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We Are All Thomas: Doubt, Community, and the Call to Faith

Article and Photos by David Bennett

I am often amazed how God often works in a variety of ways at once, in which His grace is "bundled" so to speak. I had heard the text for 1 Easter this Sunday (John 20:19-31), and then I went with my brother and co-editor Jonathan to have coffee with our friend and professor Steve Hays in Athens, Ohio. It just so happened that Steve brought up the same story in our meeting, proving that perhaps God wished us to engage the text. The text from John speaks of the time a week after Jesus' resurrection, when the apostle Thomas reenters the resurrection story and still refuses to accept that Jesus truly has risen from the dead. A week earlier, Thomas had demanded irrefutable proof of Jesus' resurrection before he would believe it to be true. Thomas had to feel the wounds of Jesus for himself or else he could not believe. Even though Jesus apparently had miraculously entered into the room while the door was locked, Jesus still saw fit to allow Thomas to analyze his body, providing Thomas with the proof he needed. Jesus' response to Thomas, after Jesus had offered Thomas inspection was, "do not doubt, but believe." Then, Thomas affirmed Jesus' identity as Lord and God. Following that important declaration of Thomas' faith, Jesus recognized that Thomas probably only believed because he witnessed the resurrection, but Jesus said that those who believe without seeing are indeed blessed.

Desolation: A Fall Evening Scene, photographed by David Bennett

I think that we all have a little bit of Thomas in us all. Some of us become like Thomas when we go through hard times, others after taking a class that challenges us to think more deeply about God. Some become like Thomas when thought paradigms shift, such as in our time today, after the Newtonian and Cartesian worldview of modernism has shifted to a more dynamic postmodern worldview. Either way, most of us go through times when it seems like faith is not enough...we need proof and we need it immediately! Thomas symbolizes more than just plain doubt. Thomas symbolizes the deep human need for rational and empirical validation of our beliefs. Indeed, if in the year 2003 my friends came to me saying that a mutual friend that had died was risen from the dead, I would demand proof. I, like Thomas, would want to see this person alive and covered with the same scars that he had before he died. In fact, I think I would even be suspicious if I saw such a phenomenon happen. Even after witnessing such an extremely unique event, I would still doubt. I would doubt my emotional health at the time, and my ability to process facts clearly. Perhaps I would think I was delusional and would be convinced that what I had seen was but a fantasy.

Even years later, I would be presented with a dilemma as well: Did this amazing event actually happen? Often as we get older (and even at the "old" age of 26 I know this to be true) we no longer remember the actual events we often speak of, but only the retelling of the stories. It's kind of like we develop our own little oral traditions. I have lately questioned details of very important events that I once firmly believed to be true, simply because I can no longer clearly remember the actual events. However, sometimes our memory serves us better than we know, even though it might need clarification from others who shared the same common experience.

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I owe this next story to Steve Hays, who has a gift of being able to clearly share his wisdom. When discussing this very topic, he told a story about a rather strange memory he had. As a youth in a suburb of Reno, Nevada he remembers seeing an African lion sitting in a station wagon with its window rolled down outside his house. Then he went up to pet the African lion, which he did without getting bitten. Now, such a story sounds absurd to most of us, and even seemed so to Steve, who while clearly remembering the story, began to doubt whether the story actually happened. He finally asked his mother if it was true, and sure enough it was! A lady who owned a restaurant near Reno (Christmas Tree Restaurant...sounds like one I'd like to visit) actually owned these lions, and Steve's mother had become friends with her. And sure enough, this boy in a suburb of Reno, Nevada actually petted an African Lion sitting in a station wagon. If Steve himself doubted such a story, think of later critics analyzing it (including myself, who while believing the story enjoys it primarily because of its uniqueness)!

We all have the capacity to doubt, and to struggle with our beliefs. In many ways, a basic level of doubt and investigation are survival mechanisms, and if we did not doubt, our species would not have lasted very long. If we did not base our sense of reality on empirical evidence, we would believe just about everything we are told, for good or for ill. We might believe that trolls inhabit Antarctica, or that cats talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Thomas was not some horribly wicked individual who was an anomaly to humanity; Thomas was...us! The scary fact is that if we took the place of the apostles, we would likely betray Jesus as Peter did, and doubt as Thomas did, and it seems as if the Scriptures often go out of their way to remind us how darn human the apostles were.

Desolation 2: Another Fall Evening, photographed by David Bennett

However, Jesus tells us we are blessed if we believe despite not having the evidence Thomas had. It is important to note that Thomas doubted for one week, even while having the miraculous events unfolding before him. Jesus simply told him to believe and not doubt, words that are much more encouraging then condemning. Jesus allowed Thomas to have difficulty for awhile, because He waited a week before he confronted Thomas. He could have found Thomas immediately and proved his resurrection to him, but instead Jesus waited. Thomas was permitted to struggle with belief and difficulty, and John did not report that the apostles excommunicated Thomas during his period of struggling with his belief.

I believe that having some sort of doubt is completely normal. By "some sort of doubt," I am referring to what some theologians refer to as "difficulty," that is, a voice or thought in the back of our heads that seeks to undermine our belief. I do not mean outright denial of the Christian truth taught by the Church, or actively teaching contrary to the Truth. Thomas struggled with his faith for sure, but he did not end his struggle, and go out and preach against the resurrection. Difficulty may even linger for long periods of time, even as we say the creeds or pray the classic prayers. Despite individual difficulty being a normal human phenomenon, remember that as Thomas struggled, the other ten disciples believed. Thus, the experience of the majority of the apostles was that Jesus was resurrected and alive. This was (and is) the normative common experience, and is the basis for the creeds of the Church. However, while this is what the Church confesses as true, this is not to say we never have difficulty with the Truth of the common experience. I believe in Christ's resurrection, however I would be lying if I said that I didn't have difficulties about that doctrine and other doctrines at times, perhaps in weaker moments, but like all people, I have occasional difficulty nonetheless. I am Thomas in many ways (it's even my middle name). We are all Thomas. We demand proof, and are not satisfied until we get it. Jesus gave Thomas a week during the thick of the miraculous event to struggle, so think how much time he gives us who were not there! Even though believing by faith is the better way, struggling to believe is a perfectly normal human phenomenon, and may even end up strengthening our faith in the long run, because by wrestling with our belief in good faith, we are forced to develop a deeper relationship with God through prayer.

The Catholic Catechism addresses these concerns, and recognizes the reality of struggling with belief ("ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt," a quote from John Henry Newman), but also emphasizes the way of faith:

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but 'the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.' 'Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt' (157).

So thus while difficulty is not a sin like outright doubt, faith is still the better way. Ultimately, being suspicious all the time does not get us very far. While being moderately critically-minded is essential to survival, living the way of cynicism can lead to a life of meaninglessness. Love between two human beings can rarely stand up to the doubt and skepticism that many bring to these relationships. Our skepticism often keeps us from entering relationships, and then if we enter them, we often retreat into cynicism, preferring our skepticism to the faith it takes to make a relationship work. Most meaningful experiences in life require some, if not a whole lot of, faith. Even after Thomas did believe, he still had to have faith, and likely sought the validation of his experiences through the common experiences of his friends. He would surely have doubted the veracity of his experience as his memory faded, and as he remembered only his remembering and no longer recalled the actual event. In many ways, our creeds (The Nicene Creed and Apostle's Creed particularly) are these common experiences put into words, and stand calling us to the faith of the Church even when we have doubts and are skeptics. This is why when we say, "we believe," at times we believe on behalf of the Thomases around us, and even the Thomases within us.

In conclusion, Thomas' experience in John 20 illustrates quite a few points. First, it shows that having difficulty and struggling with faith is a normal human experience. Second, it demonstrates that Jesus is not condemning us for our times of struggle, but he is gently calling us to be happier (blessed) through believing in Him by faith, much as potential love relationships beckon us to leave the comfort of our surety to enter into them. Finally, the text illustrates that the collective experience of the Church is the normative framework for the Church's belief, and that this common framework should not be altered because of our personal struggles, even though the framework tolerates some individual difficulty. I say this because while struggling with belief is normal, once it becomes outright doubt or dissent, it separates us too greatly from God. Individual struggle while we continue to worship and believe with the Church is far different from allowing our difficulty to turn into outright doubt, destroying our faith and even the faith of others. Just as Steve needed his mother to verify that he actually petted the African lion, sometimes the common experience of the Church, that we might struggle with, calls us back to living faith. We all have our difficulties, and in a way we are all Thomas. However, as Mark Olson sings in "Still We Have A Friend In You": "There's many things we lost, back in our forgetting you...our ways that cost so much." In the end, we lose much when we see the world and our beliefs purely skeptically. While I am not advocating a thoughtless adherence to any system of belief, Christian or otherwise, I think that the life of faith is far more rewarding than a life of doubt. Our ways of doubt do indeed "cost so much," particularly costing us meaningful love relationships, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Perhaps this is why after all was said and done, even Thomas ultimately believed. In a shaky and storm-tossed postmodern world, it is comforting to know that our struggles and difficulties are normal, but we are called to something much greater and more rewarding: faith in Jesus Christ.

Last updated 08-14-2008

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