Ways of Seeing: Faith and doubt are often together
“I’ll believe it when I see it!”
As a child, I became familiar with that expression. It might have had something to do with my walking into the house with muddy sneakers for the billionth time. Or my incessant insistence from the backseat of the station wagon that my sister was on my side — she crossed the line! At times like these, my mother would give me a look and offer a well-earned corrective. Before the bench of maternal justice, I’d offer guaranteed forecasts of better behavior. The Judge looked hopeful, if unconvinced.
One summer afternoon, my mother interrupted an impromptu golf ball-driving competition in our suburban neighborhood. It was a long walk back to the house, golf clubs clacking in my bag.
I remember saying, “Sorry. Mom. I won’t do that again.”
I remember hearing, “Well, that’s good,” but it sounded more like “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Tone is quite revealing.
“I’ll believe it when I see it!” is a common and curious claim. It can mean “I don’t think this or that will happen.” And it can mean, “If what you say is true, then show me.” Either way, the expression does not convey much faith. In fact, if doubt were to look for an advertisement slogan, it would need not look any further.
As a person of faith, I could go one step more. Taken literally, the expression does not make much sense. If you see the unexpected happen or are shown the improbable, what is there left to believe but your eyesight? In the Christian tradition, faith and belief have to do with “the conviction of things not seen.” Not seen. God comes to mind.
I believe in God. I say so neither as an intellectual position nor on the basis of the breathtaking rainbow I saw recently. I say so because, however paradoxically, I choose to believe and am left no choice to do otherwise.
Does such faith crowd out doubt? I don’t think so. I understand doubt to be an integral part of this I-Thou journey and relationship, and many sacred stories in my tradition agree. Indeed, the expression “I’ll believe it when I see it!” springs from Christian scripture; it is coined by a saint.
In the Gospel of John, Thomas declares that he will not believe that post-Easter Jesus is really alive until he can see and touch him. For this, we call him Doubting Thomas. It’s an unfortunate nickname, I think. I’d rather remember Thomas as I do the other disciples — as human beings with faith and doubt, knowledge and unknowable mystery, lodged in their hearts and minds.
Fifteen years into pastoral ministry, I continue to try to nurture faith, not doubt. Still, day to day, I find both in me and in others. So, in the company of believers and seekers and skeptics, I walk our country roads with convictions and questions. I trust that God is with us, and I want, like yesterday’s saints, to see evidence of heavenly love on earth.
Our guest columnist is Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson, the pastor of The Congregational Church (UCC) in Middlebury. He and his wife Gwen, and their children Ella, Mary and Rachael, live in Weybridge.
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