Doubtful: Insights from My Life as Thomas’ Twin
David R. Weiss – April 16, 2023 – Pilgrim Lutheran Church, St. Paul
Thomas, who insists on touching Jesus in order to believe in today’s Gospel reading, is known as “the Twin.” Perhaps because he was a twin; or maybe simply as an inside joke, since in Aramaic “Thomas” means “twin.” In any case I experience myself as Thomas’ twin on a regular basis. Caught up in the throes of doubt. Faith seeming just beyond my reach. If only I could touch … I could believe.
If you ask me, Thomas gets a bad rap. I actually think there’s some powerful wisdom hiding in plain sight in this tale. This morning I want to suggest that perhaps, in the throes of doubt, TOUCH is where faith is born. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll save some time at the end for others of you to weigh in if you wish. So, here are some insights from my life … as Thomas’ twin.
Each of us moves through life with our own unique temperament. Mine has been shaped—at times misshaped—by a powerful intellect that has often insisted on knowing things for sure and has often eclipsed my capacity to honor my feelings. Beginning in adolescence, I suppose, is when DOUBT as an existential posture in life first dawned on me.
I felt inklings of a religious vocation during a confirmation retreat, but those inklings were accompanied by a veritable flood of uncertainty. Meanwhile, a couple high school friends were deeply involved in charismatic youth groups—featuring vibrant, extraverted, gushing, warm, fuzzy faith. Their effusive “certainty” left me (and all my memorized catechism “beliefs”) overfull with doubt. As if, whatever my “faith” was, it was just “pretend” compared to theirs.
But by the end of high school and through my college years, my point of religious reference shifted from charismatic Christianity to a more academic arena. My intellect—my budding prowess as a student of theology—managed to mostly silence the doubt. For the better part of four years, I “saw” Jesus with confidence through the lens of my studies and my intellectual mastery. I suspect I could always still hear the murmurings of doubt deep down, but the din of my vocational angst was louder, and my need to drown out doubt with doctrine was such that I may have convinced myself much of the time that I believed.
Until May of my senior year in college. That’s when Doubt came for me. By name. The last course I took at Wartburg College, in a “May Term” in 1982, was on Existentialist Literature. My intellect was in turns: intrigued, giddy, dizzy, and then full of doubt. We read Sartre and Camus, both brilliant atheist French philosophers. They were intriguing, fascinating, compelling even, but I managed to take them in stride. It was two Christians who threw me for a loop.
Søren Kierkegaard and Miguel de Unamuno were both philosopher-theologians with razor sharp minds, undeniable passion for God, and faith so entangled in doubt you couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started. They wrote about their doubt so faithfully and so eloquently that I could not help but hear my own doubt in their words. And I knew this was indeed one truth at the heart of my being. I might learn to be whole alongside this truth, but I would never be whole by continuing to deny it.
I was still far from “touching Jesus,” but this encounter in May 1982 was perhaps the moment when I finally gained courage to say, “Unless I can put my finger in the mark of the nails and set my hand in the wound in his side, I cannot believe.” There was a sort of a tragic comfort in being honest. Plus, I was not alone. There were other bright, gifted, passionate people who bravely wrote at the edge of belief. I both admired and feared their courage. What would that mean … FOR ME?
It wouldn’t take long to find out. I was already admitted to Wartburg Seminary for the fall of 1982. Still entirely unsure that I had a call to ministry, only that I was drawn to God … and now ironically, drawn to God with Doubt etched openly on my heart and mind.
Seminary was a rich, complicated experience—all three years I attended. And all three times I quit—full of doubt. I was Thomas every step of the way. And seminary is a hard place to carry doubt as your best friend. In mid-October 1982, just seven weeks into classes I wrote this poem. My first attempt to name my faith so clearly outside the ramblings in my journal.
Require of me anything, Father
but ask not that I have belief.
I will feed in your name, the hungry;
to the poor I will offer relief.
I will visit the sick and the prisoners;
the naked will be clothed by me.
I will gladly give shelter to strangers;
I will refresh all who are thirsty.
Yea, Lord, I will see you in all flesh;
for my neighbor I will die without care.
But ask not, O Lord, that I have faith;
my attempts have brought only despair.
Demand of me but that I live faith,
that my struggles, so frantic, never cease;
that my faith be the love I show all flesh,
that my hope, in my doubt, be my peace.
These words have been the rhyme of my life ever since. That fall they represented my first efforts to work things out in my head. I wasn’t actually doing any of those things. But I was beginning to recognize that IF I was going to touch Jesus, this was how it would happen.
That first year in seminary I read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and met a scholar who showed me a Jesus far more invested in this world than the next one. Later on, Marcus Borg and a host of other Jesus’ scholars would fill out this portrait of Jesus much further, but Yoder’s was the book that first invited me to seek Jesus right here in the contested messiness of life—and in radical, nonviolent solidarity at the margins.
I made three tentative attempts to touch Jesus during those years. To put my poetry into action. I led a youth group project folding origami peace cranes in my home congregation. It was an astonishing success. As we folded peace cranes, I shared with the youth what I had learned about pacifism and being peacemakers in the world. And suddenly it was a moment of painful learning as well. The enthusiasm of the youth sparked anger among their parents, several of whom were proud Vietnam war vets. I might have been trying to touch Jesus, but I ended up poking these parents in the eye. The project was shut down by the church council, my hand slapped away, as it were, before I ever got to touch those nail marks.
Back at seminary I became active in anti-apartheid work through the seminary’s Namibia Concerns group. And—chastened by my peace crane debacle, I led a far more savvy and successful campaign to have the seminary remove its nuclear fallout shelter and declare itself a nuclear free zone at the beginning of Advent, as an act of faithful public witness: truth-telling in an era of nuclear idolatry. I managed, if only just barely, to touch Jesus in those deeds.
But I lacked the confidence to call that “faith.” Over against the expectations of family and pastors, the seeming calm certainty of my seminary professors, and the over-stated Lutheran enthusiasm of my classmates, my simple deeds of solidarity seemed not much more than frantically treading water.
Looking back, THIS WAS the birth of faith for me. But I had never been taught—never invited—to recognize faith as anything other than believing assertions that only ever elicited doubt for me.
There were other moments of insight in seminary, but none that provided a sense of vocational clarity. So, I left seminary after three years and spent the next forty months or so wandering in the wilderness. “Forty,” of course, is a biblical approximation for “a dang long time.” It was about six years altogether, during which time I did mostly very menial work: hotel housekeeper, construction laborer, restaurant kitchen worker, shipping and receiving clerk, and (with apologies) junk mail labeler. All the type of things that an M.A. in religion qualifies you for.
Still, during these years, although I drifted to the edge of church, I also got much better at touching Jesus. I volunteered in a soup kitchen. I lived—at least partly by choice—a very simple life. I became active in a peace group devoted to nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons and U.S.-funded human rights violations in Central America. I helped—albeit it a safe distance—with the largest nonviolent trespass on ICBM missile silos in Missouri in U.S. history. I wrote and directed a street theater protesting U.S. foreign policy in Central America. And I was twice arrested and jailed for nonviolent protest actions in Madison, Wisconsin. Among other things.
I’m not sure that at the time I would’ve described these actions as “touching Jesus,” but I knew they were more meaningful and lifegiving than anything I’d done with my life up to that point. They were as close to “holy,” as I’d gotten. And yet, fulfilling as those things were, I sensed that my unique gifts—the strength of my intellect, the scope of my imagination, and the power of my words—were still waiting to be fully engaged in touching Jesus.
So, in 1992 I returned to grad school, this time to the University of Notre Dame, to begin a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics—which is more or less academic jargon for “touching Jesus.” These were hard years. Grad school might be a fine place to hone one’s thinking about compassion, but the rigors of study and what we ruefully called the “gladiator” style of seminar discussion did not make it an easy place to learn the practice of compassion.
Moreover, I was caught in a failing marriage. One imploding through emotional dysfunction and too often exploding in physical violence. I was regularly battered and bruised, inside and out. Not the story I’m here to tell, but few things amplify DOUBT to an all-encompassing experience the way that being caught in domestic violence does. That particular chapter of my life shaped my spiritual journey in ways I am still working to understand. I mention it here to acknowledge—emphatically—that for all of us, our inward journeys are always embodied journeys. And my embodied journey during these years was rough.
Nevertheless, in 1997, I had a moment as defining for me as that course in Existentialism at Wartburg College. A few years earlier, in sync with the ELCA’s early tumultuous venture into rethinking its stance on homosexuality, I began to focus a chunk of my academic theological energy on this question. I put my intellect, as it were, at the service of exploring how the church might “touch Jesus” in its encounter with gay and lesbian persons. My intellectual passion was fully engaged, but in February 1997, something shifted.
I read an anonymous poetic lament written by a gay senior at Notre Dame, published in a student magazine. He gave voice to the pain of “living in fear” (that was the title of his poem) across his entire four years at Notre Dame. Trusting no one with the truth of his self. Suddenly, that night, at home, in the midst of a violent marriage—my own “living in fear” that I had spoken to no one about—and with all my head-learning about homosexuality swirling around—
I found myself in the upper room alongside Thomas.
And in the anonymous gay young man, there stood Jesus, inviting me to place my fingers in the nail marks of his silence, to put my hand into the wound of his fear. And I did: writing and weeping through the night. My gifts of mind, imagination, and words all found desperate purpose as I wrote a prose-poem response to his piece, in what became a twenty-year practice of using my gifts to touch Jesus through my work in solidarity with LGBTQ+ persons seeking affirmation, welcome, and justice.
Of course, A LOT happened during that span from 1997 to 2017. My work with and on behalf of LGBTQ persons, involved befriending, writing, teaching, speaking, agitating. If you had asked me during those years to check off all the Christian doctrines I could cheerfully affirm, I would not have had an easy time. Intellectual doubt about this doctrine or that doctrine has been my constant companion—even as I taught college religion. Since my seminary days, I have been passionate in my conviction of a gracious energy at the heart of the cosmos, an energy that looks like mercy, justice, and compassion when active in human lives. And I have found the Christian account of Jesus rich with echoes of that truth.
But doctrine has always felt like being in a room with other apostles clamoring on about how they just saw Jesus … and I wasn’t there. And all their excited words only raised DOUBT in me.
But I have learned not to be captive to that doubt. I’ve learned to touch Jesus—not as the need to “prove” my faith, but as the humble expression of my faith. This is where resurrection makes sense to me. Not as a contested claim about what may or may not have transpired physiologically with Jesus’ body following the crucifixion. But as a practiced claim about the holy work of doing justice, chasing after mercy, and showing compassion. In using my unique gifts to do these things with passion and creativity I touch Jesus: I glimpse what it means to live life with a sense of purpose that is undaunted by death. That’s resurrection, if you ask me.
There is one last chapter I should add before I close. Because it’s started here, some eight years back, and has recently taken an unexpected turn. Some of you might recall I spent the 2014-2015 program year with you as Theologian in Residence. As the year was wrapping up, over the spring and summer of 2015, I felt a fresh restlessness inside. As though another encounter with Jesus, inviting me to touch a new set of wounds—was on the horizon. I revisited some writings from my years at Notre Dame … about care for a wounded planet. They called to me anew. And I have spent the past eight years touching Jesus primarily through my work around the ecological peril that faces us and all life on this planet these days.
I’ve worked tirelessly to awaken the church to this peril—and to inspire a thoughtful, faithful response. I’ve written more than a hundred essays. I’ve penned several hymns, written devotions and worship resources, led book groups and more. I have devoted myself to touching Jesus at the intersection of Christian faith and ecological crisis.
And then, last August, my mother died. It was not an especially tragic death. The last years of her life had been tragically marred by dementia. So, her death, in some ways, was release. When it came, it was relatively quick and peaceful. But for me, her death—as a parent’s death might often be—became a spur to some profound existential self-examination.
In short, I realized that all of my work on our present ecological peril almost entirely misses the mark with my own two children. Neither of whom have any connection to a church community or a Christian frame of reference any longer.
Now, I should clarify a couple things here before I say anything more. My children are GREAT. They are principled, caring, compassionate persons. But they are NOT Christian. And they are NOT prepared for the ecological crisis that is taking aim at their generation and the next. I should acknowledge, as well, that altogether I count SIX children in my family, but Ben and Susanna are the two I have fathered since birth, so they hold a special place in my point of reference. Altogether, only one of our six children and only one of our nine grandchildren are church-connected. And NONE of them are prepared for the ecological crisis that will be their inheritance.
So, I find myself poised at a significant crossroads. Five of my children—including the two I have fathered since birth—and eight of my grandchildren are beyond the church and beyond Christian language. My fervent concern over our ecological crisis hardly speaks to them at all because I have invested my energy in speaking to a community that no longer includes them.
This is how I put it in a recent blog post: “I have frequently said that Christianity has no monopoly on insight into how to foster our best humanity or how to respond to the crises we face. Whenever I do so, I always explain that I choose to work in the Christian tradition because it is the language in which I am most conversant. This is all true. But if the language I know best does not reach those I love most dearly, how can I not set off in search of other words? This is how alarmed I am by the still mostly unseen ecological unraveling that is already happening moment by moment in our midst: I will forsake my faith home to go find language that can reach my children.”
Words as eloquent … and painful … as any I have written. Many persons have been appreciative of my honesty, and many have acknowledged sharing my concern. But, also, sure enough, some of my friends have accused me of renouncing my faith or betraying the church. And that has stung.
What I know to be true, is that my faith has always been framed by doubt. And this doubt has gifted me with a desire to touch Jesus. Not to “prove” my faith, but to express it. I am choosing now—if possible—to touch Jesus outside the church, for the sake of my children. I don’t think that’s the right choice for everyone. But, for me, it is the fulness of faith.
I am Thomas. Doubtful. And Faithful. My guess is that many of you are, too. So, while I’m happy to take questions or comments, I’m also happy to hear from you, if you’d like to share briefly about where you touch the wounds of Jesus in ways that express your faith.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.