In 2005, acclaimed playwright John Patrick Shanley’s play, Doubt, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for best Play. The drama features two central characters, Fr. Flynn, a popular, progressive parish priest at St. Nicholas Church and Sister Aloysius, a very conservative nun who is principal of the school attached to the parish, circa 1964 in the Bronx. In his opening monologue, delivered as a sermon, Fr. Flynn says, "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” It becomes clear early on that Sister Aloysius distrusts her fellow nuns/sisters, teachers, and Fr. Flynn. She becomes suspicious that Fr. Flynn has behaved inappropriately with an impressionable young man, St. Nicholas’ first African American student. She eventually confronts Fr. Flynn with her suspicions, which he angrily denies. Eventually, he threatens to remove her as head of school if she doesn’t back down. She counters by saying that she has called his old parish and found that he had committed infractions there and she will expose him if he doesn’t resign. He asks his superiors for a transfer and is reassigned to another parish as headmaster of a school. Sister Aloysius, in her final scene, confides to a younger nun that her claims of a phone call to Flynn’s old parish were a lie, and she has “such doubts” about her faith, Fr. Flynn’s guilt…she has such doubts.
Three words rise to the surface of this week’s readings: certainty, doubt, and witness. Paul speaks as an apostle with an ironclad certainty; Peter, having failed Jesus and been filled with his own doubts, proclaims now in Acts as a man of convicted witness to the Resurrected and saving life of Jesus. The 10 surviving disciples sit in the room filled with doubt and remorse and guilt until Jesus arrives through a wall or locked door. Thomas then resists and doubts, even in the face of the witness of all the other disciples that they have seen the Lord; only seeing and touching Jesus himself will convince him that Jesus has risen. So, we have a scriptural and literal witness that give us stories of certainty and doubt, hope and despair…and at the heart of it all, Jesus calls us to be faithful witnesses of the Resurrected reality of His salvation, triumph, and hope – even in the midst of doubt.
It is so very important, regardless of where we are in our faith, to make this community a place where doubt and questions are welcome. If we cannot express our fears, our doubts, and ask our questions of God in this community, in this place – then when or where can we? Doubt and certainty are not enemies in religious faith and life but often two sides of the same coin that can lead us into closer relationship with God and make us the witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ that God longs for us to be.
Doubt. Certainty. Witness. These sound a lot like legal terms, something we would use in a trial. In a courtroom we have a judge, a jury and lawyers. But who leads us down the path of discovery? Who are the people who ultimately decide guilt or innocence, freedom or detention? Witnesses, right? The people who tell us, from their view, what happened at the time, the day, the event in question. Witnesses tell us what they saw, heard, and think. Sometimes expert witnesses talk about DNA, physical evidence, trajectory of bullets, etc. The jury and/or judge then decide who is telling the truth and who is the most creditable/believable. Is the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?
But this is perhaps where legal proceedings and faith part ways. What do we doubt and why? Jesus’ followers were with him for three years. He healed, he loved, he taught, he touched, he preached, proclaimed, warned and even brought back people from the dead. The disciples saw these things – we have not; they believed these things; we may not. We may doubt that Jesus did the things that scriptures say he did because that is not the way science, physics, medicine, etc. work. We doubt. We believe. What convinces us?
Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska and Native American writer and mystic wrote: Why do you believe there is a God? That’s a fair question and one that we can all answer for ourselves, but let me share a thought that may stir your own spiritual imagination: I believe because of my experience. My faith is not grounded in what I wish to be true, but in what I experience as true. Like a scientist, I depend on the pragmatic results of my own evidence. I report what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, what I have observed to be repeated over and over. I believe because I continue to experience a force, a presence, a love I cannot deny, but only acknowledge, with a grateful heart.
But we still have doubts. The world of scripture tells us of a life and presence that the world of now would insist is not real. God doesn’t act in the world, does He? God is not good, is she? If God was good, folks would not suffer so. Jesus didn’t rise from the dead; after all, what difference does it make? These may sound like disturbing questions for a person or people who claim the truth. Yet, questions are a way for us to go deeper, to lean forward into our faith, and to lead us closer to God. Yes, questions can take us away from God, too, but only if our questions are not bound to our own experience. Anyone who has experienced the closeness and presence of God will never wander too far away. But often people are met with hostility and incredulity when they voice doubts or questions in Christian community and the questioners feel shame, guilt and/or anger and they either disappear or become silent. And how, pray tell, can we be witnesses from a place of silence?
I have such doubts …. I have had them, in my own life, I assure you. I understand them. Yet, I have too many times felt and experienced the overwhelming love of God; the grace and mercy of God in my own life, manifested in the people I have encountered (some whom I loved, some whom I struggled with; when the Eucharist moves inside of me. Yet my doubts and fears, many years ago, brought me to a clearer understanding of who God was calling me to be. I may still have doubts, but not about God – most of them are about me and my own continuing challenge to be as open to Christ Jesus as He always is to me.
In the end, we are all called to be faithful witnesses, to proclaim the goodness of God’s love and the way it blesses us with and in grace. Do we doubt that God’s love can save? Maybe we do. But if we ask questions about why we doubt, where we struggle, who we are and wish to be – without judgement – then in faith, God will provide the wisdom we seek. Jesus entered the room and said to His frightened, then overjoyed disciples, “Peace be with you.” And he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit.” Peter witnesses in the Acts of the Apostles to the things he had heard and seen. What have we seen? What have we heard? Maybe more than that, what have we experienced of God’s love and grace? We may have doubts. We have questions. Maybe the most important one is, “Who is Jesus to me, really?” How can the Savior of the world make me whole? We are witnesses to the grace of God and stand on the shoulders of the witnesses, in our own life, to faith: Holy Scripture, a mother, grandmother, an uncle, a sibling, the Church, a teacher or most of all our own experience of God. We can doubt and, at the same time, keep questioning while we move forward in hope of the Resurrected mercy of God. Our doubts and questions themselves, when asked in faith, can become witnesses to those who have not seen but desperately desire to believe.