Thursday, June 13, 2013

Struggling with doubt

Last Sunday, I sat in the pew listening to the choir chant the psalm.  I thought: what if all this is just a bunch of meaningless mummery?  What if the world really did spring into being completely at random?  What if what I call my conscience is just an evolutionarily beneficial instinct toward altruism?  What if my desire to come here and sit in this church is just a fear of death and the inevitable extinction of my consciousness that I am not brave enough to face head-on?

Doubt.  It terrifies me, and not for the reasons you might think.  A world without God would be scary, but a world with God is also scary.  God or no God, I could die tomorrow, or lose all the things in life that are important to me.  God or no God, I will die in next century, guaranteed.  And God or no God, I would still keep the same moral code because I see it to be beneficial.

I just ... in the final calculation, I guess I have more of a relationship with God than I think.  Because even when I'm not sure he exists, I can't bear the thought of losing his friendship.  I guess that's what it's about for me.

But as I sat there, struggling with doubt, we got to the Gospel.  It went like this:

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”  And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.  (Luke 7:11-17)

That blew my mind.  I've heard it a million times before, but think about it.  This Jewish guy, this preacher with no credentials, brought dead people back to life in front of a considerable crowd!  There were witnesses, lots of witnesses, to the fact that he did things no one had ever done before, and no one has been able to do since.  Not just once, but several times -- also Jairus' daughter, and Lazarus, who had been in the tomb for four days.  Jesus wasn't even on the scene when he died, and lots of other people were.  I imagine how I would have felt, having come to mourn with Martha and Mary and instead being faced with Lazarus, staggering out of the tomb, still wrapped in the grave clothes.

We could think even this was a fraud or an amazing coincidence.  But Jesus did us one better.  He raised himself from the dead, something even more incredible.  Lest we think he wasn't really dead, we are told that he was stabbed straight through the heart with a lance.  Then three days later his body went missing and he started showing up alive all over the place.  There were hundreds of witnesses.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  (1 Corinthians 15:1-7)

This isn't just a bunch of hearsay -- Christianity was a full-blown religion getting preached all over the Mediterranean while witnesses were still alive who had seen Christ raised from the dead.  None of Jesus' contemporaries had the slightest explanation for this, except to say that all of those witnesses were lying.

But what if they were lying?  I know a bit about cults.  People lie about a lot of things.  However, when they lie, it's for their own benefit.  True believers can be expected to make extreme sacrifices for their beliefs, but the ringleaders -- the ones who know it's a lie -- don't make sacrifices.  They use the lie to control others, but they make sure to arrange it so that they can lead a comfortable life with plenty of adulation.  It would have been simple enough for the apostles to concede that it was okay to burn a pinch of incense to some idol, and that way they could have kept their cult and their lives.  Instead, eleven out of twelve of the apostles died -- horribly -- rather than make the slightest compromise.  If it was a lie, it was a very stupid lie.

And Jesus was no ordinary prophet either.  The most cursory reading of the Gospels shows that he was making absurd claims about having existed before Moses, that he and God were one, that he would come on the clouds of heaven to judge everyone.  The people who say he was just a good teacher who preached about being nice to people clearly haven't read the story.  Either he was the Son of God, or the biggest fraud who ever lived.  No middle road here.  And given the evidence, it seems reasonable to say that maybe he really was the son of God.

So if I can't independently come to a knowledge of the existence and goodness of God all on my own, that's okay.  God knew I would have trouble with this, and sent his son into the world so that I wouldn't have to wonder.

And as for being a Catholic as opposed to any other type of Christian, that's not a problem for me really.  I don't find Protestantism tempting, because it relies on being able to interpret Scripture for oneself, and I've read the Bible enough to know that's not as easy as it sounds.  The Bible's human writers were a wide variety of people with a lot of baggage, and some of the stories puzzle me that they got into the Bible at all.  The huge divergence in interpretation among different Protestant churches is such as to make one doubt it is at all possible to derive a complete religion out of a book.  My solution is to look at what the contemporaries and immediate successors of the writers thought of it.  And when I look at things the Church Fathers said -- like Ignatius of Antioch, immediate disciple of John the apostle, or Clement of Rome, whom John obeyed even though he was an apostle and Clement was "only" bishop of Rome -- it all sounds very familiar to me.  Doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, the Eucharist, the primacy of Rome, the apostolic succession, all are attested within the first couple of centuries after Christ.  That's kind of mindblowing when you think about it, considering that the Church is 2000 years old.  Nothing else around today has existed in a remotely similar form, founded on the same ideas, for 2000 years.

It all makes me feel a lot better.  Does it do away with all my doubt?  Oddly, no.  But it makes me feel that my belief is not unreasonable -- that despite the mockery and derision I read on the internet, religious people are not all a bunch of wingnuts.  We're believing a credible story that affects our lives.

So, while I am not sure it's all true -- I am hardly sure that I exist -- I'm sure enough to keep at it.

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