A Patron Saint for Doubters

Note to the reader: As a pastor, I often talk with people who harbor serious doubts and questions about the Christian faith. Some are unbelievers; others are Christians. This and the next three postings express how I respond.

Bible text: Matthew 11:2-6

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

A 12th century icon of the deësis from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

The deësis was a popular medieval devotional image. It shows the risen Jesus as lord of the cosmos sitting on a jeweled throne. His left hand holds a gospel book. His right rises in blessing.

At his side stand the two highest saints in the Christian hierarchy. On the right, the Virgin Mary; on the left, John the Baptist. They pray for sinners. They model sanctity for the rest of us. John, in fact, personifies professing faith by acknowledging Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Yet John also personifies the shadow side of believing: the troubling persistence of doubt in the life of faith.

A fiery preacher of repentance, John angers King Herod Antipas, who silences John by imprisoning him. (Herod will also ultimately behead him.) While in prison, John hears reports about the ministry of Jesus. They are not what he expects to hear. Jesus is not acting like the Messiah that John and other Jews are expecting.

John begins to entertain doubts about Jesus. So he sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now here’s an interesting saint. Christian tradition recognizes John as one of its greatest. Yet he is a saint assaulted by doubt. How can that be? We do not expect a saint to be troubled by doubt.

In the version of Christianity that I grew up in, it was a given that if one had doubts about Christianity, then that was a clear sign that either one had not been truly born again or that one had backslidden into sin. Spiritual Christians do not doubt.

Or do they?

If you look at both the Bible and the lives of exceptional Christians through the ages, the answer is yes. Yes, believers do doubt. John the Baptist is one example. Another comes at the very end of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew concludes his gospel (Chapter 28) with that mountaintop scene where Jesus hands the eleven disciples their mission after his ascension. They are to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing and teaching. Christians have called this the Great Commission. It has fired Christian evangelism.

It’s a solemn scene, so solemn that Matthew says the disciples worshipped Jesus. But then he adds, strangely, “Some doubted.” I’ve always found that peculiar. Here the disciples are in the presence of the risen Jesus. How could any experience be more spiritual? Yet, Matthew says, some doubted. He does not say why. We can only guess.

Doubt also plays an important role in the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden story. God has commanded the primeval couple not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die.

They obey until the serpent plants doubt into Eve’s mind. If you eat of the tree, the serpent suggests, “you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [Genesis 3:4-5] This casts doubt on the goodness of God’s motives.

Doubt stalks the life of faith constantly. I don’t think its presence in our minds and emotions says much definitively about the status of our spiritual life. For it is a pervasive experience in most Christians’ lives, even in the lives of people we consider great saints.

If I were to ask a person on the street to name a great saint of the 20th century, I would not be surprised if many would name Mother Teresa. She was an amazing woman of great piety and Christian service, as she worked among some of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. She modeled Jesus in that service.

In 2007, after her death, a book of her letters [Mother Teresa: Come, Be My Light] was published. What startled the world was how they revealed that Mother Teresa had experienced decades of spiritual depression, loneliness, and doubt.

In September 1946, she had heard a voice—a voice she believed the voice of Jesus—calling her to serve the poor. She obeyed. But her obedience did not lead her into a life of spiritual serenity.

Quite the opposite. Instead she experienced a strong sense of abandonment. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote, “—and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great nothing touches my soul.”

This is not what we expect to hear from such a great servant of Jesus. But it is a truthful experience for many saints as much as it is for us who claim no great sanctity. We even hear it on the lips of Jesus. On the cross he cries out before he dies, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Experiences of doubt are a common part of the Christian religious experience. And we should not be alarmed when they occur to us as they did to John the Baptist. He knows the force of doubt, and surely he must now be able to feel compassion for those who are also assaulted. For this very reason, I would like to propose that John the Baptist be regarded as the patron saint of doubters.

My Favorite Picture of Jesus

Last week my wife and I returned from a 15-day trip to Turkey. The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the old cathedral church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

ImageWhen I was in college 40 years ago, I became intensely interested in the history of the Byzantine empire. Since then I have done extensive reading in Byzantine history and Eastern Orthodox theology. And it has long been my life dream to stand under the dome of Justinian’s great church.

I have fulfilled that life dream. And what a thrill it was!

While we were in the church, an absolute must for me was visiting the deësis mosaic on the south gallery of the church. The mosaic is fragmentary today. Large portions of it are missing, but the portrait of Jesus is nearly completely in tact.

Over the course of Christian history, thousands upon thousands of images of Jesus have been created. They include sculptures, manuscript miniatures, frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, enamels, woodcuts, and even dolls. With this super-abundance of images of Jesus, can you point to one as your favorite above all others?

I can, and it is this deësis portrait of Jesus on the wall of Hagia Sophia. I have adored this image of Christ ever since I first encountered it in an art history book years ago. It stunned me when I first encountered it.

Why is it my favorite? Because it captures for me the New Testament picture of Christ and the orthodox Christian doctrine of Christ better than any other image of Christ created by other artists.

In the mosaic Jesus sits upon a jeweled throne in majesty as the Lord of the cosmos. (The jeweled throne is now missing, but we know it was once there.) The virgin Mary and John the Baptist stand on each side of him with hands raised in prayer. They are praying for sinful, erring humanity.

Christ is dressed in a golden tunic with a brilliant blue mantle hanging over his shoulder. Behind him the wall glows with gold mosaic tiles.

This is an image of the resurrected and ascended Jesus who sits on the right hand of the Father. It conveys the majesty that the elder John was trying to describe in his vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation.

This is a Jesus whose divine nature is as visible as it can be. With the apostle Thomas, we are meant to cry out, “My Lord and my God.”

Yet, there is a strangely gentle and compassionate look to Jesus’ eyes and face. He may be Lord of the cosmos, but he is not the stern judge quick to damn. Instead I look at this Jesus in majesty and immediately recognize him as the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee in sandals, preaching and teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and forgiving sinners.

Here is a Lord of the cosmos who has not lost his compassionate humanity in his exaltation to majesty. Here is one deeply human, whom, with Mary of Bethany, we want to fall on our knees and cover his feet with our tears.

The artist who created this portrait has managed to capture both the divinity and humanity of Jesus in the one person. That is the essence of the picture of Jesus we get in the New Testament, as I read it. It is also the orthodox doctrine of Christ, as defined by the Chalcedonian definition. 

It is hard to hold on to this delicate unity in our preaching, teaching, and Christian piety. We are all too inclined to over-emphasize either Jesus’ divinity or his humanity. Most Christian art also falls into one of these over-simplifications.

But one artist, in 12th century Constantinople, was able to convey that unity in his portrait of Jesus. And I for one stand in awe of his achievement.