09 April 2024, The Tablet

Why ‘scepticism’ is essential to grow in faith


This episode comes at the very end of what is thought to have been the original text of John’s gospel. Having begun with a majestic Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God”, John’s narrative reaches its climax with Thomas’s confession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is the first person to address Jesus as God and with this act of faith, John’s reason for writing the gospel, namely, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God”, is fulfilled. And yet Thomas occupies a place in both the Christian imagination and secular parlance as Doubting Thomas, whose doubt about the truth of the resurrection has been interpreted as antithetical to faith.

The view that doubt and faith are mutually exclusive passed into standard Catholic catechesis, as in, for instance, the Penny Catechism (a text which Catholic children of my generation learned by rote), where ‘wilful doubt’ is described as a ‘sin against faith’, something to be resisted and dispelled as vigorously as any other temptation. ‘Wilful doubts of faith’ were to be countered with equally wilful ‘acts of faith’, a proposal that casts doubt on, if anything, the understanding of both ‘will’ and ‘faith’ implied. If doubt and faith are antithetical, what is to be made of the fact that, after her death, Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s journals revealed that for most of her life she had been plagued with doubts and pained by what she took to be lack of faith?

In my soul I feel the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not existing, even. I have no words to express the depths of darkness. Where is my faith? Even deep down [...] there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. [...] If there be God – please forgive me. For when I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives to hurt my soul.

The late polemicist and journalist, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a scathing account of Mother Teresa, seized on this as evidence of her hypocrisy and conclusive proof that she was a fake. Pope St John Paul II followed wiser counsels and beatified her in 2003, as did Pope Francis, who subsequently canonised her in 2016. Believing in God is almost unthinkable without experiencing at some time or other and to some degree what can only be described as both darkness and doubt. Herbert McCabe spoke of faith as “an illumination that appears as darkness: we come to know that we do not know”: a reminder that simple faith, where we hope to arrive, if rarely where we begin, knows less, not more. Faith has been aptly compared with “seeing in the dark” (Nicholas Lash), and even St Paul spoke of it as “seeing through a glass, darkly”.

“There is in God, a deep but dazzling darkness”, according to Henry Vaughan (1621-95), in his poem Night. Genuine faith presupposes the realisation that God is an infinite mystery beyond any possible understanding on our part, in both this life and the next. We appropriate God’s self-communication in the Word made flesh not by coming to understand but by faith. But many think they don’t believe because they don’t feel they believe. Faith, however, is neither feeling nor knowledge, even if, though being more akin to the latter than the former, it inevitably gives rise to feelings. Nevertheless, feeling that we don’t believe, the experience, that is, of darkness and doubt, can be an invitation to grow in faith. Doubt will disappear completely only when faith disappears completely; that is, when faith is replaced by vision, when we come face to face with the perfect, eternal love that is God.

Genuine faith is also unthinkable without critical scrutiny of what is proposed for belief. When, keeping our eyes open and our minds functioning, our questions arise from a genuine desire for truth, genuine questioning opens us to further and further, though never complete, understanding. Questioning in matters of faith is, in other words, de rigeur, not optional; it is essential, not inimical to belief. To accept what is proposed for belief blindly, without seeking to understand, is as unreasonable as rejecting it uncritically, also without seeking to understand. But the first and most important question to ask about any doctrine is whether and how it is an expression of God’s unconditional love, because this is the ultimate truth on which Christian faith rests and in which it is rooted. Faith, however, is neither a crutch nor a comfort blanket. On the contrary, it points us in the direction of the ultimate mystery, the source of existence itself, which though permanently beyond our complete understanding, irresistibly engages our minds as well as our hearts. To believe is to live on the edge of the unknown, to live patiently with questions to which there are no answers, not, at least, for the time being. But it takes courage as well as patience to live in the presence of mystery.

So, what has been called ‘faithful scepticism’ is essential to growth in faith. That growth has been described as growing out of religion and into faith. The episode of the Rich Young Man in the gospel is an illustration of how we are called to grow beyond external religious observance alone, however praiseworthy and comforting, into faithful friendship with God. The young man in the gospel had done everything that religious practice demanded of him by way of observance, but Jesus, who the text says, “looked on him with love” went further: “there is one thing lacking: go sell all you have and come, follow me”. The young man went away heavy of heart, burdened by his great wealth: but also, more 4 importantly, burdened by the realisation that friendship, if more fulfilling, is more demanding than any other relationship. St John of the Cross spoke of passing through what he called the “Dark Night of the Soul” if we are to approach the living God. That darkness may feel life faith crumbling, but it is the call of the Spirit to go beyond externals to an encounter with God Himself, an experience in which it is borne in upon us, in a way that is both inexplicable and indescribable, that his love for us is utterly unfailing. In the end, Thomas’s “My Lord and my God” is as much a profession of love as of faith. Like love, faith draws us deeper into its object: in faith and love, we come to know not just more about God, but rather to know and love God Himself, just as we are known and loved by Him. As Thomas discovered, to believe is not only to have seen and touched the Risen Christ, but to have been seen and been touched by Him. It is to have been overwhelmed by his overflowing love for us.

The irascible Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), catches it in Suddenly: I looked at him, not with the eye only, but with the whole of my being, overflowing with him, as a chalice would with the sea.


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