Jonathan Whitfield, an English preacher many years ago, was once speaking with a group of coal miners. He decided to see if he could get a feel for where they were in their faith life. He turned to one man in the audience and asked him, “What is it that you believe?” “Well,” said the man, “I believe the same as the church.” “Alright,” Whitfield said. “What does the church believe?” “Well, they believe the same as me.” Seeing he wasn’t getting anywhere, Whitfield tried once more. “Yes, but what is it that you both believe?” “Well sir,” he replied, “I suppose we both believe the same thing.” I understand that coal miner later went on to a successful career in politics.
Now, being a minister myself, and meaning no disrespect to Reverend Whitfield, I don’t usually think that’s such a great idea. Asking people point blank what they believe is what I would call counter-productive. Most people aren’t very public about their beliefs. I remember a flight I once had out to California. After we’d taken off, the woman sitting next to me asked, “So, what do you do for a living.” This was back in the day that people might still be expected to strike up a conversation with a stranger. “Well,” I said to her, “I’m a minister.” She promptly turned away from me and didn’t say another word during our entire six-hour flight. I would have been curious to know what it was in her life that made her react so negatively to my answer. I would have been happy to clarify that I’m not one of thoseministers. She was in no danger of my conducting an impromptu altar call right there on the plane. But I never got the chance. For a lot of people, faith is not a conversation they really want to have.
But, just for the sake of argument, let me ask you. How would respond if someone wanted to know what it is you believe? Well first of all, you might try dodging the question. Clearly, it depends on who’s asking, when, where, and why. The truth is, we have lots of beliefs: what we should teach in our schools, how to solve environmental problems, healthcare, immigration, personal security, global capitalism, sports teams, you name it. All of us have a long list of beliefs about a long list of things.
But context is important. The fact that I am a minister, that we’re all here in church on this bright Easter Sunday morning, makes all the difference. “What do you believe?” in this case, is obviously about your religious faith, and particularly about the resurrection. That’s what we do on Easter morning. We talk about the resurrection. One of my favorite old cartoons shows a minister shaking hands with a man after what has obviously been an Easter Sunday worship service. With a disapproving look on his face, the man says to the minister, “Pastor, you’re in a rut. Every time I come here you preach about the Resurrection.” Yes, well, maybe he should try coming more than once a year. But that’s what we do on Easter. We talk about the resurrection. Easter is an invitation to believe.
But believing is not so easy. Most of us have been so steeped in the idea that we should take much of anything at face value. We’re much more likely to think that if something seems to defy reason, it probably isn’t possible. We’ve been trained to turn a skeptical eye on everything we see, and our capacity to have a simply faith has suffered in the process.
When Pam and I had young children, we used to enjoy playing computer games together. That was back in the day when we had to swap out 5 ¼ inch floppy disks every few minutes. The dark ages. We especially liked the fantasy/adventure games, which tell stories and require some creative puzzle solving. One game we all liked was called Kyrandia. The main character, who we controlled with our little joy stick, was a woman mystic and alchemist named Zanthia.
To play the game, you had to make Zanthia travel around Kyrandia collecting ingredients for the various potions she needed. At one point, Zanthia travels to a place where several people are caught in a trance. They are paralyzed, unable to move or speak and their eyes spin around like crazy. Clearly, Zanthia needs a potion to wake these people up. Ah, but which one? Eventually, you discover that Zanthia needs to collect a rabbit’s footprint, some lizard tears, a bowl of sweet and sour sauce and a lucky horseshoe. When she mixes them all together, lo and behold, the game tells you that you have successfully created the “Skeptic Potion.” It is the skeptic potion that will bring the people out of their trance, but before Zanthia can use it, the potion has to be activated on the “Alter of Doubt.”
Isn’t that fabulous. In case you missed it, there’s a not so subtle message here that the way to avoid being in a trance, being paralyzed or maybe brainwashed, is to shine the light of skepticism and doubt on everything we are asked to believe. And most of us do that. We may not always be conscious we’re doing it, but by the time we’ve become adults it’s almost second nature. We have this little, skeptical voice in the back of our heads that constantly reminds us to be careful about who and what we trust.
And that’s not a bad thing. A little skepticism can sometimes get us out of a lot of trouble. People sometimes feel that doubt and skepticism are the enemies of faith. Personally, I don’t believe that. I can’t imagine God not wanting us to use the minds we’ve been given. We are not called to be robots, without any thoughts of our own. A healthy skepticism can be the antidote to a blind and unthinking faith. But skepticism can also be a problem without a solution; a game without an ending; a maze in which we become lost and can’t find an exit. Doubt can so easily become the alter upon which we worship.
We’ve all been well trained in this game of skepticism. Much of our education is aimed at exactly that: teaching us not to take anything on faith. We are expected to have proof for the things we believe. As Paul Simon says in one of his songs, “Faith is an island in the setting sun, but proof, proof is the bottom line for everyone.” But, let me just ask you to think about that for a minute. For most of us, proof is not the bottom line at all. What we rely on, most of the time, is the authority of people we trust, who do the proving for us.
C.S. Lewis once said exactly that. “Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there is such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary person believes in the solar system, atoms, and the circulation of the blood on authority––because the scientists say so. Every historical statement is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But we believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them.” Lewis was right. As much as we like to think we have proof for the things we believe, the reality is that for most things, we’re simply going along with what we’ve been told.
The problem is, these days, many of the people who are in authority, who ought to be people we can trust, have proven to be untrustworthy. In government, in business, in our churches, our universities and our media, we have repeatedly had our noses rubbed in the unfaithfulness of some of our highest authority figures. My friends, this is an important point. Because one way or another, we are all figures of authority, even if only to our friends and family. And if, in the practice of our authority, we do not behave with honor and integrity, if we do not say what we mean and mean what we say, as my parents used to put it, we damage the faith of those who look up to us. And when some of our authorities prove untrustworthy, it tends to make us skeptical of all authority. Put that together with Lewis’s contention that “Ninety-nine percent of the things we believe are believed on authority,” it isn’t hard to understand why our country is experiencing a crisis of faith.
We’ve become caught up the game of skepticism. We demand proof, but sometimes, even proof can be a problem. Sometimes we can have trouble believing even those things we’ve seen with our own eyes. There’s a wonderful story told by Ken Davis, in his book, How to Speak To Youth. A man was teaching a science class. He gave his students an assignment to prepare a lesson for the class that they themselves would teach. They’d be graded on their creativity and their ability to drive home their point in a memorable way. Well, one student really took this on as a challenge. He decided to teach a class on “The Law of the Pendulum.” He began by explaining the physical principle that governs a swinging pendulum. According to that law, a pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it is released. Because of friction and gravity, every time the pendulum swings, it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it comes to rest.
To demonstrate, he attached a three-foot string to a child’s toy top and fastened it to the top of the blackboard with a thumbtack. He pulled the top to one side and made a mark, then let it go. Each time it swung back he made a new mark. In about a minute it came to rest. The marks he’d made proved the law. He then asked how many in the room believedin the law of the pendulum. Everyone in the class raised their hands, including the teacher.
Then, he asked the teacher for his help. Hanging from a steel beam in the center of the room was a large, metal pendulum weighing 250 pounds. The student asked his teacher to climb up on a table and sit in a chair with the back of his head against a cement wall. He then brought the pendulum right up to his teacher’s nose. Very calmly, he once again explained the law of the pendulum, then said to his teacher, “If that law is true, when I release this mass of metal, it will swing across the room and return to a point just short of your nose.” He then looked his teacher straight in the eye and asked, “Do you believe in the law of the pendulum?” There was a long pause. The teacher began sweating, but weakly he nodded and said, “Yes.” The student released the pendulum. It made a swishing sound as it arced across the room. At the far end of its swing, it paused, and then started back. At which point, the teacher literally dove off the table onto the floor of the classroom. The student then turned back to the class and asked, “Does he believe in the law of the pendulum?” Altogether, the class shouted, “NO!”
People, make no mistake. Belief is not an easy thing. Especially if what we’re talking about is something really important, like possibly getting your nose smashed, or like the resurrection. It isn’t easy when we know we can’t always trust those in authority. It isn’t easy when we don’t have great confidence even in the things we think we do believe.
I find I’m very sympathetic towards Thomas, the disciple history has labeled “Doubting Thomas.” For me, it seems very appropriate for him to have called the witness of the other disciples into question. They said they had seen Jesus, spoken to him, received his blessing. But Thomas wasn’t about to take their word for it. He wasn’t going to be played for a fool. In the face of their assurances, he was not so much doubting, as exercising what we would call a healthy skepticism. I will not believe until I see it for myself, until I can actually touch the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands.
Thomas was playing the game of skepticism. It is a game we are all very familiar with. But much as it serves us well in some ways, it also has a serious flaw. Skepticism can lie to us. It can create in us the impression that there is nothing in life that deserves our openhearted faith and trust. It never stops trying to convince us that belief is dangerous and unwise. The whole purpose of our skepticism is to hold us in that place of doubt and uncertainty. It doesn’t allow for the possibility of trust or faith. It never stops casting shadows of doubt on the stuff of our lives. And since the things we are asked to believe can always be called into question, faith can only be had by laying skepticism asked. Faith can only be had by a willing suspension of disbelief.
For most of us, these two voices struggle within us; doubt and faith, skepticism and trust. They are perfectly illustrated by the father who brought his son to Jesus for healing. The father said to Jesus, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus answered, “If I am able … all things can be done for the one who believes.” And the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
My friends, that’s exactly where most of us are on Easter morning; wanting to believe, being held back by our unbelief, being held back by the game of skepticism we’ve all become so good at. But just like the father who was so desperate to find help for his son, we can choose to believe in spite of our unbelief. We can choose to find a place in our hearts for faith and trust. We can decide, if we so desire, that the resurrection is God’s deepest and most abiding truth.
In his new book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr says it beautifully. “What happened at the resurrection is that Jesus was fully revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ in embodied form. Basically, one circumscribed body of Jesus morphed into ubiquitous Light. Henceforth, light is probably the best metaphor for Christ or God.”
Do you believe it? Do you believe in light, in love, in faith, in trust? These are often the things that skepticism calls into question. But the resurrection invites us to a more openhearted life. It invites us to entertain the possibility of God’s deepest and most abiding truth.