The movie Philomena is based on the 2009 investigative book by British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] correspondent Martin Sixsmith, entitled, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, is an older woman searching for her long-lost son. When Philomena was a young woman living in an Irish-Catholic community, she gave birth to the baby boy, only to have the child taken from her at an early age. The nuns sold the boy to a U.S. couple for adoption.
Philomena was forced, according to church doctrine, to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into her son’s whereabouts. But Philomena never stopped thinking about her son, and so thus, when she meets Martin Sixsmith [played by Steve Coogan], and he wishes to publish and investigative report of her story, the two of them embark on a quest to find her son.
Here is a clip from the movie:
The film and story of Philomena includes a rigorous examination of faith and belief. Philomena and Martin were both raised Roman Catholic, but Martin is an atheist and Philomena holds on to her beliefs about the church and her faith in God. Martin is perplexed by this, considering all the great evils that were done to Philomena and countless others by the church, in the name of God. How could someone who knew of all the evils of the church continue to be so steadfast?
It is worth watching—at the very least, to stimulate thought and conversation about two words:
Faith and Belief
Most people often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is:
Why do people believe in God?
Most people assume that belief comes before action and therefore explains choices. So, in other words, you believe something first; that belief causes you to do something.
But in fact, most people, when thinking about belief, are off-base.
Let me explain.
Belief is a principle, a proposition, an idea that you accept as true. It could be an opinion, a religious doctrine—whatever.
Case in point: close your eyes, everyone.
Imagine the color green.
How about saffron?
I cannot get inside your head and actually see how you imagined those colors, but I can tell you this:
All of us imagined the colors a bit differently.
Your green may have been darker or light than mine. Your yellow may have been closer to red or orange. Your magenta and your saffron? It depends on whether or not you ever “saw” those colors in a book, in a painting, or used that particular crayon.
This is belief. You were taught and conditioned. This is what you believe.
Belief is what we think we know to be true.
Okay, now faith. This is trust or confidence in something or someone without necessarily having concrete evidence.
The Greek language of the New Testament of the Bible seems to use these words faith and belief interchangeably. But in this case, prepositions matter.
We can believe a million things about something or someone.
But how much do we have faith in something? How much do we trust?
That is why I argue that we have to be very careful about belief, because people can believe anything! And sometimes, like in the case of Philomena, extreme, stubborn belief in something can lead to awful behavior.
But faith, on the other hand, isn’t about being stubborn.
Why? Because faith is mixed with doubt.
Let me say that again.
Faith is mixed with doubt.
Theologian Frederick Buechner once said:
Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
I love that! Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.
So with ants in our pants, let’s explore Thomas’ story.
Jesus died recently. The disciples are locked up behind closed doors, hiding from the authorities. But keep in mind that the male disciples were more scared than the female disciples who were brave enough to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who were they scared of? Well, the Judean authorities and the Temple aristocracy, and perhaps the Romans, too. They were so scared, in fact, that they did not believe Mary Magdalene’s story about meeting the Jesus with a green thumb [i.e. a gardener].
Lucky for them, Jesus appears. Jesus greets them with Peace be with you, which as I’ve mentioned before, really means shalom, which means wholeness as a gift of God. Then Jesus shows his hands and side. They rejoice because they see him. Then he breathes on them. After the breath that resembles the Creator breathing life into humanity, Jesus talks about forgiveness.
I like this translation of verse 23 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good.
If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?
Seems to be Jesus telling the disciples to stop being afraid. Seems like faith, in this sense, is about unlocking the doors and going outside.
But then again, John’s Gospel story is yet to introduce Thomas.
Yes, Thomas, was outside the locked doors, like the women were, and so he did not see this Jesus appearance. And Thomas was not one to believe something just because everyone else did. He was a skeptic. He knew that Jesus died. Why would he believe something that these scared guys told him? They were most likely delusional.
Then John’s story skips ahead; it’s a week later.
Jesus magically walks through a wall again and repeats the wholeness blessing. But then Jesus talks to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side. But he doesn’t’ do it. Instead, the skeptic Thomas says: My Lord and my God!
Jesus closes with:
Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
And don’t miss the last part of John’s story, reminding us to whom this Gospel is addressing.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
a: or continue to believe
e: or Christ
The story is for all the skeptics—the ones who don’t see and don’t believe.
This is a story of faith, because after the resurrection appearances, these women and men were supposed to live resurrected lives themselves. They had faith in the presence of G-d, faith in the power of love to conquer even hate and death.
And even so, these people were so full of doubt.
I really, really like the Thomas story.
But I really, really dislike how many people misquote it and push belief on other people—telling them that this bad thing happens or this will happen to them if they don’t believe a certain thing.
Or, you know, if you are struggling or suffering….
Just have more faith!
But Faith isn’t something to possess.
Belief—sure, you can possess that. It’s what your mind has been conditioned and taught, so yes—your beliefs are in your head and are yours.
But faith is spiritual—beyond doctrines, words on a page, well outside the locked, closed doors of the church!
Faith is trust in and feeling of and action performed.
I myself find great inspiration in the 5th Gospel, ironically called The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The author and exact date of the Gospel of Thomas is still being researched, but it most certainly is an early Christian writing. It contains only sayings of Jesus. Let me close with two of them, related to faith and belief.
His disciples said, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.”
Jesus said, “If two make peace with each other in this one house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move Away,’ and it will move away.”
Friends, don’t get caught up in belief.
Embrace the doubts you have. Embrace the living that is breathed into all.
May your faith and spiritual practice move you to peaceful, loving, and compassionate action in the world.
 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking
 Gospel of Thomas, Sayings 37 and 48.