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It’s Okay to Doubt, but Doubt Correctly

There are two good ways to doubt and two bad ways. Which kind of doubter are you?

We’ve just heard the story of “doubting Thomas,” who refuses to believe the Resurrection until he puts his hand in the wounds and sees the risen Jesus for himself. It’s a great story for our time because ours is an age of doubt. We have been taught from very early on that we should be careful about what we believe; we should test the evidence and weigh our options. If anything, the last few years have escalated this principle. People we disagree with are, unquestionably, the credulous believers in either the corrupt “mainstream media” on the one hand or unhinged conspiracy theorists on the other. We are supposed to proceed from a place of doubt in all things.

This is basically the problem that Western culture has been dealing with for the last four or five hundred years. Descartes’s famous principle, “I think, therefore I am,” comes from a system of doubt. The only thing that I cannot doubt is that I am thinking; therefore, there must be a person doing the thinking. But what that person actually is, and what he exists for, cannot really be known. No wonder the modern world is a place of fear and anxiety!

Back to Thomas: This is another one of those stories where it’s good to wonder whether some part of the story is about us. I’d like us to think about four possible groups in this story, which are also four basic ways that we can have faith or doubt.

The first way is not really visible in the story from John, but I think we can be confident that it’s there, as it always is. I’ll just call this way bigotry. It’s not true skepticism; it’s not interested in the truth. It’s just interested in being right. This is the person who refuses even to entertain the possibility that something might be true. This is the person who will never believe, even if Jesus stands right there and slaps him in the face, because he is so confident in the rightness of his opinion that he cannot accept an alternative. So there’s no resurrection, because resurrection is impossible. End of story. And if Jesus shows up, there must be some explanation. He never really died. We’re all on drugs. Alien invasion. Whatever. And sometimes, this kind of doubt can be almost funny, because this kind of person can believe some pretty crazy things just so that he does not have to believe this one particular crazy thing. This is not a good way to be.

The second way, on the opposite extreme, is also not as visible in John, but as with the bigoted doubter, I think we can be pretty confident that it’s always around. This is the naïve believer—the person who just believes and cannot doubt anything. For this person, the world is very black and white. And so he encounters someone like Thomas, who doubts, and he doesn’t know how to process it. What do you mean, you have doubts? Have you completely rejected God? Can we even still be friends? Maybe you’ve met someone like that; maybe you recognize a bit of the tendency in yourself. And let’s be honest—this is a perspective that we’re much more likely to find within the Church than the first.

In case it’s not obvious, I think that these two extremes—absolute fideism and absolute doubt—are basically the same in that they’re both irrational and even anti-rational. They don’t make for good society.

The other two ways are both, in a way, in the middle, but with different emphasis. Way three is that of Thomas himself. He doubts. He’s not a bigot about it. He doesn’t refuse to hang out with the other apostles; he doesn’t call them names and storm out of the room. He simply isn’t convinced. He wants to know more. He’s not saying it’s impossible; he just doesn’t know. He states clearly the conditions for his belief, and, when the opportunity comes, he accepts the evidence and believes.

This is not a bad place to be—it’s honestly a place where many Christians find themselves from time to time. A doubt or uncertainty about something—even about a big something—doesn’t have to mean that you throw everything out and start your whole life over. You stick with your friends. You try to understand your own prejudices. You admit it when you’re wrong, and you change.

Way four is that of most of the disciples. They don’t doubt the Resurrection. They believe it. They know it in their hearts, by the evidence of their own eyes, to be true. But they also know that it is crazy. They’re not naïve about it, but realistic. When Thomas doubts, they don’t exile him; they don’t yell at him for being unfaithful. They keep him around. They say, probably, stick with us, and maybe you’ll see for yourself. Many of us today probably find ourselves in this category. This, too, is a good place to be.

Now, in these four ways of doubt and belief, maybe you’ve noticed a pattern: the two extremes, what I would call the dangerous or bad ways, are fundamentally anti-social, whereas the two middle positions, which I would call good, are basically oriented to community.

The point is that faith isn’t just about me and Jesus—not just about what you believe, but about whom you believe. That is, whom do you trust?

We can obsess about facts and theories and ideas for a lifetime, and we will never master even the most basic principles of the universe. The trouble with absolute or extreme faith or doubt is that you make it out as if your view on the universe actually matters. It doesn’t. The universe doesn’t care what you think about it. Reality can go on just fine without you. But you and I do have to go on; we have to live somehow. And to live a human life requires orienting yourself around the basic things and people that you trust. If we can acknowledge that, and embrace it, and admit that we do not personally know everything, it becomes much easier to be open to other people and to new knowledge—it becomes much easier, in other words, to believe in a mature, responsible way, and to doubt in a mature, responsible way. Because whichever one it is, you never have to do it alone.

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, and it’s fitting that this story of Thomas illustrate that simple statement that St. Faustina was asked to put on the image of the divine mercy: Jesus, I trust in you.

There are all sorts of reasons why we might trust Jesus, but today we ought to highlight the mercy that Jesus shows to Thomas when he offers his wounds to touch. This is not a savior who is jealous of his honor like some tyrant; his whole life is the outpouring of God’s infinite mercy for those who are, in their own nature and merits, unworthy. And we can make this act of trust in him despite our occasional doubts, despite our confusion or uncertainty, despite the simplicity of our faith. He can take it all. He honors this trust. And he trusts us in turn by giving us the most precious gift: his own self, his body and blood, soul and divinity.

If he can trust us, can we not trust him? Can we not allow ourselves to say, with St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”? In doing so, in committing our trust in Jesus, we begin to embody the community in which it is possible to invite others into this trust and this mercy.

Pray with me: Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you.

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