The importance of being uncertain.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It was Wilson Mizner who quipped, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

The history of doubt in the West begins not so much with Thomas as with the influence of Rene Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.”é_Descartes

Descartes began the movement in the West away from mystery to certainty, which was great for science but sad for spirituality because he moved the locus of consciousness from the heart to the head. It has remained there ever since.

One of the reasons I find the Philokalia teachings of the Eastern Orthodox so engaging, is the instruction to “stand before God having placed the mind in the heart.”

You see I don’t think Thomas was a doubter as much as he was an honest engager of reality. He wanted to be sure.

It is this quest for certainty that has become a serious challenge to mainstream Christianity today. The rampantly growing fundamentalist wings of all the world’s religions are thriving because in a world filled with uncertainty, the deepest longing of the human heart is certainty. The fundamentalist however make the error of assuming that certainty in matters of faith is possible.

Part of the problem as Karen Armstrong points out in “The Case for God” is that faith has come to mean belief (as in belief in doctrine and dogma) where in fact the word pistis means trust in a person or a truth. Trust whilst being a far more relational (heart) word than belief (head) word also has less certainty to it. Which is Armstrong’s second contribution to this discussion. She points out that in the ancient religions including Patristic Christianity, there was a healthy balance between Mythos and Logos, whereas modern Christianity has lost the mythos dynamic altogether. In fact ask the avergage person today what a myth is and they will say, a fictional story that isn’t true. Fundamentalist Christians won’t even allow their children to read Harry Potter! Mythos in the true understanding of the concept is a symbolic archetypal description of truth in the form of narrative.

I love the story of the elderly Granny who is tell her grandchildren the story of the Exodus and prefaces the telling with, “Now children I need to tell you that this story is absolutely true. It just might not have happened this way!

It is this respect for mystery, mythos and doubt, and my weariness with cock-sure certain conservative Christians that attracts me to the writings of Leslie Weatherhead. He was the person to coin the phrase, “The Christian Agnostic

A-gnosso means “I don’t know

It is the opposite of certainty and the seed bed of real trust in Jesus who seems to come closest to me with his bleeding hands and side, in the moments of my life when I am least certain of myself and of most everything else.

Doubt and Faith are companions and not opposites. “I trust in the areas of my life where I am not certain.”

So as I am feeling a tad burnt-out after preaching through Holy Week and the Easter Tridium , let me end my blog this week with some salient quotes from Weatherhead’s “The Christian Agnostic

Leslie Dixon Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Christian theologian in the liberal Protestant tradition. Renowned as one of Britain’s finest preachers in his day, Weatherhead was noted for his preaching ministry at City Temple in London and for his books, including The Will of God, The Christian Agnostic and Psychology, Religion, and Healing. Weatherhead trained for the Methodist Ministry at Richmond Theological College, in south-west London. The first world war cut short his training, and he became Methodist Minister at Farnham, Surrey, in September 1915. After serving in India, Manchester, and Leeds, Weatherhead was called, as a Methodist Minister, to be Minister of the City Temple, a Congregational Church on Holborn Viaduct in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960.

“I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into discipleship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray, to follow, and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure.”

“As I see it, all questions regarding the factual accuracy of Biblical statements—notably such ‘miraculous’ events as Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc.—are wholly irrelevant to the true issues. Indeed, I should go so far as to say myself that the whole value of the Gospel story to mankind—and it is very great—lies not in its historical but in its legendary, mythical, or ‘typical’ character. It is not, I think, the Sermon on the Mount—or at least not this alone—that constitutes the peculiar contribution of Christianity to human thought, for very similar maxims are to be found elsewhere, and in any event could be deduced from first principles. It is to be found, rather, in the affirmation that all that is best and highest in man, as typified in the person of Jesus, is bound to arouse opposition, is often persecuted and apparently destroyed—yet is in fact indestructible an does perennially ‘rise again’ triumphant over seeming disaster.”

“The essential in Christianity, past, present and future, is loving Christ and one another, and if the Quaker finds God in the silence and the Salvation Army in the band, the Roman Catholic in the Mass and the Baptist in immersion; if the High Anglican likes incense and ceremonial, and the Methodist puts his emphasis on personal experience, the fellowship of the authentic class meeting and Charles Wesley’s hymns, why talk of disunity?

“When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.’”

“When I really believe a thing, I mean that its truth possesses me. . . Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.” [ellipsis added]

“We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it?

“No argument or logic carries the same degree of conviction as insight, and it is the kind of conviction by which we know that dawn over the Alps on a perfect morning is beautiful. Argument cannot produce it and doubt cannot remove it. The outward beauty meets the inward recognition and in our hearts we know.”

“Any man, to the extent to which he is good, reveals the nature of God.”

“I am not prepared to hand over to any other person, though wise and learned, or to any institution however ancient or sure of its position, my inalienable right to search for ever-growing and ever-expanding truth. I believe the craving for security in belief is one which arises from within ourselves, and can only be met adequately form resources which are within ourselves. It seems to me that it is far more important for a soul in evolution to believe a few things because it has struggled, thought and suffered to discover and possess them, than it is for it to have a comfortable and orderly faith which it has adopted from any source outside itself.”

“I reject unchecked subjectivism as the authority in religion. No one can suppose that the final authority in religion is what the individual happens to think is true, unless his decision is preceded by long meditation, the weighing of all the available evidence and prayer for guidance.”

“. . . we must not thrust beliefs on people, belaboring their minds to try to make them accept orthodoxy, we may set these same beliefs before people, showing them the rich truth which we have found and which they may come to receive as their questing mind develops and grows.”

“I would like to be able with authority to present the case for believing in God, but I would far rather be and authoritative argument for believing in God. The saints are the best argument for Christianity. They have the highest authority in the world for they coerce us and yet our coercion is a willing one. They drive us along the way which in our best moments we want to go. When we read their lives, and even more when we touch their lives with our own in day-to-day living, we meet Christianity’s unanswerable argument. We know, with an authority nothing can resist or overcome, that Christianity changes lives and that if Jesus Christ were given a chance he would change the world.”

“For myself, I refuse mentally to close the canon as if inspiration had run out! Why should we follow traditional thought more than modern thought?”

“We must resolutely refuse to judge Jesus by the Bible. We must judge the Bible by Jesus; by the total effect of a consistent personality made upon us from all sources, including our own experience.”

“There is no authority for God’s existence except the inward conviction that is born of mystical experience.”


3 responses to “The importance of being uncertain.”

  1. Pr Charles Gilbert avatar
    Pr Charles Gilbert

    Oh thank you! Dr. Weatherhead has been my treasured Mentor in the Faith for many yearsl

  2. Jim avatar

    I enjoyed your exposition, which is both very distinct and harmonious with my ‘What Happened to Christian Doubt?’.

    May we each be a Christian who is “an honest engager of reality”. Exercising the often-neglected muscles which express “I don’t know” is a liberating experience.

  3. am avatar

    thanks! Jesus is risen! hallelujah!

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