Blessed Are They That Doubt

April 6, 1997


“Blessed Are They That Doubt”

First there was a speech, and then — as often happens when there is a distin-guished guest —a question-and-answer period. The invited speaker was Isaac Asimov, Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University’s School of Medicine, and one of the world’s most prolific writers — author of more than 200 books on various scientific topics. When he finished, a bright-eyed curious young woman held up her hand. “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in flying saucers?” With a fixed smile, he gave the answer he gave after almost every lecture he delivered: “No, miss, I do not, and I think anyone who does is is a crackpot.”
That’s a rather harsh answer but from everything I read as a fascinated astronomy buff, it does represent the opinion of experts in that field. In the presence of a friend or relative grieving over what happened in California, Dr. Asimov would certainly soften his rhetoric, but not his conviction that all credible evidence makes nonsense of UFO theories. Not, of course, that true believers care about credible evidence. If there are too many failures, or too much loneliness, and life is not fulfilling, how tempting it is to hope that a flying saucer trailing a comet is on its way to pick you up and transport you to a better world.
I belong to a profession whose practitioners are forever saying, “Have faith!” and this is a great and essential truth. But I often wonder how they can read history, or watch the world around them, without realizing how equally important it is to say, “Be skeptical!” Beware of anyone who praises faith without reminding you how much humanity has been blessed by those who doubt. They are, by the way, opposite sides of the same coin, and every life needs a mix of both. I did not want my children to turn into cynics, but neither did I want them to grow up gullible. I set out deliber-ately to encourage a healthy skepticism in all three of them. I wanted no blind sheep willing to follow some persuasive shepherd over a cliff.
This sermon, I confess in advance, will be one-sided. It will not dwell on how essential it is to make faith a part of life — partly because I do that constantly, but mainly because we forget how critically important it is to remember the saving power of skepticism. The sermon title is “Blessed Are They That Doubt,” and my hope this morning is to remind you how true that statement is. I no longer remember exactly who Leo Rosten is, or was, but I once copied and kept this observation that rang true for me: “I never cease being confounded by the unbelievable things people believe.” If in some holy sense faith brings salvation, it is equally true that humanity has been saved over and over by those who dared to doubt.
I disagree vigorously with Martin Luther’s comment that “Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding.” That is a prescription for “blind faith,” an open invitation to all sorts of superstitions, some of which may be dangerous. I think Descartes is right to say, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” And since I cannot imagine an intelligent person who has never had a moment of doubt about the existence of God, I think our own brilliant Thomas Jefferson was on target when he said, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
Let’s take a brief side trip through history just to remind ourselves how often we have been delivered by skeptics from dangerous, even fatal, superstitions. Before James VI of Scotland became James I of England and gave his name to the most famous of all English translations of the Bible, he published (1597) a book called Demonologie, which is one of the absolute horrors of literature. Claiming that witches had power to make men and women love or hate, power to kill someone by roasting a wax effigy, power to raise deadly storms on land or sea, he approved the death penalty for all witches and magicians, including their customers. When a storm nearly wrecked him on a return from Denmark with his bride, he had four suspects tortured into confessing they had plotted to destroy him by magic means. One of them, after terrible torture, was burned to death.
The church, which might have made itself heroic by doubting, was itself riddled with superstition and took no strong stand against the king’s nonsense. Listen to the result: between 1560 and 1600, 8,000 women were burned as witches in Scotland — and Scotland was not a densely populated country. When Queen Elizabeth made witchcraft a capital crime, 81 women were executed as witches during her reign. Later, in just two years (1645-47), 200 more witches were burned alive. Britain was not alone. In Lorraine, France, 800 witches were burned in 16 years, in Strasbourg 134 more in just four days (1582). Competing religious faiths joined in persecuting witches. In Catholic Lucerne, that beautiful Swiss town with its covered bridges over the River Reuss, 62 witches were killed in ten years. In Protestant Bern, 300 were executed in the final decade of the 16th century, and 240 more in the first decade of the 17th. And all this was but a drop in the bucket. German scholars estimate a total of l00,000 executions for witchcraft in Germany in the 17th century.
The river of credulity is always fed by tributaries. Many old women, weak of mind, confessed to being witches. Others, suspected of witchcraft, saved themselves by accusing a neighbor and then going to watch the fire and hear the screams. Still others who had protested their innocence could not hold out under the excruciating torment of the rack or the thumbscrew, and pled guilty just to put an end to their misery. But here and there were skeptics, thank God, and one whose name I bless was Reginald Scot. Appealing to reason, he described the so-called witches as “poor old women” who could harm no one, more to be pitied than burned, and pointed out that torture made confessions worthless. Now and then, some brave doubter joined him, but in the great excitement of persecuting the helpless, no one paid much attention.
As for comets, much on our minds of late, they showed up only occasionally, but caused consternation and panic among those who believed they were sent from God to foretell some great event. John Knox, father of Presbyterianism, saw them as proof of divine anger. Scottish Protestants read them as God’s warning to wipe out the Catholics in their green and pleasant land. In New England (1652) superstition got a boost when a comet showed up just as the eminent preacher John Cotton fell ill, and disappeared at his death. Some thought it coincidence; true believers knew it was a sign from God. Ten years later some of our Puritan ancestors said the appearance of another comet was God’s way of warning the wicked folk of Boston to abstain from alcohol, jazzy clothes, and general naughtiness.
And then came an astronomer by the name of Edmund Halley, skeptical of this popular nonsense, who discovered how a comet circled the sun in such obedience to natural law that its reappearance could be predicted at 75-year intervals. It was more fun to think they were wandering messengers from God, and professors in some universities were forbidden to mention Halley’s discovery, but in the end truth prevailed and one more superstition vanished — well, at least for most people. We learned again a few days ago how powerful credulity can be. We’ve been over-whelmed with pictures and print about the mass suicide in California and I will not repeat details you know so well, except to mention one strange irony.
Here were people who from uninformed use of the Bible had decided the world was about to end — people who believed that their shepherds Bo and Peep were the two “witnesses” mentioned in the obscure book of Revelation — and yet these same people paid little attention to the crystal clear Bible emphasis on family. One day, calling a child to his side, Jesus said that people who harmed such a little one would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks. One wonders if the Colorado father who left a wife and six children in Durango, or the Ohio woman who left five kids in Ohio, or the mom and dad who walked away from a 10-year-old daughter, ever considered whether that part of the Bible might have a claim on their lives. Wrapped in the garments of gullibility, they heard only what their leader wanted them to hear.
I could never have gotten this done, of course, but I used to dream that if I were in charge of a national high school curricula every student would have to take a course in the use of critical judgment. It’s not enough to teach kids how to recognize words on a page. They need to be taught how to weigh evidence and form independent opinions….how to recognize a charlatan….how to know an expert from a nutcase posing as one. They would learn that credulity has always been bad and is now worse than ever because with television and the internet, it is easier than ever to spread misinformation.
Such students, when they graduate, would not buy the National Enquirer or believe that Elvis has just been seen in Portland. They would understand that a history of Congregationalism written by an ardent Congregationalist will be different from that same history written by an neutral historian. They would be prepared to have people annoyed with them for asking “Why should I believe this?” when everybody else is mounted up and ready to gallop madly off in four different directions. They would honor the role of doubt as the doorway into truth, remembering every time they look at that relic of superstition, the barber pole, how the traditional cure for fever was bleeding — the higher the fever, the more bleeding — until doubters discovered a better way to heal.
But the world is forever a mix. I remember two university students who came at separate times to talk to me one day after a semester of applying critical judgment to study of the Bible. Both said they had learned all sorts of things they had never known before, but their reactions were strikingly different. The first one was excited to have discovered the Bible was excitingly unlike what he had previously thought. He laughingly said, “I’m almost tempted to go to seminary!” The second one said the course had disturbed the comfort he had felt before in his religious opinions. I asked if he felt that what he read and heard in the class had been true. He said, “Yes, it certainly sounded true and sensible, but I’d be a lot more settled right now if I had never heard it.” He was a living example of the popular cliche: I have my mind made up, don’t confuse me with facts..
We talked for quite a while. I said the things you would guess, about not having to accept what he had heard in class unless at some time in his life it helped him make better sense of religion. It was obvious as we talked that his approach had always been to believe without question whatever he was told. I said, “Live in suspense for a while. If you go on reading and listening with critical judgment to the voices you hear, things will sort themselves out. Don’t be panicked by doubt; it may be a sign that God’s spirit is at work in your life. Follow the advice of the Apostle Paul: ‘Test everything. Hold fast to what is true.’”
We agreed that light is not always welcome, that it may cause pain before it bestows a blessing. I reminded him of the Arab in the desert who at midnight woke up in his tent very hungry. He lit a candle and reached for a bowl of dates. He took one out, held it up to the light, saw that a worm was in it, and tossed it aside. He reached for a second, held it up to the light, saw another worm, and threw it out of the tent. Then he chose not to be disturbed by any more pesky decisions: he blew out the candle and ate the rest of his dates in peace.
That’s one way to live. I think the world is a saner and safer place if we follow Paul’s advice and use critical intelligence to distinguish between sense and nonsense, whether we’re making decisions about our health, or pondering the likelihood of visits by aliens in spaceships, or fashioning the religious creed by which we live. Our schools teach skills….kids learn to read words and play sports and make music and surf the internet — some learn figures and footnoting and how to do an appendectomy or win a case in court — and all of these are good — but discrimination (the ability to apply critical judgment to belief systems, or politicians, or religious leaders) what course in your school career ever concentrated on that? You can be grateful if some teacher now and then encouraged the skepticism that makes us less vulnerable to cults and kooks. We fall victim over and over, in politics and religion, to charlatans because we believe too easily and follow too blindly. How can anyone look at politics, art, advertising, and religion and not wish for more people willing to say, “You’ve gotta be kidding!”
Unless they read history few people know the hysteria and craziness that descended upon Europe as the year 1000 approached, and Second Coming fever has been heating up with growing intensity as the year 2000 gets closer. Radio and television preachers will confidently read the signs of the times, undeterred by the fact that thousands of such prophecies have proved false over the past 20 centuries. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about end-time predictions is how all previous failures are completely ignored. Each new prophet or cult leader will juggle scripture to fit events on the world scene and frighten his or her band of followers into giving up the normal routine of work and family to prepare for the end. Jesus was asked once about the endtime and said he had no idea, but you will not hear that note of modesty over these next three years. We’ve been through the mass suicides of the true believers at Jonestown, and the Solar Temple deaths in Canada and Europe, and this latest surreal departure of well-meaning folk who turned their minds over to still another charismatic cult leader…..and we can count on lots of strange things happening over the next 34 months.
In the meantime, blessed are the gentle skeptics who in all generations have saved us from so much nonsense.