Well, I recently watched a very fascinating documentary on Netflix – a documentary series, which is called a Wild Wild Country. And it is all about a religious cult in rural Oregon. And I'm so amazed to see seemingly normal, well-adjusted, intelligent, compassionate, kind people get so easily caught up in a religious cult.
And watching the series that reminded me to dig up an old magazine article that I had saved that lists the six characteristics of a cult. And I thought I would read them for you.
Number one, the leadership dictates how members should think, act and feel. Two, there's no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Three, rational thought is discouraged or forbidden. Four, leadership induces feelings of shame or guilt in order to influence or control its members. Five, the group is elitist, claiming special exalted status. And six, the group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Now, as I read these six characteristics of a cult, I realize that there are so many people that I know right here in West Michigan, who belong to a cult, and that cult is the Christian church to which they are a member. I'm going to read these again and see if you agree:
The leadership dictates how members should think, act and feel. There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Rational thought is discouraged or forbidden. The leadership induces feelings of shame or guilt in order to influence or control its members. The group is elitist, claiming special, exalted status. And the group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
These six characteristics of a cult are characteristics of many Christian churches in America today, churches that dictate what their members should think. Churches which proclaim special salvation status for their members, churches that are concerned with bringing in new members, baptizing and converting people and churches that discourage critical inquiry and rational thinking.
It's why so many Christians in America today don't believe in things like evolution, for example, which has been proven by science, but rather they believe in a talking snake, because it was written in an ancient book, which was written by primitive people, people who believe without questioning, people who blindly follow a religious group or a political group. Without rational thinking and critical inquiry. These people belong to a cult. We do not want anyone at Douglas UCC to be a part of a cult. Now, yes, we are a Christian church. But we say in our church's mission statement, we are a church that is more about the questions than the answers. Framed in our churches foyer, it says, we believe that there is more value in questioning than in absolutes. It's why last Sunday on Easter Sunday, the holiest of holy days in our Christian calendar, I was able to stand on this very altar last Sunday, and question whether or not Jesus physically rose from the dead.
I could not do that in 99.9% of Christian churches in America. We are here to ponder the questions, to wrestle with the questions. But most people don't want to go to church to wrestle with the questions. They want church to give them the answers. And there are plenty of Christian churches in West Michigan that will give you answers. I don't have your answer. I don't. And any spiritual teacher that tells you that they have the answer doesn't have the answer.
We are gathered here each and every Sunday not to check our brains at the door, but to explore the questions together. And that doesn't mean that we are people of weak faith. It actually means just the opposite. You know, we often hear that if you have doubts or questions about your religion, that you must not have very strong faith, but it's just the opposite. The 20th century Christian mystic, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton said, “A man of faith who has never experienced doubt, is not a man of faith.” And the contemporary Christian writer Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is in doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” Most Christian churches in America today are all about certainty. They are so certain they have the answer, not just for themselves, but for everybody. And that is not faith. That's the opposite of faith.
Now, in the New York Times last year, there was an editorial, which was written by Professor William Ervin, and it was titled, “God is a question, not an answer.”And in it, he wrote, “Belief, without doubt, would not be required of 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 the conversation, and they're ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”
It is impossible to be certain about God. I will tell you that the people of greatest faith that I know are the people who have expressed doubt and who have asked questions. Even Mother Teresa, at the ends of her life… You know, they published her journals after she died. And at the end of her life, she even wrote in her journal that she questioned whether God actually existed.
Now, that doesn't mean that she was a woman of weak faith, it means that she was a woman of very strong faith. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an element of faith.”
Doubt is an element of faith. And that's why I think that the Apostle Thomas has gotten a really bad rap. Because we have come to see him as the bad apostle, because he doubted and we even have this phrase, now “The Doubting Thomas.”
But he wasn't a man of weak faith, he was a man of great faith. If you look at the story, the apostles are all locked in a room together in fear, because the person they believed would be their Savior and Messiah had just been crucified. And although the story doesn't tell us this, I can guarantee you that those 11 people that were in that room, I guarantee you, they were expressing doubt, thinking, ‘Should I have left everything behind to follow this guy? I thought he was going to save us. Now he's dead.’
So I'm sure Thomas wasn't the only one who was experiencing doubt. When he arrives and they tell him they've seen the Lord, Thomas says to them, ‘You believe because you had the experience. I want to have the experience too, then I'll believe.’ He wasn't calling the other apostles liars. He was saying you experienced the risen Christ in your midst. I want to experience the risen Christ in my midst. And what happened after he expressed that doubt? Jesus rewarded him. Jesus showed up and in such a beautiful way. He said, ‘Thomas, come here, touch my side, put your hand in my hand, feel my aliveness.’ Such a beautiful, intimate moment. He was rewarded for his questioning and doubts.
Now, some of you know there is actually a gospel of Thomas,
but you won't find it in the Bible. There were a bunch of gospels, that the early Christian fathers who put the Bible together did not include in the Bible. In fact, they were so fearful of these gospels. Gospels, like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas. They were so fearful of these gospels, that they hid them away. And they were not discovered until an archeological dig in Egypt in 1945. And those gospels have been verified by historians and theologians. These gospels are known as the Gnostic Gospels, and Gnostic means “knowing.” But it's not intellectual knowing. It's an inner knowing, and intimacy and knowing of the heart. The Gnostics Mary Magdalene, Thomas, they believed that we could have an inner experience of the risen Christ for ourselves, an inner knowing, a firsthand experience.
Now, I shared with you last Sunday on Easter that I believe the resurrection is real. And the reason I believe it's real, is because I've experienced it for myself. A man who died 2,000 years ago is alive in me, I have felt His presence and His power in a very real way. I have first hand experience of it. I don't believe it because I read it in a book or because some pastor told me, but because I've experienced it for myself.
Now I would not have had that experience. If I had not wrestled with my faith, if I had not taken my doubts and questions and wrestled with them. Now we are called to be on a spiritual journey. And I call it a spiritual quest. Because part of the word quest is it's the root word of the word questioning. Our spiritual journey should be about the questioning. And so on our spiritual quest, we are to do what it says in Romans 12. It says, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. And that's what we're doing in prayer and meditation. That's why I stress prayer and meditation so much to you. Because we have to get still and know. And why? Because our answers are within us. That's where our answers are. And in prayer and meditation, we bring our doubts and our fears and our questions to the light so that we can be transformed, just like it says in Romans 12.
And so my friends, In this season of Easter, the season of resurrection and new life, may you continue to find time each and every day, to be still and know, to go within for your answers. And may we, the people of Douglas UCC, be a group of people who humbly live the questions together, then arrogantly proclaim with certainty that we have everybody's answers.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. Ian Lawton
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?