One of my favorite signs from the January 21st Women’s March in Seattle and around the world:
What do we want: Evidence based science!
When do we want it: After peer review!
Yesterday tens of thousands of people spilled onto the streets of Seattle again to demand we pay attention to the signs of the times: melting glaciers, rising temperatures, rising tides. Demanding that we give credence to what those who have examined these signs closely have to say, and demanding that we respond to the systemic issues at play so that we might protect those affected and contribute to the common good.
Black Lives Matter are asking for the same thing. They ask that we pay attention to those who know what it’s like to grow up black or brown in this country, that we consider the arguments of those who have studied mass incarceration, and that we respond to the systemic issues at play so as to protect those most affected and contribute to the common good.
But it can feel so overwhelming. These issues are massive. Simply massive. The systems that support them are entwined in every aspect of our lives. Where do we begin? It’s complex. One question about what is really going on leads to another and we find ourselves in this nuanced web of overlapping issues and intersecting needs. Wicked problems – Scott has said. Tangled up and hard to navigate. And so the common response when we get a glimpse of the complexity and the demands engagement with these issues might make on us tends to go one two ways. We tend to despair, claiming that there cannot possibly be any way forward, or we tend to deny the gravity of the problem.
Thomas and the community of disciples have something important to teach us here. There is no doubt they are overwhelmed. Frightened, hiding. Now Thomas…..I like to think that Thomas, out of the group, might be one who perhaps understands more than the others what it could mean if this way is not completely stamped out. If you remember, Thomas was the one that, when Jesus suggested they go back to Jerusalem said, ”let us go with him that we may also die with him.” He knows the implications of this way. And if these comrades of his are suggesting that there might be some way forward, that all is not lost, and the way is not dead, then there will be demands on them, dangerous painful demands.
But Thomas is a leader for us in what he does next. As overwhelmed as he is, he voices his doubt, his skepticism, to that group of friends and disciples. He makes demands and ask questions – he wants to see the evidence. I need to see what you are talking about. I need to see it up close and understand for myself. He doesn’t deny it and refuse to look, he doesn’t move to despair. He demands to see more and he voices his needs to the group, the community that has travelled with him this far and who knows him. The group for their part well they wait with him in his questions and about a week later this Jesus, the one wounded, the one Thomas needs to see, appears in the group amongst them. And Thomas is convinced that the way is not dead.
Skeptics, those who demand to see more, understand more, want to be convinced, are needed in a community that hopes to engage the issues of our time. That hopes to live out the gospel. The skeptics make us look. They lead us into bigger questions. They cause us to consider what we claim and demonstrate the evidence for our convictions. Skepticism is not denial and it’s not despair. It’s engagement and investigation. It’s part of the way forward.
But it cannot operate alone. Faith, trust - trust held in community, is also vital. The group in that room hold Thomas in the trust that they belong together. We do not see him turned away. They wait with him, go on with him even, in this overwhelming place. And the answers to Thomas questions appear in community. Faith and skepticism, faith and questions, faith and the search for evidence, faith and doubt; these are not exclusive concepts. We need both if we are to know the way, if we going to be of any good to the world.
I have been reading the work of a questioner lately. Her name is Lesley Hazleton and she is a self- professed agnostic, someone who doesn’t dismiss the idea of God but identifies more with the questions. Lesley is a biographer of the prophet Mohammed and it has been fascinating to read about the birth of that religion – a religion that is based in so many of the principles that we hold dear in the Christian faith. Lesley tells her readers that she is convinced that something significant and powerful happened to Mohammed on the mountain where he received the revelation began the formulation of the Quran in the year 610. Ironically, she is convinced that something significant happened precisely because of Mohammed’s doubt. He came running of that mountain she says, not with choirs of angels, trumpets blasting, and a shining face, but doubting and so convinced of his madness that he tried to hurl himself of a cliff. She says that in all revelations of God in all the three Abrahamic religions the reaction is to be overwhelmed and frightened – to question and to doubt.
But this doubt if it is to be useful it needs to be held in a context of faith, needs to be pursued and allowed to guide us forward. For Mohammed, this faith came in the unwavering and tender support of his wife. Abolish doubt Lesley says, and what is left is heartless conviction, dogmatism and righteousness. And abolish faith, this agnostic says, and what we get is hopelessness, despair, denial. Both are needed to move a community towards what is true. For Lesley she places her faith in the possibility of peace and the power of goodness. The great Abrahamic religions place their faith in a God who moves us towards these same things.
Something powerful happened in that room, to that bunch of disciples after the death of Jesus. Something powerful that they would give themselves to in ways that would ultimately cost them their lives. Something happened in that room and Thomas helped them make sense of it. He helped them, helps us, look at it closely. He helps us see again that peace comes to the church in the wounded, persistent, body of Christ, and he helped us know more fully a Christ who asks us to be this same body in the world.
So we need to ask our questions. We need to look closely at this faith of ours and at the issues of the day. One question at a time in the context of a community that trusts there is a way through and that will hold us and keep us as it gets overwhelming.
How does what I buy make a difference to the lives of pacific islanders who are losing their homes to rising seas?
Come here, says the body of Christ, the church. Let’s look at their wounds together. Let’s engage this issue one question at a time, let’s wait together, reflect together on how it happened and what our faith asks us to do. We won’t leave you to look alone, we’ll remind you that there is a way and that we are in this together.
How does what I do make any difference to the chances of a black boy being shot. Come here, says the body of Christ, the church. Let’s look closely at the wounds, listen to their stories. We will wait with these questions, and we will follow when they call us in deeper. We will listen for what our faith says about these things and what we must do. We won’t leave you alone. We’ll remind you that there is a way and that we are in this together.
How does how I live in King County affect those who cannot find a home. Come, says the church, this body of Christ. Come to a supper, meet some folks, follow your questions and we will wait together with our questions, with those who suffer, and we will listen together for what is at play, and what our faith tells us what we must do.
How can I believe these scriptures that are so old and tell of these fantastic things? Come here, says the body of Christ, the church. Let’s look at them together. Let’s pose our questions about what they have to say about our lives now, the way they have been used and mis-used, what they mean to us and where we people of this time see Jesus in our midst now.
Doubt asks that we examine closely who we are, what we claim, and what is required of us. Faith asks that we do not lose hope, that we trust in goodness and the possibility of a way through. Faith and doubt, faith and skepticism, faith and questions. Two vital sides of the life we need, the life we have been sent to, the life we have been blessed with.
So what do we want? Skepticism, questions, examination of the evidence before us.
When do we want it? In the company of those committed to being with us when it feels overwhelming and who will keep us anchored to the understanding that peace is possible, goodness will overcome, and love wins. Thanks be to God.