by Rev. Dr. Karen Felter Vaucanson
(A Priest with the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Denmark)
When I read my newspaper, watch tv, or navigate social media it strikes me how most things are presented as unambiguous. Most people seem very certain. Like they present a clear-cut case. It is very rare that I read a post or watch a program where the uncertainties are exposed or just the nuances and possibilities of interpretation drawn out.
I do not know if it has always been like this, or if it has gotten worse as we have adapted to the social media format with its word limitations, its tendency to portray a single moment as representative of the whole story, and where you get more likes or followers from being clear, polemical, or even aggressive. But it makes sense.
Literally, I believe it is an attempt to make sense of life. It makes sense that in a time of both fake news and a pandemic, one is looking for certainty, coherence, something fixed and secure. The world has no patience for doubters.
The disciple Thomas doubts. And I think it is time we looked to Thomas (John 20, 24-29). His nickname is Didymus which is Greek and means twin. In the history of theology, that nickname has been interpreted as an allusion to the fact that he is often divided between faith and doubt. He is therefore also called Doubting Thomas.
Today, Thomas is often presented as an image of the modern person who is also torn between faith and doubt. Thomas does not believe that Jesus is risen until he has seen the nail marks in his hands and stuck his hand in the wound in his side. He only believes in what he can see and feel. Only when he experiences Jesus' wounds does he believe. Implied: his doubts are gone.
One can, of course, interpret the story in this way. But when it is set up like this, faith is reduced to something that does not really have to do with experience at all. And faith and doubt become something that replace each other, and thus can not be present at the same time. Admittedly, this is how one can immediately interpret Jesus' words to Thomas: “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (my italics). This could be understood as a pretention to having faith devoid of experience.
I do not think that is the way to understand it. I believe that faith and doubt are of the same substance. As a wise monk once put it to me: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” When you are certain of something - when you are completely sure - then you may feel safe and all may make sense, but you are also closed. Certainty turns one inward on oneself – it closes one. Then there is no room for either faith or doubt.
It is striking that the text about Thomas begins with Jesus coming to the disciples through closed doors. Faith comes from outside and breaks up the certainty the disciples had about the supremacy of death and evil. Faith breaks through the closed doors of certainty. Jesus penetrates the closed doors of the disciples and opens their eyes so that they can see - so that they can experience - that there is much more to say than what seemed so certain and unambiguous - that death has the last word.
Faith is fundamentally an opening movement. So is doubt. The two are not opposites, rather connected - like twins. I think it's exciting to think about where faith and doubt meet - and I think we find a good image of this place in the wound.
When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, his body was pierced by thorns, lashes, nails, and spears. In Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" one is exposed to a very graphic representation of this torture. The body that opens outwards. It is exposed. It everts its inner being out. It's very powerful.
It is literally the vulnerability of Christ that is portrayed. (Vulnerability - derived from the Latin noun vulnus "wound"). But what is not shown in this very concrete representation of Christ’s suffering is that it reveals his divinity. Like a lamb being led to slaughter, writes the prophet Isaiah, God remained vulnerable to his creation. And being vulnerable means being open. As the body of Christ was opened, God revealed his unambiguous openness towards us.
More specifically, the wound is an opening. The wound thus represents an openness towards something else - something Other. In the nail marks of Christ, God shows the openness he has towards creation. Even when man appears from his most cruel side, God remains open and says "Today you will be with me in Paradise"(Luke 23,43).
In the suffering on the cross on Good Friday, God reveals himself as open. And the Bible is nothing but the story of how God is open towards the world. The creation narrative tells us that it has always been like that. Even before we were here. At Christmas, this openness and love for the world is embodied. It is incarnated. It comes to us in a human being. And on Easter Sunday, we are told that God’s openness is greater than anything else in the world, more fundamental than anything else — more fundamental than even death.
Doubting Thomas can not believe until he has seen the wounds of Jesus. He wants to stick his hand in the wounds and feel them. Thomas’ doubt can be seen as a weakness or an opposition to faith - but one can also see it as a vulnerability. Thomas exposes himself and his doubts to Jesus. And in the process he opens himself to God. Doubt is openness. A longing, perhaps, for something more. In this way doubt - perhaps better than faith - expresses the movement and process inherent in both. But like doubt, faith is never something you arrive at and then it is there. Faith is never static - stagnant - that is, certainty.
We humans do not generally feel great about openness and vulnerability. It is easier to describe reality in boxes, and it is easier to relate to life when it is unambiguous and unnuanced. It is easier to group people and condemn them than to see the individual and be open and vulnerable to him or her and their story.
Yet most of us have also experienced moments where we have been opened to the world. It is like a wound to the heart, through which everything can enter, both suffering and joy. For me personally, having a child, for example, was like being opened up to the world in a whole new way. I was completely vulnerable and took everything in. In fact, while giving birth the uterus is opened like a wound. The female body literally opens up - and with a painful breath it makes room for a new perspective.
I think we each have our own experiences of moments where we have been vulnerable or something in us has been opened up. These are concrete experiences, but they are not static experiences. It's always a movement. And when faith is not experienced in this way, we need to know that it is not gone. That is why Jesus comes to us through our closed doors. That is why we go to church and sit down and share Eucharist. Here we ask Christ to share in his vulnerability and openness.
Jesus tells Thomas that the blessed are those who believe without having seen. By that I think he means that the blessed are those who are open and vulnerable. Those who do not want to be closed around themselves, but long to take part in God and in the world. Faith is not knowledge or certainty, it never has been. It's openness.