Somehow, several times in recent weeks the story of so-called Doubting Thomas has woven its way through conversations with friends; each time, I have been struck by the poignancy of the tale, at least as I understand it. So I thought I’d put pixel to paper to reflect on what it is I find so touching, and ultimately relevant, about the story.
First, some disclaimers: I’m no Bible scholar; it’s been a while since I’ve re-read the Biblical accounts. I don’t recall precisely where I first grokked what I articulate below, but I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to have come up with the idea on my own; perhaps I first came across the seed of these reflections in some distant reading (Rudolf Steiner’s Gospel of St. John comes to mind)? As usual, any insight here comes from Grace, and any faults or misinterpretations are entirely my own. Awright, hope the lawyers are happy now.
So, Doubting Thomas, and his inability to have faith without personal experience as a foundation—what’s the deal? The complex and intertwined dynamics between faith and doubt have occupied humankind since time immemorial, no doubt. Perhaps not a zero-sum game, but the faith and doubt territory is certainly rich with enquiry and opportunity. Thomas often gets a bad rap for his doubting—as if it defines or is synonymous with his alleged lack of faith. But there’s an aspect of the story that often seems to get short shrift—and to my mind, encourages us in a sort of principled skepticism, open to anything but not easily playing the rube. In the “real world,” it doesn’t take long before the story’s common takeaway—“One shouldn’t doubt, but have faith” etc.—butts squarely into the glories of evidence-based, scientific inquiry: how on earth (or in heaven for that matter) are we supposed to “believe” something when we have had no personal or ontological experience which gives us reason to believe it?
Better people than I have wrestled such questions since way before there ever was an historical Jesus, so while I always welcome such discourse with fellow seekers and curious souls around a blazing fire, I’m not sure I have much of value to add to the conversation here.
I will suggest this, though: far from being considered a negative quality by Jesus the Christ, Thomas’ very doubt was considered a quality worthy of reward—worthy, indeed, of a transcendent and once-in-human-history level reward. “Doubting” Thomas’ very unwillingness to believe with no first-hand evidence that Jesus had resurrected—“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25)—places Thomas in a unique and marvelous position in human and devotional history. For according to what we are told in Biblical scripture, Thomas is the only human being in all of history to have touched the body of the risen Christ. Dig that! He was open, apparently, but he needed to experience Divine Reality for himself—and for this “doubt” he was rewarded with a blessing many Christians, in truth many believers of any faith or persuasion, can only dream about.
What an idea: that hewing equally to both our faith and our doubt—not in a pessimistic or negative way but more as an expression of our need for having grounded experiences of reality before calling something “true”—is seen by the Universe (or at least, by Jesus) not as a sign of faithlessness but indeed as a sign of openness and faith worthy of being rewarded at the highest level.
There is something about this that feels humbling, and softens me inside. It makes me feel like, despite abundant countervailing rhetoric, there is indeed no existential conflict between evidence—we could even call it science—and faith.
God, I pray I’m right!