Mark Vernon on the important role of doubt in the Easter story
Uncertainties in life are generally felt to be something to reduce, if not cut out. People try to ease their personal doubts and worries, business leaders dislike uncertainty and, perhaps partly in response, politicians seem increasingly inclined just straightforwardly to deny their unknowns.
And yet, at the same time, it’s not hard to feel this state of being sure and banishing doubt is false and deluded.
The Christian story that shapes the few weeks of Lent and the run up to Easter could be subtitled “a tale of doubt”. The disciples who were following Jesus variously panic, flee, and collapse in confusion because they’ve no idea what’s going on. Jesus himself, pinned to the wretched cross, cries out in desolation.
And yet, it’s somehow become a story of new life and discovery, which raises a question. How can such extreme uncertainty lead to what Jesus also called “life in all its fulness”? What changed for his followers? What might that have to show us now?
There’s one figure in the story that I’ve always liked. He’s Doubting Thomas.
I like him partly because my own feelings about Christianity are pretty ambivalent. I was once a clergyman in the Church of England, but left, not only because I grew frustrated with the church, though I did; but also because I feel Christianity, at least as I’ve known it, has lost touch with something essential.
It seems to me either to overstress rather narrow beliefs about Jesus, or miracles, or the resurrection; or to downplay them, so that it becomes little more than a useful but unimaginative call to love others and say prayers.
The upshot is that I feel nervous if I’m called a Christian. It feels like being boxed in. But I can also see that buried within Christianity lies a perennial wisdom about life that can be nothing short of transformative. But what is it, and how might it work? Well, take the figure of Thomas.
There’s a story about him that begins to illuminate things. It comes when Jesus is telling the disciples that he knows something calamitous is about to happen to him, though he also tells them not to let their hearts be troubled. It’s the path he must follow.
Needless to say, this does not comfort them. And Thomas is the one who interjects. “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says. “How can we know the way?”
Thomas is fearful and exasperated. You can feel his confusion, even anger, at where he’s found himself and what’s seemingly about to happen. And let’s stay here for a moment. Let’s resist any standard response, such as that resurrection will bring a good end to the story, to understand something about his anxiety.
I’ve come to feel that doing so is actually crucial, that the experience of being lost, frightened and not knowing the way is fundamental to any truly transformative expansion of life.
I actually learnt this, first, from the ancient Greek philosophers. When I left the church, I turned to writers like Plato, seeking an account of meaning that might make up for what I’d lost. Their central figure is Socrates, and what he talked about when he was alive was being certain that he was uncertain about lots if not most things.
He made doubt a way of life, not because he wanted to deny or avoid worries and fears. Rather, he saw that doing so connects us with something basic in our humanity. We are the “in between” creature, he said. We’re not like other creatures, so far as we can tell, who seem content when life stays the same, and like it best when nothing much changes.
We humans want more. We know that there’s lots we don’t know, and we want to find out about it. It fires a yearning about ourselves, others, life, the cosmos, God.
It means that not knowing is a crucial, first step to seeing more and going deeper into life. Becoming lost, even frightened, can be necessary.
Socrates realised that not knowing the way, tolerating the doubt, is the route to a turning point. He forged an approach to life that involved going around asking all sorts of apparently simple questions that caused people to stumble and doubt but also opened up new possibilities, and that’s why he became the pivotal figure in western philosophy.
His approach was close to another way that people grappled with uncertainty at the time, too. I’m thinking of the so-called mystery religions that boomed across the Greek and then Roman empire, including Britain.
They were initiation rites that, over the course of a few days, took participants through a disorientating experience of being plunged quite literally into darkness and shadows. They then emerged on the other side, more commonly than not, declaring that what they’d undergone had changed everything. People said they could now live happily and die with hope.
The Roman philosopher, Plutarch, gives us an enticing glimpse into what the experience was like. He says: “Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walkings in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible things, panic and shivering and sweat, and bewilderment.”
The initiate became disorientated. They suffered. But after that – or rather, through it – there came a transformation. Plutarch continues: “And then some wonderful light comes to meet you… and there the initiate, perfect by now, set free and loose from all bondage.”
Early Christianity became, in part, another immersive, experiential mystery religion. “I tell you a mystery,” writes Saint Paul. But it had an edge, too.
It had an approach that was much more accessible to the less educated and so, with Christianity, the freedom to live happily and die with hope could spread – at first, during the second and third centuries, slowly, often through the underclasses, until in the fourth century, when it went mainstream.
The stories and sayings that Christianity told, many of them gathered together in what we now call the gospels, must have had a big part in that. They promised that what the disciples had experienced, you could experience, too. Which takes us back to the figure of Thomas.
There’s a second big moment in his story when he calls out in exasperation. This time it comes after the resurrection, though what I like about Thomas is that much as I haven’t seen an astonishing vision of Jesus walking again, neither did he. The story goes that he missed the occasion when it happened.
The other disciples told him about it, and that’s when he expresses his frustration once more. “Unless I touch Jesus’s wounds, I will not believe,” he said.
A week later, Jesus appears again. This time Thomas is there and he invites him to do precisely that, adding, “Do not doubt but believe.” Oddly enough though, Thomas doesn’t touch the wounds. Instead, he spontaneously exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Now this is a different moment. It’s as if his doubt wasn’t resolved but was entirely eclipsed. It wasn’t that he got his empirical confirmation and irrefutable proof. He’d actually seen something far more than he’d expected, and I think he was able suddenly to see it because he’d had this period of doubt.
My sense is that the struggle with not knowing had led him, finally, to ask questions of himself. What was he missing? Was the problem to do with him? Did he need to perceive life entirely differently?
And then, it clicked. There was more to life than he knew. Way more.
Thomas had another nickname and my guess is that it’s his grappling and questioning that earned it for him. He was also called Didymus, or “the Twin”, and the implication is that he was seen to have become a spiritual brother to Jesus, a twin, because he not only believed in Jesus, but more importantly sought to know God as Jesus did – through uncertainty, doubt, even suffering.
He made the discovery not by seeing miracles, or having visions, or by assertions of faith, but because at the end of his tether, when he was empty, another side of life came into view, though in truth it had been there all along.
After Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God”, Jesus replies. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” That’s right. You have to undergo this experience to get it. Seeing is believing, in fact, though seeing more in this interior way, with the mind’s eye.
For myself, I feel that I went on something of a parallel journey when I went into psychotherapy. After I left the church, and had found something in ancient philosophy, I realised I needed a modern way to have an experience that was the equivalent of meeting Socrates. I found it with my therapist who kept asking me often simple but penetrating and awkward questions.
It was hard. I got exasperated and angry. I also had pretty long periods of time when I felt lost, and became frightened. When would it end? How long would it take?
But the talking cure is unlike other more schematic, behavioural therapies. It starts from the premise that we are the in between creature. We do not know, particularly at first, what’s going on – though psychotherapy also holds a kind of trust, backed up by experience, that there’s a path to be found and it can be followed.
I managed to hold on and work it through, and I can say it changed my life. It also gave me a different perception of Christianity. I now no longer see it as just a set of beliefs, or a moral system, or about being part of a church – though it may secondarily involve those things. Rather, for me, it’s about a revolution of perception – seeing life radically differently by embracing a path that takes you to an edge that’s actually an horizon.
What’s struck me, too, is that the path of doubt seems to be becoming more and more popular in the modern world. There’s therapy, of course. And people also learn to meditate, which is another very good way of calling yourself into question, by trying to sit still.
Or take the phenomenon of pilgrimage. It’s interesting because it’s sort of religious, but also not religious.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people across Europe are now giving up their creature comforts, bearing bloody feet and shared dormitories, to walk to places like Santiago di Compostela. They’re on the Camino, or “way” as it’s called, though just why is often not that clear to those involved.
There may be a sense that something in their lives needs facing, perhaps a breakup or a death. But by stepping out, into the unknown, they find answers that they come to see just couldn’t be found any other way. The pilgrimage facilitates that.
What is found through these different means can be explicitly religious, of course. That was the case with Thomas and the ancient philosophers felt that they gained a vision of God, too. I like the way they talk about it.
There’s Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who wrote a book called Meditations that’s still in print today. He urged his readers by saying, “Dig within; for within you lies the fountain of good, and it can always be gushing forth if only you always dig.”
Alternatively, the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who was a contemporary of Paul wrote: “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.”
I suspect that Paul shared this understanding. He came to call it “dying every day” – the practice of loosening yourself from the hopes and fears that you cling to, so as to make space for this more. It’s an inner shift of attitude, almost a self-sacrifice, to help a slow realignment with the divine.
Thomas has much to teach us. But his doubt needs a refresh. It’s not about proof, but what the experience itself can bring about. By refocusing inwardly, to an edge of awareness, something new appears. So I’d say undergo the uncertainty and the mystery, when the moments arise, and life will brilliantly grow. That’s the way.
Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and broadcaster. Learn more in Mark Vernon’s online course, “A History of Christianity in Eleven Short Chapters”. This piece was broadcast on the BBC as a Radio 4 Lent Talk. All of this year’s talks are available on BBC Sounds.