Christian Skepticism

Today I had the privilege of worshiping with the Harvard Divinity School Anglican/Episcopal Fellowship.  Here is the sermon I shared.

Readings

John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas)

Sermon

At heart, I am a scientist and a skeptic.

Watching the new show, Cosmos, recently,

in the episode on Hooke and Newton, something caught my attention.

The host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, quotes the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in Verba

He then translates it “see for yourself.”

Knowing a little bit of Latin, this sounded off to me.

I had to see for myself.

 

The Royal Society is a fellowship of scientists in the United Kingdom.

Founded in the mid 17th century,

it is arguably the oldest association of scientists

in the modern sense.

The Royal Society has included

Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein,

just to name a few.

Their motto, Nullius in Verba, actually means “on the word of no one.”

It is borrowed from Horace (The Epistles I.1):

 

So now I lay aside my verses and all other toys.

What is right and seemly is my study and pursuit,

and to that am I wholly given.

I am putting by and setting in order the stores

on which I may some day draw.

Do you ask, perchance, who is my chief,

in what home I take shelter?

I am not bound over to swear as any master dictates;

(nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri)

wherever the storm drives me, I turn in for comfort.

Now I become all action, and plunge into the tide of civil life,

stern champion and follower of true Virtue;

now I slip back stealthily into the rules of Aristippus,

and would bend the world to myself, not myself to the world.

 

For Horace and the Royal Society,

it meant that a life

serving the ends of another,

following the will of another,

and trusting the reasoning of another

was over.

There was a new life of independent thought

Though even Horace admits that he freely chooses

to follow the advice of Aristippus.

Even the Royal Society was willing to borrow the wisdom of others,

Ancient and Modern,

But the new science meant that,

wherever immediate observation was available

it should trump the authority of the past –

A radical shift from Medieval and Renaissance perspectives.

 

The difference between Tyson’s translation and Horace is this.

Tyson is talking about personal power “see for yourself”

while Horace is talking about freedom,

“I am not bound over to swear as any master dictates.”

 

In a society obsessed with independence, individuality, and control,

this marks a huge difference.

Is skepticism about seeing for yourself?

Or is it about a critical evaluation of the evidence,

even the evidence of your senses?

Is skepticism about making up your mind independently?

Or is it the freedom to leave, or to take, the wisdom of others?

I don’t think these are strict, either/or distinctions,

but emphasis matters.

Where you focus matters.

 

 

So let me begin again.

 

At heart, I am a scientist and a skeptic.

Consequently, I’ve always loved Doubting Thomas.

 

The Bible has exactly three stories about him, all in the Gospel of John.

Apparently, he is a bit of a pessimist as well as a skeptic.

 

When Lazarus falls dead,

Jesus wants to return to Judea to see him (John 11:1-16).

The disciples think it is too dangerous:

“Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you,

and are you going there again?”

Jesus decides to go anyway and Thomas, says,

with a deep sigh, I suspect,

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Alas, Thomas’ commitment does not make it to the crucifixion.

 

When Jesus is trying to explain the passion to the disciples,

he speaks of preparing a place for them in heaven. (John 14:1-7):

 

And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

 

Thomas said to him,

‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.

How can we know the way?’

 

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

No one comes to the Father except through me.

If you know me, you will know my Father also.

From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

 

 

And this brings us to today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31).

 

After Jesus death, we find the disciples, men from Gallilee,

huddled together in a locked room,

again, for fear of the Judeans.

 

It is this scene of fear and mistrust that Jesus walks in on,

saying, “Peace be with you.”

 

And Thomas missed it.

 

I don’t think it was a cold, analytical skepticism.

Thomas, as we have seen, may have been a skeptic and a pessimist,

but he was passionate follower of Jesus all the same.

Thomas was broken by crucifixion,

and perhaps by his own desertion as well.

Thomas was not ready to believe until he saw for himself,

until he touched Jesus wounds for himself.

 

And Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me?

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

It’s not just the concept of resurrection that Thomas doubted,

it was, I think, a profound heartbreak,

that needed fixing.

 

When Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…

Receive the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;

if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

 

He is retelling at an intimate scale,

the history of redemption.

 

 

We were separated from God,

and though we were the ones who fell away,

though we were the ones who trespassed,

the ones who forgot our friendship with God,

still we were also the ones who suffer doubt,

and fear.

 

In some ways we are still the ones who huddle in a room,

for fear of the people outside,

not even sure we can trust ourselves.

We are the ones who struggle

with the question of whether the universe

is meaningful or meaningless,

comforting or careless,

kind or cruel.

 

Jesus is the correction for that, the reparation, the atonement.

Indeed, Jesus is the forgiveness.

And we have trouble believing,

not because of our critical faculties,

though we use them at times to justify ourselves.

We have trouble believing because of our doubt and our fear.

 

 

How then, am I to square my scientific skepticism

with my faith in Christ?

I think the answer lies in a fuller understanding of what

hope and skepticism are really about.

Nullius in Verba.

“I am not bound over to swear as any master dictates;”

Both skepticism and hope are about freedom

from having to believe the world operates

in a particular way,

freedom from dogma,

freedom from authority,

freedom from tradition,

but never freedom from truth.

 

We must never claim that our freedom prevents us

from using the tools we are given,

to understand the world,

or to serve God.

A man who is no longer a slave may still be a friend.

And a woman who is no longer a servant may be accepted as a daughter and an heir.

 

And the history is still there.

At some level, resurrection, forgiveness, even doubt

when thought of properly

are not about starting afresh,

but accepting the past without allowing it to hold dominion over you.

 

I have come to believe that resurrection is more than new life,

it is life growing from the dead.

I have come to believe that forgiveness is more than forgetting;

it is about building a new relationship

that is aware of the past, but not overcome by it.

And so, I think we must look at our knowledge the same way,

as an indispensable piece of who we are,

but never an impediment to what we might become.

 

At the same time, it is not in our power alone to do these things.

It is not enough to want resurrection,

or forgiveness,

or even knowledge.

All of these require relationship,

they require the messy and uncertain process of engaging

with the world and our neighbors

that brings light and life.

We must be willing to let the wind blow over us

and Spirit fill our nostrils.

We must touch, and taste, and see

always with the hope that we will see someone

or something

in a new way

or for the first time.

 

 

I don’t know what skepticism is supposed to mean these days,

but I am willing, with Horace,

to throw off the shackles of old wisdom,

even the things I told myself just yesterday,

(as long as I can keep the wisdom that works).

Likewise I have hope that I will answer Christ’s call

and be willing to believe in the resurrection,

while waiting for the proof

(but I also have faith that Christ will

and does

show up for us to touch and see

on occasion).

 

This Easter, I invite you to take no one’s word for it.

Open your hearts to the God who dwells among us,

at this table and in the world.

And the world will be filled

with the knowledge of the glory of God

as the waters cover the sea.

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One thought on “Christian Skepticism

  1. A lovely expression of the tension between faith and doubt. I like to think that Thomas is the ‘voice’ in the Gospels that represents the doubts and fears of the community in Judea that witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus. I suspect a lot of emotion and fear was present in the Upper Room, as the disciples awaited an uncertain future. Yet, our collective faith is based in the world of the ‘seen and unseen’. That we have the courage to believe and live out our lives as faithful witness is extremely demanding in these troubled times.

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