The poet John Keats wrote, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' He also had a concept of creativity which has the rather difficult name of negative capability (don't worry, we won't be trying to define the meaning of that). This idea of creativity described a writer's ability to accept 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' An ability to accept 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'
Doubt is a theme for today. 'Thomas… said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Now doubt can scare a lot of people. There is a tradition in some Churches where people 'testify' to God's impact on their lives. What there isn't is a tradition where people stand up and testify to their doubts. Perhaps there should be. Doubts matter. Our testimony could be us asking how Jesus can appear among the disciples, even though the doors are locked? Or it could be about what it means for Jesus to cure the blind and the deaf or to walk on water? Or it could be about how a person can be both fully human and fully divine. We all have doubts entwined in our faith. Think about a doubt you have. I promise you it will be a precious place to dig down into.
Jesus says to Thomas, 'Do not doubt but believe.' And here we must acknowledge the importance of doubt, although I would rather call doubt the wisdom of not-knowing. We believe more deeply and truthfully after we have deeply doubted. The poet Keats sees this space of not-knowing as precious, creative. An ability to accept 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' What we often do is irritably reach after a this or a that, but remember Mary and the risen Jesus last Sunday. Jesus says to Mary, 'Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.' This capacity to not irritably clutch at certainties is the lifeblood of a growing faith.
One of the greatest books on prayer is a book, which I have mentioned before, called The Cloud of Unknowing. The writer of the book, suitably an unknown monk, teaches a way of prayer which is about giving up what we 'know.' So it's about giving up images and ideas, all good in their place, but images and ideas can create an artificial barrier between you and God. The author writes that 'a proud, ingenious intellect must always be overcome and firmly trodden underfoot if the work of contemplation is to be truly undertaken in purity of spirit.' The monk here is echoing something in Keats' description of accepting 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' In some places of prayer, places where we are beyond image, idea, where we do not know where we are, it is in the unknown darkness that God can most simply speak. We know even though we don't know.
Faith, of course, acquired shape and form. It's what happens with history and tradition. We need shape and form. But never forget the even more precious place of the formless, the place of unknowing, the place, if you like, of doubt and darkness. There's a moment in each service when we say the creed and, for me, it's a problematic moment. Not because I don't love and believe the creed but because the sound of voices saying 'We believe this, we believe that' delivers us up to a too-tidy, too formed place, and we are forgetting the importance of letting go of our formulas and letting go of our forms. That precious place of not knowing. A creed yes but a creed is just a bridge of words which spans a greater mystery.
So those doubts. Let's look at one passage from the Gospel. 'The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked… Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Now, of course, we can doubt and say how could Jesus walk through doors and stand among his disciples and declare peace? And it's good and right to work that inner Thomas. But the answer, I think, can only come from this precious place where we can dwell in 'uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.' That place, as I've said, is a place we can enter in prayer. We could be with a group, just like the disciples, gathered together, entering a place of not-knowing and into that place, subtly, we might begin to sense this presence of Christ, this reality of Christ, and, often, with this presence we may sense a deep peace. But if we then try to hold onto this presence, if we 'irritably reach after fact and reason', we will find that the presence will say 'do not hold onto me', and we'll be left with the form of our thoughts rather than with the mystery of spiritual reality.
So for our faith to live, to grow, we must not be afraid to travel in the land of ignorance, of darkness, of doubt. A doubt is really an impulse for our faith to go deeper. Sometimes it is a kind of death. Childish faith has to let go of the security of its certainties to grow authentically. We might imagineg at one point, that the risen Christ was simply a man who came back from the dead and said, I'm here, but we may then discover that the risen Christ is the uncontainable reality and presence of God. If our faith is growing we find we are continually letting go of our old conceptions, our old certainties, and doubt, even radical doubt, is a vital part of that growth.
Thomas, through his doubt, came to a richer faith. Jesus says, "Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus then calls us to the way of living faith, a way where we do not travel in the realm of what we simply touch or simply see, a way where we need to let go of what we think we know, a way of not knowing. "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet come to believe."
Reverend Ben Brown
24th April 2022