Photograph by Bruce Edwards
Doubt as much a
part of Easter as Faith
April 24th, 2011
For Father David Norman, the holiest week in the Christian calendar
is about doubt.
“Doubt is the flip side of faith,” Norman says. “Where there is no
doubt, there is no faith.”
It’s an unconventional Easter message, but one that will surely
resonate with many Edmontonians as they celebrate the death and
resurrection of a first century Jew named Jesus, or simply look for
dormant life under all that melted snow.
Father Dave, as he is known to his students at Newman Theological
College, is good-humoured despite 32 years of solemn vows of
poverty, chastity, and obedience. His Jasper Avenue office, adjacent
to his Franciscan Friary quarters, is dominated by theological tomes
and Renaissance reprints. There’s also a P.D. James novel and a
deluxe copy of the John Wayne classic, The Searchers.
Norman’s eyebrows dance as he explains the Easter message through
the lens of doubt, but he slides easily into an affable chuckle.
“Thomas has gotten a raw deal,” says Norman. “He’s always called the
doubter, but he’s a visionary, the model for faith.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, Thomas is the disciple who
hears about the resurrection, but refuses to believe until he
personally touches Jesus’ wounds. His demands, found in John
20:24-29, have often been disparaged as an audacious lack of faith,
which Norman says belongs “to the eternal disgrace of Christianity.”
Father Dave insists Thomas is the perfect model of the Easter
journey from doubt to knowledge and faith.
“Thomas needs evidence for faith. Without any evidence, Thomas has
to doubt, he is obliged to doubt,” Norman says. “If he just believes
without any evidence, then he’s gullible and he’s a fool and he’s
A little over two years ago, Norman submitted his take on doubt and
resurrection to the periodical Theological Studies. Scholars have
focused on historical questions around Jesus’ post-resurrection
appearances, he argued, often missing what’s at stake for the Gospel
writers, who like Jesus, were thoroughly Jewish.
“A dead Messiah is a hard thing to sell, even with a resurrection,”
Norman says. “Thomas’s paradigm of God gets shifted and shattered
When Thomas’s demand is granted, Norman says, his concept of God
David Goa agrees about doubt’s bad rap. The head of the University
of Alberta Augustana’s Chester Ronning Centre — devoted to religion
and public life — insists doubt can be perfectly holy. He calls
Thomas “the patron saint of empiricism.”
“We ought to doubt all kinds of things,” Goa says en route from
Calgary via a scratchy cellphone. “The problem with us is not our
doubt. The problem with us is not caring, and not being engaged, and
not being in relationship to what is meaningful.”
According to Goa, you don’t need to be Christian to affirm Easter.
You can simply believe that life has meaning and is a gift, or
celebrate the elemental observation that despite Alberta’s harrowing
climate, shoots of green are finally emerging.
“It’s been a hell of a long winter,” says Goa. “We’re coming to a
fruitful time of year, a fecund time of year. That’s worth taking
Easter has a mixed pedigree. The name is thought to stem from old
European traditions about fertility and the earth goddess Ostera,
who bequeathed bunnies, eggs, and even the traditional Easter ham.
Christian traditions are also linked to Passover, the Hebrew Pesach,
echoed in other names for the holiday, like the Catholic Paschal
mystery or the Eastern Orthodox Pascha.
“The religious dimensions of human culture, they’re always layered,”
Goa says, “Christianity was the bastard daughter of Judaism,
Buddhism was the bastard daughter of what we usually call Hindu
tradition. The world of meaning is a multi-layered world.”
Goa makes room for different symbolic layers, like a Passover meal
with Jewish friends or when his children were small, Easter egg
hunts. His own Orthodox church is at the beginning of Bright Week, a
week of food, songs, and prayers celebrating Jesus’s
post-resurrection appearances, culminating in Thomas Sunday,
commemorating the moment doubt transformed into faith.
“It’s an amazing story,” says Goa. “The whole of the Gospel story is
about the great human struggle for freedom, the freedom to live in
the fullness of your dignity, and to live in a deep relationship
with everyone in the world including your enemies.”
If the Bible or a church service isn’t for you this Easter, Anita
Helmbold suggests picking up Harry Potter.
Helmbold, an evangelical Christian who teaches English at King’s
University College, says there are plenty of stories of sacrifice
and redemption, but few mirror the Easter story as closely as the
climactic end to the story about a teenage wizard with a lightning
“Contrary to popular belief, most Christians I know of are quite
taken with the stories,” says Helmbold, immersed in a pile of final
exams. “It’s very true to the theological message that Christians
would see in Easter.”
For Helmbold, Easter is “a holiday of the spirit,” one that’s
difficult to celebrate well. She’s no purist in rejecting spring
celebrations, but views it as a holiday unlike any other.
“Easter really deals with someone who has been tortured to death,”
Helmbold says. “Easter is both about despair and hope.”
Helmbold opts to celebrate the holiday as a time of personal,
internalized reflection. There’s a service at the Baptist church she
attends. But unlike Christmas, there’s no family feast, no
decorations. She doesn’t keep any Lenten fasts, which she finds can
sometimes trivialize things.
“We’ve tried to keep Easter celebrations low key,” says Helmbold.
“It’s largely it’s a matter of keeping the day quiet and trying not
to let too many things clutter it up.”
While Sunday will be quiet in Helmbold’s home, she’ll remember her
teenage years in southern California. While not a morning person,
Helmbold would rise before dawn to sit outside on the grass in the
dark with her church community for their sunrise service.
“We can’t really practice it in Edmonton, unfortunately.” she says,
weather being, well, better in Orange County.
The vision of the sun rising, light emerging out from beyond
darkness, powerfully conveys the sense of hope and new life and
“Even though there is darkness and suffering and the world is
imperfect, evil and suffering don’t have the last word.”
The holiest week of the year may begin in doubt, but Helmbold says
it ends in hope.
More writings by Billy
Isenor, OFM can be found on