The 1992 Australian film Proof follows Martin, a blind photographer, who consistently doubts what others communicate about the world around him. His distrust begins in childhood when his mother, in describing the garden beyond his bedroom window, tells him that someone is raking leaves. Martin doesn’t hear the raking and therefore believes his mother is lying. Even into his adulthood, a bitter Martin clings to the conviction that sighted people will always take advantage of his blindness. He spends his days snapping photos then having people describe what he just captured. He then stamps corresponding Braille descriptions onto the photos, his “proof” that the world he can’t see is as people describe.
Martin meets a man named Andy and is enthralled by the depth and detail Andy provides his photos. They become friends. But Martin’s housekeeper, Celia, who grows jealous because of her unrequited feelings for Martin, seduces Andy. Martin catches them and Andy lies about it. Martin ends his friendship with Andy. When Andy confronts Martin, Andy says, “People lie, but not all the time. That’s the point.” Martin asks Andy to describe one last photo for him. It is the photo of the garden from Martin’s childhood taken the day his mother described it to him. Andy describes the man raking leaves just as Martin’s mother had done. This testimony finally gives Martin his proof.
Martin’s story leads us to some very important questions: how do we trust what people tell us? How do we know what to believe and what not to believe? And how much proof is necessary to know the difference?
Scripture, especially our first and second readings this morning, frequently emphasizes terms like “witness,” “look,” “every eye will see,” as though we always know how to differentiate what’s real from what’s false and as though faith is a given and an absolute.
But the truth is, faith is not an absolute and not every eye sees, literally and metaphorically. What’s real and what’s false is not always clearly defined. Nor do we always apprehend what God is trying to tell us. God’s ways are not our own. And what gets realized in our experiences sometimes falls short of what we expect God to deliver. We may ask God for an answer to our prayers or for guidance on the path we should travel. We may look for signs in response as some kind of proof that an outcome we’ve been praying for will be answered or that we’re heading in a right direction. But when those signs don’t come, or they do but things just don’t seem to be working in our favor, our first response is to doubt God. And when we doubt, we begin to lose our trust, our hope, our faith.
It is little wonder that Thomas, in this morning’s Gospel, seems to have lost faith. After all, his teacher and friend had just been barbarically scourged and crucified. Thomas must have been horrified—not just by what happened to Jesus, but also by what could now happen to any of the disciples if discovered to be one of Jesus’ followers. How vulnerable and terrified and traumatized they all must have felt in the face of uncertain future.
When Thomas finally does return to the room, and the others tell him about Jesus’ appearance, he needs to see and touch the mark of Jesus’ nails and side in order to believe what the others say they have witnessed. Thomas needs tactile, tangible evidence. There’s this apparent lack of faith on his part, and yet he was out of the room for a reason that is not told to us. What we can surmise is that Thomas was out risking certain danger. Whatever he was out doing when Jesus made his first appearance must have been a necessity if they all had been hiding. And then what happens a week later? Thomas is with the disciples. Might that fact not attest to a degree of faith on Thomas’ part? After all, he could tell the other disciples they’re crazy for what they think they’ve seen. He could choose not to return to that house. But he goes back and he stays with them.
Thomas always seems to get a bad rep for his doubt, but really, he’s just like you and me, teetering along the edges of doubt and faith. If we are honest with ourselves, how often do we, like Martin, try to stamp our own seals of evidence onto something? How many of us, like Thomas, say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” in reference to an extraordinary occurrence or desired outcome? And how often do we doubt the things which our own, Spirit-led, intuition tells us to be true, but we ignore because we don’t have empirical evidence?
Perhaps Thomas is one of those individuals who exercises “a healthy dose of skepticism” and the Cartesian concept of methodic doubt, which, in layperson’s terms, is a way of searching for certainty by doubting everything. Or, like for St. Augustine, maybe Thomas’s doubt is a step in his journey towards complete faith. When considered through these lenses, doubt cannot be divorced from faith any more than what’s real can be from what’s false. There can be varying degrees of doubt and of faith just as there can be spaces in between what’s real and what’s not, just as Martin’s friend Andy points out.
When Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he’s not shaming Thomas. Rather, Jesus is offering a radical invitation to all of his followers to stretch ourselves beyond what we perceive with our five senses and with our intellect and move into a practice of true discernment—not in the sense of considering Holy Orders but in exercising, to use the Oxford definition, “good judgment about the quality of someone or something.” In more spiritual terms, discernment is using the wisdom given by the Holy Spirit. Doubt and faith dance hand-in-hand in that process. And it is through that dance that Jesus asks us not to see with just the literal eye or rational eye, but also with the eyes of the heart and of the Spirit, which can be found, as my spiritual director once explained, in heeding one’s intuition.
Catholic visionary Sr. Joan Chittister puts it best in her Huffington Post blog entry titled “People of Faith Should Be Grateful for Doubt.” She writes, “Unlike answers that presume the static nature of God and the spiritual life, doubt stretches us beyond ourselves to the guidance of a God whose face is not always in books. It is doubt that is the beginning of real faith.”
Doubt, then, is not the opposite of faith; it is the vehicle through which we arrive at faith. Questioning can move and open us to all of the ways in which God can both challenge and (pleasantly) surprise us. We find that God is not an either/or kind of God, but rather a both-and kind of God. If we allow ourselves to discern not just with our five senses and intellect, but also with our hearts and souls we, like the disciples, may find ourselves astonished, overjoyed, and transformed.