There is a fine point between cynicism and skepticism. It is like fine point between going forward in a faith community with an engaged mind with critical thinking like the Drive gear and being too passive with ones mind on Neutral. Neutral could mean that even a weak thing can push me around. God, who is good, does not mind honest questions. Thomas Jefferson addressed this saying, “Sit wisdom firmly in her seat. Question with boldness even the existence of God. For if there is a God, he must want honest questions rather than blindfolded fear”.
True spiritual seeking is not an objective experience. It is fully informed Christian is engaging all of the person. If someone sells you Christianity allows no questioning, run!
There once was a man who grew up in a spiritual community that did not allow members to even read materials critical of their faith. He started seeing holes in their doctrine and their history not adding up so he confided to someone to listen to his many struggles in faith. Days later he was disfellowshipped and no one could speak to him. Supposedly, “blind folded fear” would be better with a focus on that group alone.
Below we see Jesus having a healthy attitude to skepticism and expanding the conversation to how “God so loved the world……” (John 3:16). Too often those on spiritual journeys overlook the value of questions though Jesus does not.
The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51).
Phillip was dedicated to Jesus by the time he approaches Nathaniel. When he approaches him he communicates on what they knew were their signs of hope in what Moses and the prophets said. He uses a common faith related shorthand to communicate the historical context and momentum that is realized in Jesus. This is an informed faith and culture perspective.
But Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He hears the deposit of faith context, yet the name of a backwater town seems too simple for any far reaching consequence. He was likely a spiritual seeker to begin with or Philip would not have approached him right away. His emphasis was on how God would bring out greatness from what is already impressive in the Old Testament history.
But my above statement rings true in how there can be subjectivity, a bias, that the seeker brings in applying the critical mind to a spiritual picture. But the beauty of the pattern of Jesus is he dwelled among us. He had a footprint without a flashiness or faith would be too easy. When faith comes too easy it leaves easy.
This is why skepticism is valuable. Skepticism is a way to look at the merits of something with honest questions. For example, Mary asked Gabriel how she could be pregnant since “I know not a man”? She was not punished for it since she was staying in touch with that which was revealed truth up to that point. Skepticism is healthy because it protects the good.
Using skepticism is also good for one obtaining a personal ownership on the matter. An example is of two personality types in a cancer study. They examined two personality types of men in their mid-fifties with the same cancer. One was skeptical and wanted to know all of the process. The other was passive with whatever the authority says. Of the two, the passive had lower survival rates. Likewise too much passivity in the spiritual life with ones reason leads to spiritual death. There, ownership saves.
Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him—- This is a turning point. Jesus respect Nathanael’s response even in his error. A true Israelite would highlights of salvation history engrained and Nazareth was not in one of them. Though there is presumption or conjecture in Nathanael’s doubt there is a single-mindedness on the God of his understanding having continuity with earlier works. Jesus sees him as a glass half full and is able to work with him. Jesus is open here to the hard questions of honest inquiry and compliments Nathaniel for that. For a future apostle who would pass on the faith, he sets the table for a refined balance of faith and reason. “To believe is nothing other than to think with assent… Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe… If faith does not think, it is nothing” (Saint Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 2, 5: PL 44, 963).
You will see greater things than this—- Jesus honors the tenacity of Nathaniel. In that, Jesus explains how and why his supernatural knowledge of the spiritual and physical location of Nathanael is a fragment for kingdom perspective. By speaking of angels Jesus makes reference to something even larger than Israel since being the “King of Israel” is not the limit for Jesus because he was also the king of spiritual Israel to come. This reference of angels ascending and descending goes to a transcendent nature of God’s kingdom. Jesus makes a vague reference to the life of Jacob that points to both that and how even more expansive the grace of God will be shown.
Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him and saying: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and through them you will spread to the west and the east, to the north and the south. In you and your descendants all the families of the earth will find blessing (Genesis 28: 12-14).
Jesus relates to Nathanael in the Old Testament reference, knowing his bias, and emphasizes how individual journeys have meaning partly in God’s grace to everyone and, sometimes, through humble beginnings. Personal conversions should add up to God’s agenda for the world that engages God’s grace to humanity.
Philip was only extending the invitation of Jesus. Jesus promised in the context of making disciples and baptizing them in the Trinitarian formula (Matthew 28:20) that he would be with us to the end of the age. How deeply he will do that is up to us, as we ask honest questions but open to the fullness of Jesus.