Varieties of Unbelief

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April 27, 2014

Varieties of Unbelief

Passage: John 20:19-31

Second Sunday of Easter

“So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger I the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”


John alone among the four Gospels bothers to pay any attention to Thomas, but in the fourth Gospel, Thomas plays a rather prominent role.  John always calls him Thomas Didymus, which is Greek for “Thomas the Twin.”  Somewhere there is another just like him.

A first-century  book called The Acts of Thomas, which for good reasons never made it into the New Testament, claims that Thomas was Jesus’ twin brother, but if Mary had given birth to twins on that first Christmas Eve, you’d think Matthew and Luke might have bothered to tell us about it, so that dubious information never got very far.

The first time we meet Thomas, Jesus decides to go to Judea to see Lazarus.  The other disciples try desperately to talk Jesus out of this foolish escapade, because such a journey will prove to be not only late and bootless, Lazarus having already expired, but also dangerous, since Judea is headquarters for Jesus’ most implacable enemies.  Thomas, however, says to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”   It might not be the most encouraging or hopeful thing anybody’s ever said, but it is brave.  What Thomas is saying is “We belong with Jesus, no matter what the cost (and the cost, no doubt, will be high).”

That’s the first time we meet Thomas.  The last time we hear from Thomas is the evening of the first Easter.  Well, actually we don’t hear from Thomas, because he’s gone.  He’s not there.  Who knows why he wasn’t there with everybody else at what must have been an obligatory committee meeting?  Probably he thought to himself “What’s the point?  What’s the use?  He’s dead.  He’s gone. I’ve just wasted three years of my life.  No use hanging out with these bozos any longer.  I’m going on with my life.”

It was, however, the wrong meeting to miss, because what happened on that first Easter evening was Pentecost, or at least John’s version of it.  Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the gift of Holy Spirit.  Thomas missed Pentecost.  So, here’s a little friendly advice: the next time you wake up on Sunday morning and decide to worship at the First Presbyterian Church of Sealy Posturepedic instead of going to a real church, just remember what you might miss.  You might miss Pentecost.  You might miss Jesus.

The other disciples, perhaps gloating and rubbing it in a bit, hurry to tell Thomas what he missed, to which Thomas, with legendary incredulity, responds “Unless I put my finger in the nail prints, and my hand in the spear hole, I will not believe.”

The Sunday after Easter, Thomas is present for a second meeting.  Jesus invites him to do just what he said he had to do in order to believe, and Thomas, finally faithful, blurts out, “My Lord and my God,” which, of course, is the most extravagant confession anywhere in the Gospels about who Jesus really is.

What I gather from John’s blunt portrait of Thomas is that he is from Missouri–“Show me.”  He is Harry Truman.  He is a scientist–if you can’t duplicate the experiment, the experiment isn’t true.  Nobody hustles or swindles Thomas.  He will not be taken in by the false promises of the hapless Detroit Lions.

When my son was a growing sports fan, we were living in Michigan, so of course I taught him to be a Lions fan, but year after bootless year with no resurrection from the dead, I finally lost interest and moved to New England and switched my allegiance to the slightly more successful Patriots, but my faithful son, who is 26 years old now, is still part of that legion of loving but lame Lion loyalists who keep the faith no matter what.

Thomas would never persist in such folly.  He needs evidence, he needs results, he needs hard evidence of resurrection from the dead.

Thomas doesn’t read fiction; what can you learn from stories that never happened? He hates John Grisham and William Shakespeare too.  He reads biographies, spreadsheets, The Wall Street Journal, and Science. Gandalf and Dumbledore?  Thomas just doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.

He is a linear thinker with an over-developed left side of the brain, limited imagination, and diminished expectations.  “Let us also go to Jerusalem that we might die with him.”  Life is short and then you die, is his motto.  Hope isn’t his best thing, but courage is.  In other words, Thomas is a lot like a lot of us.  We overeducated, sophisticated, cynical, twenty-first century Americans?   Thomas is our patron saint.

So with the time I have left, let me talk to you about the varieties of unbelief.  I borrowed my sermon title this morning from a book written 50 years ago by Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus from the University of Chicago and probably America’s most respected church historian.  He is one of my favorite Chicagoans.  Before the University of Chicago, he served as founding pastor to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Elk Grove Village, which Google tells me is 25 miles from here.  In this 1964 book, Dr. Marty says there are nine distinctive varieties of unbelief, but don’t worry; I’ll resist the temptation to give you all nine.

The first variety of unbelief is what I will call faith’s unsung but indispensable twin.  Let’s conjure for a moment with that image of Thomas Didymus as Jesus’ twin brother.  Just as a promising image, not as a historical fact.  Honest doubt is faith’s troublesome and unsung but indispensable twin.  That is to say, where would we be without a little honest skepticism in this world crawling with spiritual fraudulence and religious hucksters?  A little reasonable doubt keeps faith honest and true and holy.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m on Thomas’ side this morning. When Dr. Marty was working on his book about unbelief, he had to take a transcontinental flight so he thought he’d get a little reading done on the airplane, so he gets comfortable in his seat and spreads all his work in front of him.  He has Robert Ingersoll’s Why am I Agnostic?  He had Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian.  He had a book called The Infidel and another called The Future of Unbelief and still another called The Faith of a Heretic.  In those days they insisted on putting your title on your plane ticket, so there it was: The Reverend Dr. Martin E. Marty.  The stewardess comes by and eyes his pile and says “Just whose side are you on, Reverend?”1   So I don’t want you to ask the same question this morning.  I’m on Jesus’ side, not Thomas’.

But you see what I mean, don’t you?  When I read this story I feel really bad for Thomas.  For one thing, Thomas wasn’t asking for any more proof really than what the other disciples got.  They didn’t believe either until Jesus crashed their little pity party by walking right through the locked doors of that Upper Room like Caspar the Friendly Ghost.

You know what?  This is practically heretical but you know what?  I think I would be proud if someone called us mainline liberal Protestants a bunch of Thomas Christians.  It would mean that we don’t fall for every television faith healer or charismatic charlatan who comes down the pike.  It would mean that we don’t have a little room off the narthex, next to the coat racks, where, as in many churches, you check your brain before entering God’s sacred space.

It just will not do for the Christian Church and the Christian book-selling industry and the Christian pulpit to be so condescending to the honest doubts of good men and women who bring their own hard questions to our outlandish Gospel.

A while back I had a Sunday off and attended a Presbyterian Church in one of our great American cities.  I’m not going to tell you which city, because what I have to say is not terribly kind, but I will tell you that this city is one of the fastest-growing and most prosperous in the land.  It is just exploding.

This Presbyterian Church had three acres in the middle of that city’s Skyscraper Alley.  From the church steps you could see 15 40-story cranes hauling up office buildings and apartment buildings and condominiums; in the next two years, thousands of new neighbors, probably 80 or 90% of them unchurched,  will move into those buildings within walking distance of that Presbyterian church.

They must have had 200 parking spaces.  When I came home and tried to wedge my mini-van into one of our 12 spaces, I was green with envy.   Yes, my church in Greenwich had 12 parking spaces, and that was such a pain in our collective necks that I swore I would never go to another church with such a sorry parking lot, and now look where I’ve landed.

But you know what?  The Sunday morning I visited this church in skyscraper alley, our parking lot could have handled every Presbyterian Chevy that wanted to come to church that day. The service was in the 100-seat chapel, uncomfortably empty even in that small space, instead of the 800-seat sanctuary.   There were about 50 people in the chapel and my first thought was “Why so few?” but then the preacher got started and my question became “Why so many?”

He wasn’t careless.   He wasn’t inept.  He was just out of touch.  He did not have a clue about the spiritual and intellectual landscape the twenty-first-century American mind inhabits today.  He was completely dismissive of honest doubt; with a wave of his hand he casually banished it from his sanctuary.  He let so many questions go begging that day that I thought about starting an SPCQ, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Questions.  The sermon essentially consisted of quoting Psalm 14 about six different times in six different ways: you know, the one that says, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no god.’”  You could tell that’s exactly what he thought, that people who didn’t believe in God were just silly.

But is that your experience, that people who don’t believe in God are fools?  Sigmund Freud, Frederick Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Stephen Jay Gould, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Neil Tyson: are they fools?  They might be wrong, but they’re not fools.  There is an awful lot of evidence on their side of the debate.  God often does seem gone in this world replete with more crucifixions than resurrections; facile platitudes will no longer win the day.  If he had just for one moment entertained the smallest sliver of the possibility that what he was saying might not be true, he would have had some chance of reaching the curious unchurched seeker who wandered into that chapel looking for some answers to life’s hardest questions.

So one variety of unbelief is the kind of doubt that is faith’s unsung but indispensable twin.  But let’s be careful now.  This celebration of unbelief can only go so far, right?  There are other varieties of unbelief.  Among them is what I will call spiritual sloth.  It masquerades as intellectual sophistication, but if you look closely all it is really is common everyday laziness.  Dr. Marty calls it listlessness, boredom, lack of ambition,2 the failure to ask the hard questions of the universe, its origin, its destiny, its meaning.  They can’t be bothered with it.  They’re too busy playing golf and making money.

Garrison Keillor tells us that one Christmas Eve at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Father Emil is “inspired by the sight of all the lapsed Catholics parading into church with their unbaptized children…He looked around at all the little children he’d given first communion to, now grown heavy and prosperous and sad and indolent, but clever enough to explain their indolence and sadness as a rebellion against orthodoxy, a protest, adventurous, intellectual, which was really only dullness of spirit.”3

Do you see what he means? Look, I know there are arguments to be pressed for the sad fact of a godless universe.  Much of the time God seems to be gone.  But at the same time, how can you be “born into this world of endless wonders”4 and not be overwhelmed by the intricate enigma of it all?  How can you ponder the human eye and not wonder how it came to be?  How can you visit the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium or the Adler Planetarium and not be overcome by an unexpected “surge of sheer blind gratitude”5  for the inexplicable, unnecessary, luxurious prodigality of it all?  Why is there something and not nothing?  Why is there life and not just cold, inert silence?  Why is there mind and not just brain?  What does your life mean?  Are you a plan or an accident?  Does Jesus have anything to do with authentic human existence?  Does it matter?  Do you care?  Have you given it any thought?   Or can’t you be bothered with it between tennis lessons?

The thing to notice about Thomas is that it is precisely this linear-thinking skeptic with diminished expectations who comes forth–finally, after he’s wrestled his doubts to the mat–with the most extravagant confession anywhere in the Gospels about who Jesus really is: “My Lord and my God.”  It’s because once he attains his faith, it’s real.  It’s tested.  It’s coated with sweat and hardened by honest exertion.  It’s not some anemic, untested shadow of the real thing.

Thomas was at that cross.  He saw Jesus’ flayed flesh and pierced hands and ruined body.  He went through his own crucifixion of heart-breaking grief, so Thomas won’t believe just because somebody tells him.  Thomas doesn’t believe because his friends believe.  Thomas doesn’t believe because his momma told him it’s the polite thing to do.  Thomas doesn’t believe because he memorized the books of the Bible in fourth-grade Sunday School and then never really cared enough in his maturity to ask whether it mattered.  He made his faith his own that day in the presence of the risen Lord.  How did we ever start calling him Doubting Thomas?  “My Lord and my God,” is what he says.

So there are varieties of unbelief.  Some of it is the doubt which proves in the end to be faith’s unsung but indispensable twin.  Some of it is dullness of spirit masquerading as adventurous rebellion against received opinion.  You might want to ask yourself what kind yours is.

Lord knows there are reasons enough to doubt the truth of the Gospel.  Sometimes it’s just beyond belief.  But there are a few things that are beyond doubt.  It is beyond doubt that if God can throw this whole cacophonous, polychromatic, multi-media show on the stage in the first place, then God can raise the dead too.  It is beyond doubt that if any life in history would ever be raised, it would be his.  It is beyond doubt that his life is the key to authentic human existence, this life of embracing the leper and loving the unlovely and welcoming the lonely, this life of turning common well water into rich red wine, of feeding the hungry thousands from his own meager store, of defeating violence by absorbing the blow with compassion.  It is beyond doubt that the fullest breath you’ll ever take and the most joyful day you’ll ever live is when you shape your life to that pattern, that day when you too, with Doubting Thomas, can say, “My Lord and my God.”

           1 Martin E. Marty, Varieties of Unbelief (New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1964), p. 15.

           2 Martin Marty, Varieties of Unbelief, p. 108.

           3 Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home (New York: Viking, 1987), pp. 181-182

           4 Walker Percy in his novel The Second Coming, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1980), p. 189.

          5  A phrase of John Updike in The Meaning of Life (Boston: Little, Brown).