Well, I recently watched a fascinating documentary series on Netflix called “Wild, Wild, Country,” which is about a religious cult in rural Oregon. And, it is so interesting to me that people who are so intelligent and kind and compassionate and so seemingly well-adjusted can be so easily caught up in the pull of a religious cult.
Watching the series reminded me to dig-up an old magazine clipping I saved about the 6 Characteristics of a Cult.
1) The leadership dictates how members should think, act and feel.
2) There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
3) Rational thought is discouraged or forbidden.
4) Leadership induces feelings of shame or guilt in order to influence or control its members.
5) The group is elitist, claiming special, exalted status.
6) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Based on those 6 characteristics, I realize that there are so many people that I know today, right here in West Michigan, who belong to a cult. And, those people belong to the cult of conservative or evangelical Christianity.
Those 6 characteristics are characteristics of many evangelical and conservative Christian churches in America today-- churches that dictate how members should think; churches that proclaim salvation status; churches that seek to convert others; and churches that discourage critical inquiry or rational thought.
It is why there are so many people in our country today who refuse to believe in evolution, and instead, believe in a talking snake simply because it’s written about in an ancient book that was written by primitive people.
People who believe without questioning – people who blindly follow a group (be it a religious or political group) without critical inquiry or rational thinking are people who belong to a cult.
We, at Douglas UCC, don’t want anyone here to be involved in a cult.
Yes, we are a Christian church, part of a Christian denomination, but we say in our church’s mission statement that we are a church that is more about the questions than the answers.
The sign hanging in the entrance of our church says, “We believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.”
For example, last Sunday – on Easter Sunday, our highest holy day as Christians – I questioned whether Jesus physically rose from the dead. I would not be able to question that at 99.9% of Christian churches in America today.
But, most people don’t come to church to ponder questions or think for themselves. Most people come to church wanting answers.
And, there are plenty of churches here in West Michigan that will give you answers.
I don’t have your answers. Any spiritual teacher who tells you they have the answer, doesn’t have the answer.
We are gathered here each Sunday – not to check our brains at the door – but to explore the questions together.
That doesn’t mean that we are not people of great faith. It fact, just the opposite is so. Many people think that if you doubt or question something about your religion, then your faith must not be very strong.
But, the contemporary Christian writer, Anne Lamott, says, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
There are so many Christians today who are so certain that they have the answer. But that isn’t faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith.
In the New York Times last year, there was an editorial entitled, “God is a Question, Not an Answer,” written by Professor William Irvin. He said:
“Belief without doubt would not be required by an all-loving God, and it should not be worn as a badge of honor. People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”
Most people of great faith that I know are people who express doubt.
In journal entries that were published after her death, Mother Teresa expressed doubts. She even expressed toward the end of her life that she had doubts that God even existed.
That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a person of great faith. It means that she was.
The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith.”
And that’s why I always thought that the apostle Thomas got a bad rap. We’ve come to refer to him as “Doubting Thomas.” He was considered the “bad apostle” because he had questions and doubts.
But, let’s look at today’s Gospel story for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.
The other apostles were locked away in a room all week. Jesus - who they thought was the messiah who would save them - had just been crucified.
I guarantee you that they were expressing a lot of fear and a lot of doubt while they were gathered in that room. I’m sure they were doubting whether or not they had been right about Jesus.
So, Thomas, I’m sure, wasn’t the only one with doubts.
What I think Thomas is saying to the others in today’s Gospel is: “Look, you guys had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. You experienced him firsthand, and that’s why you believe. Well, I want to have that experience, too, and then I’ll believe.”
He wasn’t calling the other apostles liars. He was simply saying that he, too, wanted to have an experience of the risen Christ just like they had.
He wanted to know it for himself – first hand – rather than believe some second-hand account.
And, look what happens! Jesus doesn’t punish Thomas for having doubts. Jesus rewards him for his questioning and his doubts.
Jesus gives Thomas the first-hand experience he was asking for. Jesus says, “Touch Me”… feel my Aliveness!
Some of you may know that there is actually a Gospel of Thomas, but it is not in the Bible.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the Gnostic Gospels that was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, and has been verified by historians and theologians.
When the Bible was being compiled by the early church, they decided not to include the Gospel of Thomas and the other Gnostic gospels, and they hid those writings until they were discovered in 1945.
Who were the Gnostics? The Gnostics were early Christians like Thomas who believed that we could experience that Christ presence for ourselves first-hand.
The word “gnostic” means “knowing”…but it’s not knowing of the head – it’s not intellectual knowledge. It means INTIMACY, an INNER knowing. A knowledge of the heart.
It’s about having a first-hand knowledge of the Christ… not because someone told you about it (or because you read it in a book), but because you yourself have experienced it first-hand.
I told you last Sunday that the Resurrection – whether it actually took place or is a myth -- is real for me because I have experienced it first-hand for myself. I have felt the presence of the risen Christ within me first-hand.
And, that’s why I believe. Not because someone told me to believe. I don’t want to hear second-hand accounts. I want a first-hand account. An intimate knowledge… just like Thomas.
And, like Thomas, I would not have had that intimate experience without my doubts and questions. They have not weakened my faith…they have strengthened it.
All of us are on a Spiritual Journey, a Spiritual Quest, and the word “quest” is part of the word “questioning.”
I believe that unquestioned beliefs are our greatest obstacles on the spiritual path. These are the beliefs and thoughts we’ve unknowingly and unquestioningly taken on from our churches, our parents, and our society… beliefs that we have never questioned.
In Romans 12:2, it says, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
That is why prayer and meditation are so important on the spiritual quest, because all of our answers are within.
When we “become still and know,” we renew our minds, we transform our thinking, so that we can – like Thomas – experience first-hand intimate knowledge of the Divine Presence.
And, so, this Easter season, my friends, let us go forth to experience the risen Christ for ourselves by bringing our doubts and questions to the Light.
Let us be people humbly “Living the Questions,” rather than people arrogantly proclaiming that we have everyone’s answers.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance by Rev. Ian Lawton for Sunday, April 11
I used to like the bumper sticker that says, “I used to be doubtful, but now I’m not so sure.” Doubt is something I am VERY sure about. It is important and healthy. Unfortunately, doubt is often seen as a weakness. In some religious circles, doubt is even seen as the opposite of faith. I once heard a televangelist say, “Give doubt an inch, and it will become your ruler.” I doubt it. Doubt is one of the ways you inch towards truth. Doubt is powerful. It is the way things change. Doubt is a personal invitation, a welcome sign that says, “Inquire within.” It is a massive question mark on the way things are, an invitation to reconsider the status quo. Doubt is a built-in lighthouse, warning you when religious beliefs, personal decisions or social perspectives are leading you straight on to the rocks of catastrophe. Doubt is important to question worn-out personal beliefs, such as self-limiting fear, and doubt is essential to question political and economic systems that are no longer working. Doubt is one of intuition’s most powerful tools. Use it wisely, not as the end point or a permanent posture, but as a spark to break the bonds of personal and social restraint. Both your mind and your experience, not to mention your underlying awareness, are powerful tools to test all that you hear and see and take you closer to the truth of your essential nature. So give yourself the benefit of doubt.
What did you think?