The Benefit of the Doubt, and the Liability


doubting thomasIn 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.




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  1. Don Smith says

    “faith…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.”

    “…the life of faith is grounded in a felt sense that beyond our own agency…we are being carried along by a stream of grace that is for us and for a world of beauty.”

    “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.”

    Brilliant. Thank you. Amen.

  2. Toni Pieroni says

    Hey Bruce,
    It was great to see your post in my inbox this morning! I find this interesting. You know my story a bit – that I have not been a church person in my adult life – having left my Catholic upbringing behind at age 18. It wasn’t until I had what I considered a mystical experience of a panentheistic God that eventually drew me to your church. Evolutionary spirituality and theology has been an exciting and natural fit for the experience I had and continue to experience as part of my spiritual practice. Weaving the Christian story into that experience and attempting to let go of the old story I was taught to embrace the life and teachings of Jesus through an evolutionary lens has captured my intellectual interest. When I returned to the church, I found the ideas of progressive Christianity interesting and stimulating, but it would not have kept me there. Christianity without mysticism, without the felt experience of a living presence of Love and Life in my life and life itself – and being part of a learning and practice to evolve that felt knowing in myself and others – well, it would not be enough. I suppose this is where my Catholic roots has some influence. I miss some of the awe and splendor of Catholic mysticism, and find the protestant church a bit bland. Anyway, I think you get my point. I feel challenged to experience the evolutionary impulse towards Love as an ongoing reality, and that is what keeps my a part of a Christian community, rather than going back to my Sunday mornings hiking in the woods as my spiritual practice. Hope that speaks to what you are exploring here.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Hi Toni,

      Yeah, that pretty much nails it. See my comment to Jackson above. The truth seems to be that most mainstream churches are ignoring the progressive designation. I think an evolutionary paradigm addresses some of the inherent challenges of being part of a traditional lineage going forward, without tossing the whole thing.

  3. Carol A. says

    I started pulling away somewhat from progressive Christianity a number of years ago when it seemed to me that progressives were acting basically like fundamentalists: as superior know-it-alls. For fundamentalists it’s all in the bible; for progressives, all in the head. Simplistic thinking on my part, yes, but it works to get myself away from all the not-very-godly pitting of one against the other that seems to be going on in both camps.
    The irony in evangelicals refusing anything that isn’t in the bible is that they would be appalled at the actual Doubting Thomases this reveals them to be. They doubt that God can speak to them in any other way. And I guess, conversely, progressives do the same by doubting anything that they can’t explain through reason. I was telling my minister the other day, that whenever there is something I just can’t believe, I engage God very seriously by acknowledging that fact, stating that I will just wait for her to go ahead and get it across to me in due time. And then, I let go and trust. As a result, I feel a constant deepening of my relationships in the world, and I end up being opened to the miracle that I can stand tall and be my own person. I know I can trust on this beautiful pull toward G/d rather than haggling over some “article of faith.”
    Not nearly so beautifully said as yours, but real, nonetheless.
    P.S. I just bought Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances. A Study in Idolatry.” Have you read it? I think it speaks to this very question, but for me it is quite difficult reading, and I know I am going to have to slog through it several times to really get it, if at all.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Actually, very beautifully said, Carol. Thank you. I haven’t read Barfield’s book but his name keeps coming up. I’m going to follow up. Appreciate your comments.

  4. Jackson says

    This post could be your best ever, Bruce. If you have not already, please write more on this topic! Perhaps you have similar writings that I could check-out as well? I found these words to be breathless: “Whatever power/presence is implicate in this unfolding narrative is also a source and essence of our own lives. We are the manifestation of that in human form.. . GROUNDED IN A FELT SENSE….and we are being carried along by a stream of grace that is for us and for a world of beauty”. I am gratefully nourished by these thoughts, whether they be “progressisve” or not. :>) Best always to you. Happy you are home. Jackson

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Jackson, I intend to write some more on how I see the progressive church backing themselves into a corner. Karl Rahner wrote that “the Christian of the 21st century will either by a mystic or nothing at all.” I agree. Good to connect.

  5. says

    Being a progressive and evolved church means that Time is of its essence. The new is not separated from the past; it is an integral part of, and an effect of all that came before. Jesus knew this, so all the teachings he gave was a message to the future, to us today, as the Torah had been for Israel, preparing them for a glorious future. The wonderful account of Thomas doubting (not Jesus but the other disciples) gave us today a way to understand faith.

    Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
    But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
    26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
    28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
    29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    Thomas did not touch Jesus wounds. It was enough to see Him who he loved. Yet Jesus points to the future of faith and belief. By this short testimony of Thomas doubting we receive unprecedented access into the mysteries of Christ. I am with the Lord in that room and I believe. Thank you Thomas, for doubting, for giving us a doorway to our Lord, to an intimate relationship that all the disciples shared with him.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Bjorn,

      I’m not sure whether Thomas actually touched or simply saw makes much of a difference to the point that Pagels was making, namely that the author of the gospel affirms those who took it on faith, or more to the point, belief, as opposed to Thomas need for direct experience himself. I do make a distinction here between the author of John’s gospel, who unquestionably is responsible for this (beautiful) story, and Jesus himself. (It would be very unlikely that such a dynamic story would be left out of the earlier gospels if it was history.) That said, like all great myth it does, as you point out, create a portal into sacred mystery. After all, we’re still in dialogue about it some 2000 years later. I appreciate your deep faith and love of the gospel story.

  6. Laura Madsen says

    Hi Bruce and company. What an interesting and fruitful conversation. It seems that the momentum of the trans-rational mind experience is so vast and inclusive that “doubt” simply doesn’t enter the picture. My experience is that the evolutionary perspective IS one of experience (mind, body ,heart) existing within such a holistic framework that the individual as separate-from disappears. At once a vulnerability and an unspeakable joy.
    I think Elaine Pagels was on the right track with the reason this story was thrown in. It was, and is, very threatening to religious structure/belief to have individuals aligned with this oneness/unity/G-d consciousness.
    Thank you Bruce for initiating this liberating conversation. :)

  7. says

    I will have to contend that the genuine concern of the Thomas account here is not to make room for human doubt in the face of the Absolute unity of God. In respect to the realization of oneness there is NO room but for unity itself. No doubt will ever find its way into there. But in regards to the account of Thomas we are dealing with a different order of relationship to the divine. Thomas doubt is but a teaching coming out of Christ himself, regardless when and by whom it was introduced into the Gospel. Therefore it is rightly and justly qualified to take its place next to the other stories in the Gospels. My belief and understanding supports the Church fathers decision to include it, since it passes the test of being verifiable through grace and revelation of the inner workings of Christ. Please do not bring the Gospels into disrepute by thinking they are man’s attempt to please the hearers or readers, or to accommodate a lesser capable public to appreciate profound truths of Gods unity. Instead this passage clearly states what happened. Jesus asked Thomas to put his hand into his wound but Thomas instantly replies “My Lord and my God”. Jesus is teaching us a profound truth. He is not teaching us that there are degrees in our ability to know him (that some may only be able to “believe” in him but haven’t have had the first-hand experience of walking and talking, eating, with him, touching and seeing him, and therefore “only” can “believe” without seeing. He said “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” and by that elevates their faith to a higher degree, to a higher order, pointing to an inner relationship upon which it is based. A living relationship that is not found in the non-dual Absolute unity of Godhead.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Bjorn for your passionate presentation of your position. I also think this story belongs. I also believe that each of the writer’s of the gospels had their particular agenda/purpose, and scholarship has done a good job at drawing this out. I don’t believe that everything in the NT is of equal value, nor do I believe that this story is history. It makes a theological point, and serves the particular interests of the Johannine community. It’s a valid exercise to imagine what that point/intention might be. This doesn’t bring the gospels into disrepute, just into the nitty gritty of human community.

      • says

        Hi Bruce, I did not mean to sound so strong. Well, I think since the stories in the NT covers many sides to Christ’s revelation, both from a first hand revelatory viewpoint, to a faith based experience of communion with godhead, for me they show the width and breadth of human spiritual experience in relationship to Jesus+Christ. Jesus had the ability to look through different lenses, and so should we. Today we call it “integral” and “evolutionary” but whatever we call it, Jesus himself was not rigid in his understanding of faith. But unless we’re able to see through the many layers of faith, we will condemn ourselves to one schism out of many, limiting God’s own being to suit our own understanding. And while the sophists out there argue over this and that point, God’s raging love continue to set people on fire. My desire and concern is this, let the word be alive through our own testimony of it. Let any mentioning of Christ’s teaching be accompanied with a passionate revelation of its meaning so we don’t do it injustice. I think our responsibility is to clarify the word whenever it is mentioned. It’s revelatory meaning and it’s purpose in its context. Let’s see how it serves Christ, and not how it serves any particular schism. Feed the fire of Christ, not the fire of our human intellects. They get too much air-time as it is anyway.

        • Bruce Sanguin says

          Not at all Bjorn. I respect a passionate defence of the gospel at at time when so many “progressives” know nothing but rationalistic deconstruction. I love what you’ve written above, that we need to focus on “God’s raging love” – beautiful. At the same time, scholars have helped us, for example, to pay attention to the anti-Jewish sentiment in John’s gospel. What was probably little more than sibling rivalry in the 1st and 2nd century – Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah against those who didn’t—when it’s lifted out of context, and John flat out blames the Jews for killing Christ, I think it’s critical that we point out that this anti-Judaistic bias did not originate with Jesus. If you read a book like The Christian Problem, by Stuart Rosenberg, you realize how painful it is for Jews to read John’s gospel. I submit that by contextualizing the nasty bits we do indeed serve the fire of Christ, rather than those sections where the separative consciousness of the writer misrepresents Jesus himself.

          In any case, I love you heart for divine love.

  8. says

    Hi Bruce,
    Yet most people that take the time to read the Gospels or the whole Bible are certainly capable of knowing a little of the background context. Like all things, taken superficially, folks like to distort its deeper meaning, focusing on details instead of context. I know not much of the Biblical authors but I do think with a little learning it all can become clear. As I understand it, Judah, the tribe that held Jerusalem and the surrounding area, were the Temple guardians. Since the split into two kingdoms Judah retained the belief they and only they kept the true faith. After all, they were the centre of Jewish life. Jesus and his followers, coming mostly from the area around Nazareth and the sea of Galilee, would have been seen as the outsiders they were, the peasants from up north. They where all offspring of Israel, twelve tribes lost in the promised land, where Judah ruled supreme. Even the Samaritans (Bruce, correct me if I’m mistaken here), were Jews but not of Judea, and where not considered kosher enough to share their table. So when Jesus says; salvation comes from the Jews, he literally says Judeans (I might be wrong here?) but the drift is implied that not all Jews were considered Judeans. And certainly the Judeans did have Jesus the Nazarene crucified in their city of Jerusalem since he had opposed their temple rule. Jews today are plenty intellectual to understand this if they look a little deeper, and they do. But this anti-Semitic sentiment doesn’t refer to the texts but to the Western powers that used the superficial interpretation of blaming the “Jews”. Nevertheless, the deeper meaning of our ego refusing Christ to the point of executing God (we all can take our share of the blame) is TRUE.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Bjorn, for some reason your last response didn’t show up on my own comment page, thus the tardy reply. I guess the main point is that by the time John’s gospel was written, it was necessary (and possible) for the author to have Jesus refer to a group of people called “the Jews”. I don’t know anything about the distinction between the Judeans and the Jews. From every scholar I’ve read, Jesus identified himself as a Jew. It’s not the historical Jesus speaking in John’s gospel, but the risen Christ, interpreted through the lens of the Johannine community. This is natural and inevitable, and represents the enactment the Spirit of Jesus in the context of the age.
      The Samaritans were those Jews who were not carted off during the exile after the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE. They stayed, developed their own ritual and cult, and were quite fine on their own, but snubbed by the zealous Jews who returned from exile and wanted a “pure” form of worship. Thus the historical animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.

      • says

        Hi Bruce,
        It is interesting to see the history of Israel in detail. As I understand it, when Moses looked over the Jordan into the holy land and his people were at last ready to enter, they split the whole territory up between the twelve families/tribes, some getting a larger or smaller area depending on their numbers (which varied greatly). The tribe of Judah got the territory south of Jerusalem and it became Judea. The arc of the covenant was cared for by the Levites, sons of Levi, Aaron being the first priest. The tent that housed the arc was moved between several locations before it found its last resting place in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, maybe a Judean by birth. Many of the smaller tribes got lost over time and the lion of Judah reigned supreme, politically and culturally. Hence the two kingdoms; Judea and the rest, Israel. So I think it became natural over time to associate all the Israelites with Judea alone, and hence, the Jews.
        In regards to the gospel of the risen Christ of John, it seems likely to me that once the spirit had been ushered in at Pentecost everyone’s testimony suddenly became so much more relevant since now they could see with spiritual eyes what they only had seen with mortal eyes during their time with Jesus. John would find in the everyday events a deeper meaning, not recognized before but now elevated to the forefront of the gospel. So for me, this I believe to be true, that John’s gospel bear testimony to real events but with the spirit of them in focus. That, to me, is what makes Jesus so special; fully man and fully God. Dual nature in all things he would do and say. Because he was God he could not evade the spiritual implications of his acts. They where inherently spiritual and testifies to his divinity, yet with worldly eyes they still produced awe and wonder. I doubt that the authors needed to invent stories to uphold Jesus claim of divinity, or to reveal his spiritual nature. It is not difficult to believe that Thomas did doubt the other disciples claim that they had seen the risen Christ, and it is not all together impossible that Jesus did reveal himself risen with his wounds still not closed. Of course we can all doubt the validity of all stories of supernatural occurrences with Jesus, as so many do, yet that is a slippery slope to entertain. I’ve seen enough unexplainable spiritual things in the real world not to have the need to question the gospels truthfulness. My own criteria was always to find self revelations for all the mysteries that my mind could not grasp. So for myself I always needed the spiritual truth behind the story to become a reality within myself for me to “believe” the eternal message of Christ in the gospels. Yet I still hold out the possibility that Jesus actually did all those things written therein. But ultimately, I don’t know for a fact he did. But If I can experience his death and resurrection in my very own being then I don’t think it’s a long-shot to ascribe it to him as well.
        And that, is what makes him sooo special.

  9. frank says

    Some contemplations arose in regards to this wonderful topic:

    Regarding Thomas in John 20: 25-29:
    Is Thomas really such a doubter when in John 11:16, in response to Lazarus, he says “Let us also go, so that we may die with him”. ? That’s a lof faith (trust) isn’t it? And was John 20, Yeshua’s answer to Thomas’s John 11:16? Was the act in John 20 a kind of initiation ceremony? Much in the same way as Lazarus also received his initiation?
    And is John 14:5, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And John 20 speaking of the way, truth and life being each individual’s path to go in and through each person’s own “core wound”? Whatever that person’s core wound (sense of separation from Holy One) is?

    Just some thoughts.
    Thanks Bruce for the article!

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