Belief is a station and doubt is a train.
Case in point:
A. I believe (read: KNOW) the world is going to end on May 21 and the rapture will follow shortly thereafter. OK. I have the answer. The Holy Grail and the Whole Ball of Wax. The Big Enchilada. Now what? See if anyone else wants to come with me when I’m taken up? That might be nice. Mostly sit around and wait, I suppose. I definitely don’t have any questions because even asking is a bit risky. I have no doubt.
B. I have no idea if the world is going to end on May 21st. I don’t think so. I’m not really sure of anything. I’d like to know more and gather evidence. Talk to people who see the world differently than I do. Find out more. Go out on a limb. I challenge my inner self and the world around me. Is what I just saw/felt/thought a trick, or the real thing? How can I find out? I don’t know for sure, but I’ll keep after it. I am full of doubt.
A Cure for the Common Doubt? Nope.
So maybe citing the May 21st thing – a date being advertised as the official Second Coming by some – is unfair. It seems kind of crazy to assign a date. As if we can see the fullness of time using some sort of formula or special glasses. Of course we thoughtful pragmatists don’t buy into the crazy stuff. Yet there are people out there who believe it. Smart people. Thoughtful people. And, who knows, they might be right. But I really doubt it.
It’s easy enough to put aside ideas that seem bizarre. Calling out a specific date for the end of the world qualifies, I think. But what about simple, sane basic notions? Things we take for granted? Take L-ascorbic acid, for example. Call it Vitamin C if you prefer.
Do you know that megadoses of Vitamin C can stave of the common cold? Do you believe that megadoses of Vitamin C can stave of the common cold? Well, you’re probably wrong. Some studies (scientists, lab coats, beakers, those kinds of studies) suggest that Vitamin C may reduce the length of a cold slightly…but there is no evidence that it actually can prevent you from catching a cold. Despite what Linus Pauling said. However, just because an expert said it, millions have repeated it and you and I may actually believe it…that doesn’t make it so.
I used to believe it. When I knew, it was a sort of factual stasis point. “Of course Vitamin C cures colds…or at least holds them at bay.” Everyone knows that. However, when I received new evidence, I began to doubt it. That’s when it got fun. Not knowing, now I want to learn more. What is Vitamin C. For that matter, what is a vitamin? If not for curing colds…what is it good for? Can too much be bad? Who makes it? Where does it come from? Why “C”? I have a million questions. I’m engaged…I’m on the train.
This week on the show we’ll talk about the story of Thomas. Jesus has died and returns to the disciples, who are afraid. He wishes them peace. Thomas isn’t there, and later when the disiples tell him, he doesn’t believe them. Then Jesus appears when he is in the room and Thomas is looking for strings, mirrors and levers. He’s just not buying it. Then Jesus has Thomas touch the wounds on his body and Thomas believes. He has empirical evidence.
I just love Thomas so much. I want to give him a high five across the ages. He’s exactly the guy I want to be a fellow traveler. So let’s think about Thomas and the Doubt Train.
Two approaches here. First, did this story actually happen this way? Personally, I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. The fact that it only shows up in John adds some fuel to my doubt. There is room in my universe to believe it could have happened, but I don’t think so. Not this way. I still find it incredibly meaningful.
Second, what does it tell us about doubt. In this case, there is a relationship. Jesus comes back to his friends. People he loved. He could have set the world straight. If he can conjure up out of nothing, he could have alternatively appeared to the leaders of the world – or everyone at once – and removed all doubt. He didn’t. As the story would have it, he found his friends. He put them at ease. He let Thomas touch him. It was personal and intimate.
So taking away the doubt of the world doesn’t seem to be the mission…whether you believe the story literally or as a beautiful fiction or something in between. Wiping out the doubt is clearly not a prime concern for Jesus either way. John, the writer, seems to me to be more concerned that we believe than Jesus does. Instead, Jesus offers intimate contact to put the disciples at ease. That seems to me to be the important thing.
Another reason to really like Thomas, beyond his voicing something I’m sure others would have been thinking, is what happens later. Thomas, perhaps fueled by curiosity and wonder – close relatives of doubt, is the only disciple thought to have gone outside of the Roman Empire – to India – to preach. I hope that if it’s true he learned a lot, and doubted a lot.
Cold Doubt. Hot Doubt. Fractal Doubt. Quantum Doubt.
Lest we think doubt comes in a single neatly wrapped package, here’s the boxed set.
“I’ve made a distinction between Cold Doubt and Hot Doubt. Cold Doubt is the doubt of the studious, the intellectual and the questioning. Hot Doubt is the doubt of the wounded, the god-forsaken and the suffering.
This distinction is not exact. For example, a great deal of Cold Doubt is simply vicarious Hot Doubt. We look at Haiti, Darfur or the Holocaust and, vicariously, experience the god-forsakenness of the world. But the distinction does highlight some differences among doubters. Some doubt for intellectual reasons. Others doubt in the wake of loss, trauma or pain.”
I want to add two of my own:
Doubt that takes you deeper into the mystery without revealing an answer. Each step of doubt, exploration, discovery leads to a new question. Like a fractal image from a Mandelbrot set, each step down in scale reveals an infinite number of steps remaining. There is no end to the inquiry…or the wonder. This is the scientific method. No theory is ever considered certain. However, a serviceable theory stands up to continued scrutiny and deeper delving. Knowledge is only advanced through doubt. Proving a theory is a dead end. The possibilities inherent in disproving, or modifying an existing theory are endless.
My favorite kind of doubt. The doubt of ambiguity. The doubt that allows me to tumble the Taoist idea that “the opposite is also true.” The doubt that allows me to hold two concepts in tension and in harmony at the same time. Example: We are matter and spirit. I have no problem with that. I doubt the distinctions between things. Motion and stasis. Positive and negative. You and me. It is quantum…multi-dimensional. And I don’t mean to fall into the trap (or rabbit hole if you like) that physics IS spirituality. I believe in both. And I doubt both. Completely separate. Inextricably the same. I don’t undertsand it, but I doubt the reality that I see, hear, taste, feel. Ultimately, somehow even doubt is belief.
I believe that nothing is what it appears to be, so doubt may be the only way to access reality.
I think Thomas was pretty brave to let on.