The Shadow of Doubt


It occurs to me that the wheels of society need a unique source of lubrication. The smooth running of society demands a certain level of doubt. One might think that faith, trust, and mutual respect are much better lubricants…


gearCertainly they are constituent elements of a good society, but without a healthy dose of doubt, citizens are at risk of “being had” or at least of sacrificing reasoned participation on the altar of conformity.

Every totalitarian state, every dictatorship, every radical or reactionary movement, demand complete orthodoxy and blind certainty of its members. Even in democracies, political parties fear any deviation from a party platform. In the most radical of oppressive regimes or organizations, doubt and deviation can be punished by exile and even death.

Religion and spirituality are not exempt from trying to stamp out doubt and install certainty in its place. I used to think that the spiritual work of mercy designated as “counseling the doubtful” was an exercise in apologetics. A clear explanation of the fine points of doctrine would assuredly lift the shadow of doubt and ease the doubtful person’s struggle. But I was wrong.

We decry the blind faith demanded by jihadists or of radical groups holed up on a ranch somewhere trying to fend off society. We are appalled by a person so possessed of a religious fervor and certainty that he or she would strap on a bomb and self-immolate to further a cause. Yet we often don’t see the problem with organizations that want us to leave our minds at the door when we seek to belong.

Businesses, banks, credit card companies, online vendors, and the like all woo us with proclamations of their trustworthiness. Their protestations of security are designed to cast away our lingering doubts. Thieves, hackers, and charlatans then jump in to prey on those who choose faith in vague promises or feigned dangers over reasoned skepticism.

shadow1This coming Sunday’s liturgy celebrates the greatest of all doubters—the man who has bestowed his very name on doubt—the Apostle Thomas. Even to this day, nobody wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.”

We tend to look down our noses at poor Thomas just because—faced as he was by an unbelievable assertion that his murdered friend was now alive—wanted a little proof. History has been much harder on Thomas than Jesus himself was.

Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
John 20: 28-30

Doubt is a companion of faith not faith’s enemy. Rejection, disbelief, and certainty are the true enemies of faith. An attitude of genuine mercy understands that everyone struggles with faith. It is that very struggle—laced as it is with doubt—that helps to deepen faith. Trying to stamp out doubt does not give witness to the truth. Instead suppressing doubt in oneself or chastising doubts in others stifles the very human dynamic that enables growth in faith, in hope, and ultimately in love.

How often have I said the words “seeing is believing?” But in matters of faith as well as in matters of society what does that mean? For me it means that I depend on the witness of others. For example, I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus because I have seen Jesus in the flesh. I am, however, surrounded by those who witness to that resurrection. Their lives and their actions give testimony to their beliefs. Their witness does not relieve me of my doubts, but that witness helps me move beyond my doubts.

For me, the Apostle Thomas is the very image of faith. He should also teach us to be very, very suspicious when anyone demands that we gum up the wheels by forfeiting the shadow of doubt.

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About the author

Kevin Dowd holds a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard University and a master's in religious education from the former Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM) at Boston College. Currently, Kevin is a Ph.D. student in theology and education at Boston College in the School of Theology and Ministry. ​A member of St. John's Catholic Church in Worcester, Kevin also teaches Catholic Social Teaching at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA as an adjunct professor in theology. Kevin speaks at various conferences throughout the U.S. on many topics, including his popular, "Using the Bully Pulpit: A Christian Ministerial Response to the Violence of Bullying in our Schools."