In a manuscript on the life of Charles Taylor (Secular Society) ,James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, says of the age we live in: “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.” This is the influence of secularism and naturally, it has worked it’s way into the church, particularly the “progressive” church. I’ve preached many sermons myself on the virtue of doubt, suggesting that Thomas’ doubt was a precursor to the scientific method. The author of John’s gospel derides Thomas while applauding those who don’t see and yet believe for the obvious reasons—99.9% of the church at the turn of the 2nd century were in that position.
The progressive church prides itself on intellectual integrity, embraces science and the scientific method, and happily de-mythologizes the gospel. Here, doubt serves the cause of transcending traditional expressions of faith—a kind of preparatory phase for the next iteration of faith. But are we now stuck in doubt? What I experience in the progressive church is that doubt is almost institutionalized as a spiritual practice. It has formalized as rationalism (substituting reason for intuitive mode of knowing) and naturalism (embracing materialism). Biblical scholar, Elaine Pagels, suggests that the story of doubting Thomas was written as an anxious corrective to the gnostic emphasis on superiority of a Thomas-like direct experience. While belief-based Christianity is decried by progressives, it seems to me as though ideas about God have replaced belief in God as the basis of faith. But what is conspicuously absent is the mystic sensibility. The mystic is open-minded, but has moved beyond the condition of doubt.
There is much consternation over the fundamentalist and evangelical success in attracting younger people (the demographic for progressives is noticeably aged). The reasons are complex, but when I spoke with the younger participants (30 somethings), they agreed that the absence of any felt sense of grounding in Spirit or even subtle energy dynamics, was a big factor in their disinterest. Say what you will about right wing Christians, they certainly act like they believe that the presence of Jesus is with them and guiding them. The problem is that in such an environment, doubt is regarded as the enemy of faith.
Somewhere between these two extremes—between doubt as an end in itself and doubt as a threat to the spiritual life—it’s possible to hold doubt as an evolutionary impetus to let go of one stage of faith to make room for what’s next. But once we’ve made the transition, we realize that it is possible to be animated by thoughtful conviction, a deep, if quiet, spiritual confidence. This is not the proselytizing zeal of a traditional faith structure, but it is characterized by a non-anxious confidence that the universe is unfolding within a trans-rational wisdom and a Love large enough to contain the dance of chance and purpose, chaos and order, and still fashion a world of beauty and significance. I realize that this is getting dangerously close to the notion of providence, and yet what is the life of Spirit without a deep trust that you can lean into, or even fall into, this Heart and Mind that Jesus called Abba? Without this felt sense, an anxiety can arise that leaves one under-resourced because of a refusal to trust G_d/the universe/the Process. Yet, in my experience, progressive Christians never, ever broach the doctrine of providence, unless it is to critique the sometimes unnuanced expressions of it in traditional Christianity. the life of faith is grounded in a felt sense that beyond our own agency (critical in itself) we are being carried along by a stream of grace that is for us and for a world of beauty.
An evolutionary perspective makes it possible to credibly interpret the evolutionary narrative, including all of its dead-ends, extinctions, apparent cruelty (and of course, it’s exquisite patterning and beauty), as a story of an advance of love, beauty, and goodness. The inclination among “progressives” is to focus exclusively on the depravity of the human being and our social, political and economic systems. But when take a Big History view of the universe, what comes into focus is a story of the emergence of increasing beauty, complexity, and the mystery of conscious self-awareness itself. Whatever power/presence is implicate in this unfolding narrative is also the source and essence of our own lives. We are the manifest expression of that in human form. The practice is to consciously awaken and be carried by this mysterious grace to become. Even when things aren’t going what we consider to be “our way”, doubt gives way to trust that this creative, loving impulse is at work in the world and our lives.
There is a time to be a doubting Thomas, to be skeptical of the truth claims of a particular faith system or worldview. It serves our evolutionary advance. This describes the limited role that doubt should play in our journey. Beyond this a spiritual confidence arises, which is not the same as pretending to have absolute knowledge of the divine. There is a way of resting in the unknowing, of giving our lives in trust to the same love and wisdom out of which a universe emerged and continues to evolve.