The Skeptic’s Saint

April 3, 2016

Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31; Revelation 1:4-8

It might surprise you to know that I’m a bit of a skeptic.  I’m a skeptic about a lot of the miraculous and mystical theories and events that are so popular in our culture these days.  I’m not convinced, for example, that ghosts exist, despite the many stories I’ve heard of encounters with ghosts from people I trust.

I’m not sure about guardian angels either.  Angels in Scripture seem more likely to terrify than to protect.  Their main job in the Bible is to be messengers – that’s what the word Angel means – and the first thing they have to say to people is usually “Don’t be afraid”, so they must be awfully scary to encounter!

As for near death experiences, communicating with the dead, faith healings, telling the future from palms or cards or tea leaves – I’m a skeptic about those too.

I don’t say these things are impossible – after all, there is lots of testimony from many, many people that such things are real, even in our time and place – but too often I’ve seen such occurrences linked with mental illness, unresolved grief, wishful thinking, and even out and out charlatanism.  There are a lot of fakers out there who are glad to make money off our wish for proof that there is more in heaven and earth than you and I might be able to see or touch.  I also worry that pursuing such experiences can lead us down dark and unhealthy paths.  Scripture, indeed, warns us about many of these practices.

Until I get proof for myself that such things are real, the positive ones or the scary ones, I will remain a doubter, like Thomas.  But I don’t require anyone else to hold the same position as I do.  And I have to admit that there have been times when a shiver has run through me at hearing some of these stories  – a shiver, not of fear, but of wonder.  The universe is a strange and awesome place, and God works in mysterious ways!

I mention all of that because the story of Thomas and his skepticism about Jesus’ resurrection raised some questions for me about how to test the authenticity of a spiritual or mystical experience.  How ought we to respond to the testimony of those who have had an exceptional spiritual experience?  How do we decide what or whom to trust?

Thomas had every reason to be doubtful of the disciples’ story.  People don’t live again after they die.  I would be exceedingly doubtful, if someone came to me with a similar story.  In fact, I’d probably want to refer them to the Eric Martin Pavilion for a mental health assessment!  Yet our faith story is full of the miraculous, the mysterious, the unexplainable.

Some would say that all that is supernatural in Scripture is myth – powerful stories that are not necessarily factual and yet tell us something true about our existence.  Many who can accept the supernatural in Scripture cannot accept it in the 21st century.  As children of a scientific age, we have been taught that only what is natural, repeatable, and capable of being proved, is real.

Yet the church world-wide is experiencing a renewal of interest in the mystical traditions of the church, which include direct experience of the divine in ways that are foreign to most of us rational liberal Protestant Christians.  Then there are charismatic Christians who have affirmed for years that the Spirit can produce all sorts of supernatural occurrences, including faith healing, speaking in the tongues of humans and of angels, interpreting those languages, healing by faith, visions of heaven or of the end-times, and more.

So how would you react to a friend’s story of a mystical or spiritual experience?

Skepticism, like Thomas?

Would you attack their testimony, as some of the elders did when Jesus’ disciples were brought before them?

Would you resent their experience, fearing that it would take something away from your own beliefs and practices?

Would you be jealous, wishing you could have the same experience, or even wistful that you have not?  Many people long for proof of what is beyond this world, and would dearly love to have an experience that seems to be proof.

Would you celebrate their encounter with the holy (presuming it is with the holy and not with the demonic)?  Would you jump right in and seek out a similar experience for yourself?

Would you leave the question open, as did the Rabbi Gamaliel in one of our Scripture passages?  Would you allow time to see what the fruit of that experience might be?

All of those are ways that people have responded to the testimony of the church about the resurrection of Jesus and the transformation it brings to human lives.  And all of those are ways the church itself – in its different times and incarnations – have responded to the unusual experiences that take us out of our everyday world and into something beyond our regular lives.  Visions and portents are acceptable when they’re in the book of Revelation, but they’re harder to deal with day to day.

At some times, the church has encouraged its members to seek out mystical experiences, teaching practices of contemplation and prayer that would help us connect with something beyond ourselves, the way John did on the island of Patmos as he wrote the book of Revelation.  At other times, such activities have been considered an arrogant and self-serving practice – an attempt to take for ourselves what is up to God alone to grant.  Sometimes churches have affirmed some practices – such as faith healing and speaking in tongues – while condemning others – such as meditation or specific prayer practices designed to draw us into a visionary state (such as the Eastern Orthodox “Jesus Prayer”)

I did a little search online and I read Orthodox Christians criticizing medieval Catholic practices that are being revived in our time; I read evangelicals condemning both Orthodox and Catholic practices as demonic, and I’m sure I could have found Catholics condemning the evangelical practices as well.  As for the United Church, well, we are, unfortunately, silent on the subject.  Some years ago I suggested to the national office responsible for Faith and Theology that it was time for the church to say something about the widespread interest in mysticism, spiritualism, and the occult, but the church has never pursued it.  There have been numerous articles in the independently published United Church Observer magazine  on meditation, faith healing, labyrinth walking, near death experiences, and so on.  They leave it up to us to decide what is real and what is not.

Mysticism, spiritualism, and the occult are not the same things – but they are connected by that common longing to reach beyond what we can see and touch and grasp with our physical selves.  I share that longing at times, and have even had one or two experiences in my life that come near to crossing that boundary.  I will not try to tell you what to believe.  What I will say is there are some tests I use for myself when confronted with a story or an experience that is out of the ordinary or a practice intended to create an elevated mental state – something that seems to cross the boundary between life as we know it and a reality that is beyond ours.

  1. Is this experience one that only one person can testify to, or are their many who have shared that same experience? The resurrection of Jesus Christ was experienced by hundreds of his followers, according to the testimony of Scripture, and Christ continues to be experienced as alive in a different sense today by millions.   Commonality of experience, then, seems like a good measure of authenticity.
  2. Is this experience in continuity with what the historic church has declared to be true, good and holy? Of course, the church differs on some practices, as I mentioned previously, but there are others over which there is wide agreement (for example, all forms of divination and fortunetelling are rejected by the worldwide church).   Continuity with the church’s historic teaching, then, may be another measure of authenticity.
  3. What fruits are borne from this experience? (You might call this the Gamaliel test.)  Does this experience or practice bring out more of what is good in you or whoever has experienced it?  Does it bring inner strength, courage, patience, love, hope, joy, kindness, humility?  Does it bear the marks of the Holy Spirit, or of human (or even demonic) arrogance, pride, confusion, illness, fear, greed, hate.   Nurturing holiness, might be another measure of authenticity.

One of these marks alone, may not be enough, and not all marks may be present at all times.  For example, the resurrection of Jesus contradicted accepted Jewish teaching, so it could not have been said to have been in continuity with its religious tradition – yet it was witnessed by many, and bore amazing fruit that continues to this day.  Another example might be a faith healing that occurs as part of a wealthy televangelist’s crusade.  It is witnessed by many, and it is in continuity with the faith of the church, but if someone is making money off of it, then it may not be authentic to the spirit of Christ.  A third example is the mass hysteria of Jonestown or a Waco, Texas.  The belief are communal, but the fruit is death and destruction, not life and hope.

For Thomas, it was an actual encounter with the living Christ, embodied fully enough that he was able to touch Jesus’ wounds and know for himself the reality of Christ’s pain and his triumph, that caused him to declare his faith.  We cannot have that experience, no matter how much we may long for it.  We are among those of who the Gospel says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”  This is hard for us post-moderns, who focus so much on experience as the test of what is true and what is not.  We must depend on the testimony of the community, passed down from generation to generation; we must depend on the teaching of the church throughout history; we must rely on the witness of the joy, humility, hope, compassion, justice and peace that have been born in us and others by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the story of Jesus.  The story of the resurrection passes my test for authenticity; how about yours?

How do you deal with the supernatural aspects of scripture, and the mystical aspects of our faith?  Are miracles for today, or for Biblical times only?  Do you need experience to prove something is real?  What would be your test of an authentic spiritual experience?  Should we seek them out, or wait for them to be given?

I know – I have more questions than answers for you today.  Perhaps that’s appropriate, on this day of St Thomas the Doubter, the skeptic’s saint.  I encourage you to ponder those questions, and share them with your friends, as you continue on into your day.


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