This should have been the easiest of the Art in Lent sessions for me to write. This is, after all, the one in which I feel that I am an expert. Doubt has been a major feature of my walk with God, so much so that I cannot imagine another way of ‘doing’ faith. Without doubt, would I even recognise faith, when it comes?
And yet I have really struggled to write this. In part, that struggle has come because there is no one piece of art that represents doubt as I experience it. Because, after all, doubt is an absence, isn’t it – and how do you paint an absence? Doubt is the missing piece, the gnawing ache, the secret guilt. Doubt at best is the thing we leave behind when we come to faith, or come to a greater experience of faith – so that we can say, yes I experienced doubt, and ultimately it strengthened my faith. It made me examine the reasons why I believe and means that I no longer shove things under the carpet. Faith becomes stronger, richer and more considered. Surely doubt is something that is cast off, so that we can walk in the footsteps of Christ once more.
Well…sort of. Actually that is not my experience, and that is perhaps why more than anything I have found it hard to write this session. For me doubt is a daily encounter, and for a long time that meant that I found it difficult to deepen in faith. Now I have come to a sort of armistice with doubt; it always hovers there, and some days it informs my thinking and feeling more strongly; but on the plus side, it also informs my faith. More on that later…
The image we are using is Caravaggio’s ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’. Now housed in the San-souci palace near Berlin, it was originally painted whilst Caravaggio was in Rome aged about 29, around 1601. Although other details of its provenance are unclear it uses the same model for an apostle as was used for a series of paintings on the theme of Matthew’s gospel, commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel, which were his first major commission. Caravaggio’s religious paintings caused a sensation because of their dramatic and often quite macabre details. He used not idealized settings but realistic, dimly lit surroundings with his models taken from the street and elevated to the position of angels and apostles. Caravaggio himself lived a disreputable life: in the years following this painting he was accused of beating another artist, and a soldier; he was arrested following complaints about his behaviour;, and once for throwing stones at the guards. He was accused of throwing a plateful of artichokes at a waiter. He fled Rome in 1605 following a brawl in defense of his mistress, and following a disputed game of tennis in 1606 he killed a man. The darkness, violence and ugliness of Caravaggio’s paintings came straight from his life and his own heart.
And yet – he painted beautifully. Each line and furrow of the skin captured. Each passing thought expressed in each face. Every character in a Caravaggio painting has a role; there are no bystanders simply there to improve the composition. You instantly believe in the moment, can imagine the conversation and predict the action. Take his version of the meal on the road to Emmaus – each figure is intensely active, involved and ready to spring into word or action. Or his ‘Calling of St Matthew’, in which four figures are turned towards Peter and Jesus as Matthew doggedly counts the money. You believe in these characters, whether the style of art is to your taste or not; they matter. They are you and me.
Which is why ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ is interesting. There the four characters are, all intent on the wound in Christ’s side. Even Jesus seems engaged in self-examination. As I said, it is difficult to imagine how doubt could be portrayed in art, and this is not the moment of doubting but the moment of faith for Thomas, based on the evidence he sees and touches. This is a popular subject; but other depictions are rather more reverent, and certainly less visceral that Caravaggio’s verson which is comparatively graphic - the sort of art that would have the BBC putting out a ‘this contains images of a disturbing nature’ warning. As we travel into the painting we feel as if we, too, could reach in and place our fingers inside the warm soft flesh. It is shocking, unseemly – almost distasteful.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. John 20: 19-20
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later… Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20: 24-29
Thomas himself looks old, a little weary perhaps, with his cloak coming apart at the seams; and he has clearly seen many things. He is not a young man who may be swayed by tall tales. He wants to weigh the evidence. He doesn’t want to be called anyone’s fool. It is unclear from scripture whether he actually touches Christ, or whether the sight of him is enough; but clearly this is a life-changing moment. But do we believe that he, or indeed any of the other disciples, never doubted again? They may not have doubted the person of Christ, nor even his death and resurrection; but they may have other problems, ones that we are less likely to struggle with, concerning the ongoing presence of Jesus after he had returned to his Father. I imagine that, after walking and eating and sleeping next to him for three years, it was hard at times to learn to walk daily beside him without his bodily appearance on earth. Thomas may have had doubts in his mind that co-existed with the faith that allowed him to spend the rest of his life sharing the gospel with passion. We don’t know; perhaps he never said.
What do we know of Thomas? In other mentions of him in the gospel he comes across as a rather pessimistic man, as in John 11 v 16 (‘Let us go with him, so that we too may die); and someone who wanted things said plainly, such as in the exchange with Jesus in John 14: 1-6 (‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’ ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’). And we may suspect that some of his refusal to believe in Christ’s resurrection came from feeling left out when all the other disciples were in on the action. For some of us, being told something by everyone else is guaranteed to make us dig in our heels.
And am I a modern-day Thomas? My doubts, unlike my faith, are a personal thing. I have no problem sharing my faith. I do so at work, at home, with friends, at church. Jesus is part of my life; I am not embarrassed about that, and I find that he crops up pretty often in all sort of conversations. But sharing my doubts? Ah, that’s another issue entirely, and one that is only made worse when everyone else at church seems so sure. The problem is that I don’t have periods of doubt, to be swept aside by renewed faith. Faith and doubt co-exist. One feeds off the other. To consider God is to question much of what I understand about the material universe, about suffering, about theology, about the history and imaginations of human beings. In considering the doubts I find myself back at the side of Jesus, being asked once more if I want to place my hand inside his flesh. The more I think it likely that I will one day throw it all up in the air, the more I feel compelled to follow. And yet still I find myself thinking ‘yes, this is the way I believe, this is how I think God is; that is, if he exists at all.’
Exodus of the burning bush: just one more ordinary scrubby foliage, that was surrounded by flame and inhabited by the presence of God. The one who is ‘I am’ inhabits even the ordinary doubts, and does not consume but leaps into passionate flame. The two exist together, the material and the spiritual, the doubter and the believer, the Spirit and the flesh. Heaven come to earth.
In Caravaggio’s picture I like to look at the faces of the other two disciples. Rather than standing back with a smug ‘well-of-course-we-never-needed-him-to-do-this-for-us’ look on their faces they lean forward, intensely involved. I like to think they were glad of one more chance to check that they hadn’t imagined it the first time. In church we spend a lot of time saying what we believe, and checking that we are saying it ‘right’; but it seems to me that there is far more that we don’t understand that we do, and so it should be since God is infinitely more than we can envisage. One definition of doubt is ‘to be uncertain’. Whilst I wish I were more certain about some things – perhaps it’s not something that comes easily to my nature – I am also concerned when Christians claim to be certain about everything they believe. Such certainty breeds pride, and can be anti-missional. It is in the exploration of doubts that we discover the possibilities that faith presents to us, not in rigid certainties but in the creative envisaging of a God who is bigger and more wonderful than anything we have so far experienced. I think that church should be a place where we can doubt noisily and openly, and where questions are as much a feature of our lives together – lives of faith – as answers.