesting.

Andy Zell spends much of his time wiping poopy bottoms as a stay-at-home parent to his three preschool children.  As it happens, he also recently read Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Those two factors probably explain his recent enthusiasm for digestion.  In his “spare time” (that’s a joke other parents will get) he blogs about literature, history, politics, religion, identity, and whatever else he’s thinking about, and he’s still trying to figure out Twitter.

Image from flickr.com


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