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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 9, 2005


The disciples were, understandably, excited. Just three days before, their leader had been nailed to a cross between two thieves, executed as a traitor by the Roman occupiers. Things seemed pretty bleak for a while. They thought the end had come. They didn’t know what to do next. They were downright dispirited, downtrodden, and depressed.

But then—according to the Gospel of John—a truly amazing thing happened: The disciples—ten of them, at least, saw Jesus! He appeared to them again, as though alive, seemingly resurrected from the dead.

But, also according to John, Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them that first time. So, when the others came to Thomas, and told him about all of this resurrection business, he just wasn’t buying it… “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he said. Thomas was one of those who just would not believe unless he had what Othello would later call “ocular proof”. He wouldn’t believe unless he had seen with his own eyes.

Now, in most houses of worship, the skepticism of (so-called) “doubting Thomas” isn’t something generally alluded to as one of the outstanding attributes of the “true Christian believer”. Nor, in most eyes, would Thomas go down in Christian history as one of the more admirable of the disciples. (Indeed, there is much evidence that the story of “doubting Thomas” was actually planted in the Gospel of John in order to discredit the “rival” Gospel of Thomas which also represented a major school of thought within the early Christian movement back in the first century after Jesus.)

But I would bet that there are probably many of us here who identify with Thomas. There is much in Thomas’s attitude which we might find, at the least, worthwhile and commendable. There is something in the story of Thomas’s doubting which I find refreshingly honest and straightforward. He just refused to believe what his eyes had not seen. Do you blame him? He refused simply to give in to “public opinion” or “peer pressure”, or just “go along to get along”. He adhered firmly to his own common sense, rather than merely giving in to majority opinion for the sake of expedience alone. Thomas refused to believe in the resurrection of his Lord unless he could believe it fully with his own heart and mind. That, I think, is a behavior better suited for praise than for condemnation.

Modern science allows us to know a number of things with more or less certainty:

  • We know that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.
  • We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around.
  • We know that if we heat water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it will boil; if we chill it to 32 degrees, it will freeze.

Science allows us to know a lot of things like these. But modern science, for all of its accomplishments, has no idea of the composition of more than 90% of the cosmos. It doesn’t understand 80% or more of how our brains function. It’s the best scientist, too, of course, who knows how much he or she does not know.

Nor does humanity inhabit a universe of atoms and molecules and material reality alone. There is that deeper reality in which we live and move and have our being: the realm of the spirit; the real of the intellect; the realm of ideals and ideas.

In this deeper realm, we can claim that we know certain things, as well. We can affirm that certain beliefs we hold are “true”. We can “know” that a certain place is home to us. We can “know” that freedom is superior to tyranny. We can “know” that God is in Her heaven, and all is right with the world.

But on this “deeper” level—in this domain beyond cause and effect—our “knowing” takes an oftentimes quite complicated form, indeed. On this deeper level, we cannot really “prove” what we know. On this deeper level, we see “but in a mirror dimly”, as Paul wrote. It is here that we might well “know” widely differing, often contradictory things. It is here that whatever “knowing” we have is often tentative, obscure, sometimes fuzzy-headed—seeming clear as day to us, but clear as mud to others. It is within this domain of the speculative—this domain of faith—that a new character enters the field, and that character is Doubt.

“A doubt is an idea that is still alive,” Kenneth Patton tells us. Central to all life is the spirit of movement, of growth, of fluidity. Life is based in change—from season to season, toward ever-deepening maturation. Stagnation is fundamentally antithetical to life. It stands in direct opposition to growth; in direct opposition to life itself. As human beings—as physical organisms—we are constantly part of a dialogue, sort of, with our environment. As we adjust to our environment—as it changes us and we change it—we move forward; we mature; we grow.

So it should be with our beliefs and ideas. That’s just the way we’re made. Ideas are constantly in dialectic—in dialogue—with the whole world of ideas. When we doubt that our ideas contain the whole truth, our mind is thrust out of its stagnation. and is forced to deal with the whole environment of other ideas. Doubt thrusts us out of the realm of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness into the realm of new discovery and new life.

Doubt acts as fertilizer for the human mind and soul. It augments and furthers growth. It helps us to know better our place in the world, and to appreciate better the gifts that others offer to us. When we know, at last, that we are not the center of the universe—that our beliefs and insights are not the All-in-All—then we gain a valuable helping of humility. More and more as I get older, I am coming to sense the fundamental importance of humility in a well-rounded and healthy life. The person who admits most openly that he or she does not know everything (and lives life that way) is the person who will learn the most. Humility is the hidden key to wisdom, and humility comes to us through our deep realization that we know only in part.

The existence of doubt also enables us to appreciate others the ways in which they deserve to be appreciated. The next time we are tempted to pass a severe judgment on someone else, let’s just stop and say to ourselves: “I do not know it all.” How often have we all rushed to judgment without knowing all the facts? Think of the valuable relationships we have strained or broken in this way; the ties of human connection we might have severed or frayed because we were too quick to judge. When we come to know our own personal limitations, we will come to understand just a bit more clearly our need for constant dialogue—constant give and take—with all of the people around us. When we learn to value listening to others more than we value hearing the sounds of our own voices, we will come to a deeper and truer sense of just how much our fellow creatures have to offer us.

“Doubt is the attendant of truth,” Robert Weston reminded us earlier. Doubt is also the cornerstone of a certain kind of deep and abiding and genuine faith.

It is a deeper faith that arises out of doubt—doubt that the existing faith system is adequate to the changing needs of humanity.

True faith grows through doubt—it is constantly tested and refined in the crucible of harsh reality.

Faith without doubt can too easily become, it seems to me, a stagnant faith. It is a faith which does not open itself up to let life’s breeze freshen it. Such a dormant faith might be quite hard pressed to meet the spiritual needs of fully actualized, thinking, breathing, growing, learning women and men.

Faith without doubt too quick degenerates into religious Bolshevism, religious totalitarianism. It declares that it owns the truth, that its simple formulas can explain away all the mysteries of the past, present, and future, and that all those who do not subscribe to its tenets are damned to suffer, either in this life or the next. Human history has been savagely littered by political and religious totalitarians who claimed to possess the whole truth. Let us beware then, as we look out upon this new generation of religious fundamentalists of whatever ilk, be they Islamo-fascist or Christo-fascist or whatever, who seem hell-bent on imposing their own narrow-minded, myopic view of the “truth” on all the world. In our humility, let us disparage the faith of no one. But let us also be alert to those who use the language of faith to undermine and threaten freedom, human rights, and peace.

It is our doubting—and not our certainty—which reminds us that we do not know it all—that the Kingdom is still to be built—that new heavens and new earths are yet to be discovered—that there is still something to live for—that a more excellent way is always possible—and that there are new possibilities always waiting to be explored.

Perhaps there is something in human nature, especially in troubled times, which wants to cling to the old myths, which yearns for easy answers, which seeks safety and security in the well-worn ways of the past.

But there is also something in the human mind which knows that those well-worn ways can become ruts if they are not tended to from time to time. There is also a deeper calling in our human nature which allows us to reach out, to dare, to struggle, and to dream.

Honoring the “doubting Thomas” within ourselves does not mean that we need to become “sneering Thomases” or “cynical Thomases” or “disparaging Thomases”, adamantly refusing to concede that there may be a power in the universe far greater and more splendid than our (relatively) puny human power. Indeed, in my own experience, the most rigid dogmatists I have known in my own life were those who adamantly refused even to consider the possibility that a Greater Spirit might be working in these lives of ours. Thomas came to believe, and embrace his Lord, when the time was right for him to do so. May we, too, never lock ourselves up inside our heads to such an extent that we close the doors of life that the Spirit offers.

Revelation. Listening. Humility.” These are the keys to discerning truth, the Catholic writer Madeline L’Engle reminds us. She continues:

“If my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning: there is no need to fear. But if it is not true, if it is people imposing strictures on God (as did the authorities of the Christian establishment of Galileo’s day) then I want to be open to God, not to what others say about God. I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light. Revelation. Listening. Humility.”

May there always be those like blessed Thomas, who refuse just to give in and go along; who refuse to accept the experience of others as necessarily valid for themselves. We, too, need to see for ourselves—to touch, to feel, to know; we will know we have found our own salvation when we see it, face to face. Then we will be ready to embrace it, and know it as our own.

Until that time comes, let us go on doubting, humbly but fearlessly. Let us go on looking through our clouded mirrors darkly, trying as best we are able to learn just a little bit more of what this great mystery of life entails.

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
Which cannot fly…

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Covered with snow.
[Langston Hughes]


“He that would silence his doubts is filled with fear; the house of his spirit is built on shifting sands. But he that fears not doubt, and knows its use, is founded upon a rock. He shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of his hands shall endure.” [Robert T. Weston]

Cherish your dreams. Cherish your doubts. And know that in the dialogue between the two lies the genuine human miracle which you are.

 


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