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To Doubt or Not To Doubt? Thomas, We See You!

Susan Rutkowski, MDiv
Pastoral Minister of Family Religious Education and Social Justice
April 5, 2024

Poor Thomas. He missed one staff meeting and was raked over the coals for 2,000 years. Thomas is famous for having doubted the Resurrection of Jesus and for demanding physical proof of the wounds of Christ’s Crucifixion. In John’s Gospel when he is absent from the other Apostles after Jesus’ Resurrection, Jesus appears to the ten. When Thomas hears about this later, he strongly voices his doubts. The phrase “doubting Thomas” was coined for his lack of faith. Thomas is considered something of a weak character because he had to see to believe, but I get it…he’s looking for cause to believe.

I’ve ministered at the Paulist Center for 20 years now and I can safely say that most community members would comfortably fall into Thomas’ camp….and be proud of it! We love to doubt. We love to dispute, challenge, and deconstruct all things, especially liturgical and theological. To do this, we form committees, subcommittees, sub-sub committees, use facilitators, and write long analyses. Then we talk to other community center peeps and recreate discussions we had two days, two weeks or two months ago with new and better points. Sometimes our drive to question things is the trickle-down model from staff to Center committees to after-Mass discussions, and sometimes it’s from the bottom-up that starts with after-Mass dinners, is fed into committees, and ends up with the staff. Why do we overthink things? Because we’re sure everyone else is underthinking them! We love to be skeptics.

I was trained at a Jesuit seminary. You enter a Jesuit divinity school with your preconceived notions tied up in a pretty bow and leave with only a scrap of that faith that you cling to while flapping wildly in the fierce winds of the institutional Church and the secular world. It feels simultaneously like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet and incredibly freeing at the same time. Twenty years later I can say thank God we were taught as theologians and ministers to be critical thinkers of our faith!

It’s important to remember that doubts do not equate with unbelief. In fact, doubts are a natural part of believing. Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” The paradox of doubt is that we must doubt that which we believe to be the truth if we want to eventually discover the truth. Everything we’ve learned, believed and do in regard to all of life should be questioned if growth is to occur. This includes questioning everything about religion.

Two years ago the Jesuit publication America launched a national marketing campaign called #OwnYourFaith. It’s a marvelous article What if doubt is actually good for your faith? | America Magazine that asks the question, what if doubt is actually good for your faith? (Thomas is yelling “yes!” somewhere!)

The insightful Brian McLaren proposes a four-stage model of faith development in which questions and doubt serve as a portal to a more mature and fruitful kind of faith. His four stages: Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony, “offer a path forward that can help sincere and thoughtful people leave behind unnecessary baggage and intensify their commitment to what matters most.”

But, in the end, I think most people in this community are familiar with all the above. Honestly, this is a community of people who have culled through, wrestled with, scoured over, and lived dark nights of the soul. We get it. We strive for more authentic, personal spiritual lives, even when painful, because we follow our curiosity and questions to a more honest dialogue with God and with each other. This will serve us well, as we, like Thomas, are called to step up and be church in a re-imagined way as we turn the page to the next chapter at the Paulist Center. Hopefully, many years from now, members of our institution will say, “Remember that Paulist Center Community? They questioned everything! But my gosh…their worship and their ministries and how they lived their lives…such a powerful witness to the risen Christ!”