Doubt and Curiosity




The title for this sermon did not emanate from my peculiar and unpredictable mind. It came from the fertile and ever-whirring gray matter of Marion Conlin. Marion has been one of the most active participants in The Chapel Without Walls since our inception exactly fifteen years and nine days ago. The six words in the sermon title came to her, spontaneously, in a forum after the coffee time four or five Sundays ago. I don’t recall specifically what we were talking about, but whatever it was, she referred to it as “the intersection of doubt and curiosity.” I was so smitten with those words that I announced right there and then that I was going to use them as a sermon title. And so – – – The time has come, the walrus said/ To talk of many things/ Of doubt and curiosity/ And why our faith has wings. (Actually, neither the walrus nor Lewis Carroll ever said that, but, slightly altered, it seemed an appropriate way to begin.)


Our two scripture passages for today are two of the miracle stories of Jesus. Both of these miracles occur at the intersection of doubt and curiosity, as do all miracle stories. However, the one episode provokes far more doubt than curiosity, and the other far more curiosity than doubt. But let us look at the first reading first.


For the past two centuries, the story of Jesus walking on water has been one of the most problematic miracle narratives to New Testament scholars. There is no problem in it for those who believe that every word in the Bible must be, by definition, inerrant and infallible. To the rest of us, however, this is a story so bizarre as to be utterly unbelievable. We all might be happy to enter into an intellectual argument over whether Jesus could actually walk on water — but we’re not going to do that. Not in this sermon, anyway. In the forum afterwards, perhaps, but not here.


Here, in one long sentence, is the background of this story, as it is related in Matthew 14:22-28. The disciples were in a boat without Jesus on the Sea of Galilee at night, a storm came up, and Jesus came to them out of the darkness walking on the surging surface of the lake, telling them not be afraid. Yeah, right. Thus we come to the second section of this story I read earlier.


Peter, presumably one of the most impulsive humans ever to draw breath, said to the figure apparently standing on top of the roiling waves, “Lord, if it you, bid me come to you on the water.” If this actually occurred, had I been there, and had I had the presence of mind to say anything, I would have said two things. First, “Jesus, why on earth are you walking on water? What is the point of this supra-liquid stroll? You can’t be serious, doing what you’re doing — can you?” And then, if I were convinced Jesus had really done that, and that Peter wanted to join Jesus for a tiptoe through the whitecaps, I would have said to Peter, “What are you – – – crazy?”


Let me make a few observations about this incident. Mark was the first to include it in his Gospel, which is the first-written of our four Gospels. Matthew liked it so much he too included it in his Gospel, the next one to be written. Luke was so skeptical about its historicity that he deliberately left it out of  his Gospel. John, the last of the Gospels to be written, vaguely alludes to the previous episode to this miracle story that occurs in Mark and Matthew, but John also chose not to include the walking on water incident in his Gospel at all. That honestly is quite surprising, because John loved that kind of a story. However, John also apparently didn’t want his account of Jesus to read at all like the other three, so he left this narrative out of his Gospel.


You may be wondering why any preacher would go into all this arcane detail. It is because the alleged miracle of Jesus walking on water clearly occurs at the intersection of doubt and curiosity. For whatever it is worth, I personally am so doubtful that it actually happened that I have no curiosity at all about whether it happened. Maybe I once did, but not for the past thirty or forty years. You might have come to that same conclusion. It is so unbelievable that it makes absolutely no sense. A sensible Messiah who could perform miracles would not perform miracles just to indicate that he could perform miracles. There was always a reason behind every one of the miracles of Jesus, of which, historically, there surely were a considerable number. But were he to do miracles simply to show that he could do them, by deduction Jesus could not be the Messiah. Therefore, despite what Mark and Matthew say, Jesus never walked on water. And if he did, we have every reason to look elsewhere for the Messiah, because that person could not be Jesus of Nazareth. God’s Anointed One would never engage in any such magical activities to prove himself to be the Messiah. Jesus can be apprehended as Messiah only by faith or trust, not by proof. Proof of Jesus’ most profound identity is impossible.


All three synoptic Gospels have the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The miracle episode about Jesus curing the epileptic boy is found immediately after the Transfiguration in all three synoptic Gospels (Mk. 9:14-29, Mt. 17:14-21, Lk. 9:37-43). Details vary considerably in each telling, which suggests the three writers each had doubts about some aspects of what happened in this miracle, but also powerful curiosity about what it really meant. I chose the Markan version for a particular reason. There, the father of the boy who was cured made one of the most memorable lines from any of the four Gospels.


Mark tells us that when “the evil spirit” saw Jesus, it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground in what is described as an epileptic seizure. The father believed, along with almost all his contemporaries, and maybe also Jesus himself, that most mental or neurological diseases were caused by evil spirits entering into the mind or body of the afflicted person. Thus the father related to Jesus what this purported demon had been doing to his son through the years. “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk. 9:22).


Jesus was struck by the stark dualism of what the man just said. On the one hand he had brought his son to Jesus, hoping he could cure him, since Jesus’ disciples couldn’t do it. On the other hand, the father wondered if Jesus himself could overcome this perplexing and dangerous condition. The father was sufficiently curious to find that out that he brought his son to Jesus to be cured. Doubt and curiosity intersected at the foot of the Mountain of Transfiguration.


Jesus said to the distraught father, “All things are possible to him who believes.” To that the father exclaimed, “I do believe, but help my unbelief!” When deep curiosity and persistent doubt cross paths, we can never be certain at that exact moment what will be the outcome. So much of life is spiritually and intellectually nebulous. The issue then becomes this: Shall we remain where the roads named Doubt and Curiosity cross, or shall we go one in one direction or the other?


A preacher should always be candid with his parishioners, so let me be candid with you. I would not be a good candidate for having a miracle performed on my behalf. I would never expect it to happen, and therefore it very likely would not happen. Miracles are far more likely to happen for those who believe in miracles than for those who doubt their frequent occurrence. A miracle has been defined as something which is physically impossible. In other words, according to that definition, miracles can’t happen. I have no doubt that miracles do occur, but I strongly doubt that they would ever happen to me. Unexplained things occur, but by their nature, they must remain forever unexplained. Both my doubt and my curiosity accept that. But for me personally, a personal miracle would be far more confounding than comforting to me, because I would always be stuck wondering exactly what had happened, and even more so, why it happened. That’s just the kind of mind I have.


Most physicians who have been in practice for a goodly number of years admit they have had patients whom they thought were going to die or that they would never be cured of their maladies, and yet they did not die and they were cured. They don’t know how it happened, but it happened. Are those miracles? There was a lengthy account of such a sitation in yesterday’s Island Packet. Doubt may deny the miraculous, whereas curiosity may allow it to be affirmed.


Alfred Tennyson was one the most famous of nineteenth century Victorian poets in Britain. He was named the poet laureate of Britain and Ireland in 1852 and continued in that position until his death forty-two years later. It was the longest tenure of any British poet laureate. Tennyson was the son of an Anglican priest, and his mother was the daughter of an Anglican priest. Tennyson was therefore steeped in Christianity of a decidedly Victorian cast.


One of his poems became the text for a hymn, which was our middle hymn today. “Strong Son of God, immortal Love,/ Whom we that have not seen Thy face,/ By faith, and faith alone, embrace,/ Believing where we cannot prove….Let knowledge grow from more to more,/ But more of reverence in us dwell;/ That mind and soul, according well,/ May make one music as before.” I think Alfred, Lord Tennyson must have been standing at the intersection of the two roads called Doubt and Curiosity when he wrote that poem. “I believe; help my unbelief!”


All of us come to the intersection of doubt and curiosity from time to time. Fortunately, we are not continuously there, or at least we are not aware we’re there. But when we get there, many things may transpire. I want to highlight three factors which may result from coming to that crucial crossroad. They are skepticism, despair, and faith.


Some people are skeptical of everything. They accept nothing at face value. Their doubt can turn them into confirmed cynics if they aren’t careful. The noted English atheist and religion-hater Richard Dawkins is such a person. He is an extremely intelligent, extremely inflexible man, who refuses to allow any curiosity to enter his mind which might prove problematic to his rigid ideas. Many such people have too much intelligence and too little judgment for their own good.


However, just as some people are skeptical of everything, other people are gullible about everything. They are completely lacking in curiosity. You say unidentified flying objects are cavorting around our atmosphere and outer space? Well then, UFOs must be everywhere! You say God created the world on October 23, 4004 BC, which is what Bishop James Ussher claimed in the seventeenth century? Well then, that’s the way it was! You say Jesus walked on water? Well, then, Jesus walked on water!


Might it be too skeptical to say that miracles never happen? Or could we be too gullible to claim that millions of miracles happen every day, but we’re just too blind to perceive them? Can miracles be miracles if they are commonplace? Doubt and curiosity are vital tools in the spiritual quest which represents everyone’s lifetime, whether or not we perceive it in those terms. Too much of either doubt or curiosity is too much, and too little of either is too little. It’s like Goldilocks; we have to find the proper combination of both those important qualities that is just right for each of us.


Despair may overpower us if we allow too much doubt or too much curiosity to take hold of us. Some people, who have a healthy amount of doubt within them, begin to despair if they don’t get the answers they want to the questions raised by their natural curiosity, or if they don’t get the answers quickly or clearly enough. Some of the most intelligent and intellectually stimulating people I have known are atheists. They have come to the point where they despair of the possibility that God might exist, and so they feel forced to strike out in life entirely on their own. To me, that is one of the saddest situations which occurs in the universal human condition. Agnosticism usually doesn’t lead to despair, although it may lead to spiritual and intellectual lethargy. I am convinced that atheists are always intellectually very serious people, whereas agnostics may or may not be serious. (But then, religious people also may or may not be very serious.) Much of who we are depends on the quantity and quality of our doubt and curiosity.


Very fortunately, when doubt and curiosity intersect, they do not inevitably result in either skepticism or despair. They also can morph into a vital, fulfilling faith.


There can be no faith without doubt. Anyone who believes anything without questioning its veracity is doing himself no favors. And anyone who believes everything she is told, by definition, has no curiosity at all, because many of the things we are told are not true, and many others might not be true. What this suggests is that doubt and curiosity intersect much more frequently than we might otherwise imagine. It’s what we do when we get to the intersection that really determines how we get past the spiritual challenges which confront all of us.


Think what it truly would have been like for you had Jesus asked you to be one of the twelve disciples two thousand years ago (had you been there two thousand years ago to be asked). How do you think you would have responded? And which disciple would you most resemble? Thomas was the classic doubter, at least according to the Fourth Gospel. Peter was the most gullible, according to all the Gospels. The other ten were probably somewhere between Thomas and Peter. How do you think you would have responded to a close association with the Man from Nazareth?


Faith is one of the best things that can result when we come the intersection of doubt and curiosity. Faith is of immense value to those who possess a deep and well-grounded trust in God. However, never deceive yourself into imagining that faith is necessary for salvation.  God’s grace alone is necessary for salvation, and His grace is extended to everyone in every moment of our lives. Some learn that early in life, and their lives are immeasurably enriched by their internal trust that God goes with them. Others learn that later, and still others perhaps never realize it at all. In any event, both doubt and curiosity can lead to a much more positive and fulfilling life.


You may have deduced that in my preaching I am always trying to provoke a healthy measure of both doubt and curiosity in you. If that’s what you think, your deduction is absolutely correct. There can be no genuine Christian faith without curiosity, as well as doubt. We must question everything we believe, and we also must nurture curiosity about it.


The Christian life is a journey; it is not destination. On this side of death we will never fully arrive at where we are headed. But trying to get there is the greatest gift God has given to everyone who has ever lived. Keep going. And never give up.