Doubt No Longer

Doubt No Longer

Third Sunday of Easter. Fr Aidan Nichols discusses the difference between doubt and difficulty.

Today’s Gospel shows the first disciples having difficulties and doubts about the Resurrection. Is it real, did it really happen, or is it an illusion, are we misinterpreting the evidence?

Traditionally, the Church has distinguished between difficulties and doubts. According to John Henry Newman, ‘Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt’. As reasoning people, we naturally apply our minds to our religion, including to what happened in the aftermath of the Crucifixion. There are difficulties here – about the sources, about the agreement of the witnesses, about the possibility of miracle, and, in the larger picture, about how the Resurrection of the Messiah can be said to fulfil the hope of Israel and consummate the creation. We face up to these difficulties, none of which is insuperable (to put it mildly!), and through them we grow into a more informed and intelligent faith.

Doubt is something more radical. Doubt is wondering whether religious terms have any reference to reality at all. ‘God’, ‘Christ’, ‘The Resurrection’, ‘The Holy Spirit’, ‘grace’ – are these words just counters, is it all a game? Curiously, this kind of radical doubt is mentioned by both St Luke and St Matthew in connexion with the Resurrection appearances. With the risen Christ before their very eyes, some doubted. In today’s Gospel, Christ gives his own analysis of why this could be and his explanation runs: the cause of it is fear or anxiety. ‘Why are you so agitated?’ ‘Why are these doubts arising in your hearts?’ ‘Your hearts’, we notice, not ‘your intellects’. Something is wrong with their sensibility, with their passions, their emotions, and this is what is doing the damage to their judgment. This is what is causing doubt.

Stepping back a little from the Gospel narrative, we can reflect on the following datum of human experience at large. If we are, in some way, fearful of reality in its richness and depth, we tend to clam up. We shut out from our minds the unexpected, which may also – but not necessarily – be the unpalatable. We like to have things taped. We feel secure and unchallenged that way. Predictability is a comfort zone. The routines even of a hard life become dear to people. This is strange but true. ‘Human kind’, wrote T. S. Eliot, ‘cannot bear too much reality’, or, come to that, too varied a diet of it.

Applying that generalization to the present case, then: to accept the risen Christ, which means, among other things, to accept that we are going to be in some manner changed by him and have our lives interfered with, may be more than we want to bear, at any rate at this or that time in our lives. The closed-in self must be opened up before we have Easter contact with Jesus. ‘Why are you troubled?’ ‘Peace be with you!’ It brings to a climax a theme sounded throughout his ministry. ‘Why are you afraid?’ ‘You believe in God, believe also in me.’

Christian faith requires us to receive this mystery, to let it flow over us and shape our life. There is a parallel here with the philosophical realism in the school of St Thomas Aquinas. We are not to dictate to reality, to force it into the shape we prefer. We are to let go, let ourselves be carried by it, let it mould us by its own glorious objectivity. Life and the God of life are bigger than we are. If that is how we ought to approach creation, then the new creation – the supernatural – will surely make at least comparable demands.

The new creation has its realism as well as the old. What could be more basic to the act of faith than to say of the Gospel narratives and the invitation they contain: something real is here! God is here, and he is here for me. So in Paschaltide we hold out our hands to the Living One, the risen and exalted Lord, and experience in some degree the joy of his victory over death. He is truly risen, alleluia!

Readings: Acts 3:13-15,17-19|1 John 2:1-5|Luke 24:35-48

fr Aidan Nichols is a well-known and prolific writer and theologian.