Responding like Thomas

FatherTim

John 20:19-31

Why does Thomas get such a bad rap?

To this day—2,000 years later—he’s the butt of our jokes.  He’s not known by the name Didymus, the Twin, or simply St. Thomas; but forever gets the moniker Doubting.

In fact, I was at a church yesterday for a meeting, called St. Thomas of Canterbury, as if the church’s namers didn’t want anyone to confuse the church’s name with another Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

And, really, was his doubting anything more than the doubting we saw from Peter last week, who ran to the tomb, peeked in, and doubted Mary Magdalene’s testimony?

Oh, Peter.  Now there’s a piece of work!  Rash, thick-headed, and impulsive, he denied Jesus three times.  Yet we don’t nickname him Denying Peter.  Rather, we remember him as the Rock upon whom the whole Church was built!

But with Thomas the pejorative adjective has stuck.  He is and forever will be known as doubting.

But why is this so bad?  Isn’t a little doubt, a little skepticism, actually a good thing?  Don’t we as human beings in fact value a certain level of skepticism?

In our science labs we posit a hypothesis and then test it over and over.  And if our tests prove us wrong, why, we don’t conclude that the test results must be off but instead that we must rethink the hypothesis.  A certain level of skepticism is important in the science lab.

It’s no different in our courtrooms.  If one person files suit against another, it’s not automatically assumed that the prosecutor is correct.  Rather, we try—we don’t always succeed, but we try—to operate in our courtrooms by the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”  Gullibility is not valued; skepticism is.

And isn’t it the same in our research?  I can tell you, having endured three years of rigorous academic study in relatively recent personal history, if I were to state a little-known fact as part of an argument in an essay, I’d most definitely need to back that fact up with some kind of outside authority.  And Wikipedia doesn’t count!  We value skepticism.

This contrast between gullibility and skepticism comes to the surface even in some of our cultural traditions, such as April Fool’s Day.

I got on Facebook on Friday morning.  And on my feed was a post from a friend, which asked, simply, “What, is Trump really dropping out of the race?”

Well, by the time I saw this feed, posted by a friend two time zones to the east, there was already a slough of accompanying comments.  The first six or seven of this slough were expressions of amazement, shock, joy, and every other kind of emotion imaginable; until someone—someone skeptical—replied with these words: “I hate this day.”  Thereafter every reply pointed out that, oh yeah, it is April 1st; good one, Chris; I’ll get you back, just you wait; and, I don’t know how I could have been so gullible!

We value skepticism in our culture.

So, why then does Thomas get such a bad rap?

In line with science, then—not to mention our culture’s value placed on skepticism—let me posit a hypothesis.  We can always test it.  If you prove me wrong, I’ll revise it.  But I’ve been wrestling with it for a while now; and, as far as I can tell, it seems right.  Anyway, here it is:

Doubting Thomas gets such a bad rap not for being skeptical but because he takes his skepticism too far.

What do I mean?

In today’s Gospel we learn that Thomas was not there with everybody else when Jesus first appeared to them.  So, after Jesus left, the other disciples see Thomas and tell them what has happened.  “We have seen the Lord,” the say; “Jesus is alive, risen from the grave!”

This is where Thomas’s skepticism kicks in.  And we might think for good reason!  You know how it can be with the guys.  They like to act out jokes on each other, tell fibs, play pranks.  That’s all they’re doing now.

Or is it?

It’s not just one or two of the disciples we’re talking about here, but ten—twelve minus Judas and Thomas—plus some other disciples—at least Cleopas, Mary, and some other women.  There’s a whole group here saying the same thing!  Not to mention the grief is too recent!  No, this is not a prank.

Yet Thomas’s skepticism prevails.  And he says, “Look, friends, I don’t know what you’re playing at.  But, whatever it is, unless I see the marks in his hands and feet and side—no, unless I touch these marks—I will not believe.”

Now, it’s okay to be skeptical, to an extent.  But isn’t Thomas taking this too far?

Thomas is not trusting himself here to his community.  He refuses to listen to those who are actually in a certain position of authority over him: they have seen the risen Lord, he hasn’t; they are telling their story.  Shouldn’t he listen to and trust them?  Yet he refuses to believe.

Moreover, the disciples here are not far removed from Thomas in their authority, like some theologian who has written a book in a far off place whom the seminarian will never actually meet.  No!  These are the very people Thomas has been living with and among for the past three years, maybe more.  These are people he knows and respects, his community.  Yet in his skepticism he refuses to trust their testimony.

Hasn’t he taken his skepticism too far?

We value skepticism in our culture.  And there’s good reason to do so.  But, like Thomas, we often take our skepticism too far.

When?

Whenever we compromise community.  Whenever we don’t trust tradition.  Whenever we idolize individuality.

Now, I’ve mentioned it before: mainstream Christianity has seen a steady decline over the last four decades.  Decline is happening in the Church: the evidence proves it.

But a more difficult question to answer is why: Why has the mainstream church been in decline?

Perhaps it’s just this reason.  Perhaps it’s because we take our valued skepticism too far; we place a higher value on the skepticism of the individual than we do on the collective wisdom of the community.

A book I’ve been reading a lot lately says it this way—it’s an assessment, not a judgment:

“So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion.  Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations.”

It used to be that people were shaped by societal factors largely outside of their own choosing, their own control.  But now, whether in where we go to college, where we work, or even where we choose to live, the author continues:

“we connect with people because we think they will meet our needs for intimacy or otherwise help us advance our own interests.  Of course, the reverse also becomes possible—when we feel like relationships are not meeting our needs, we switch out of them.  This applies to everything from friendships to jobs to marriage—and to church.”[i]

Individual choice—valuing the individual more than the community—is at the root of all this.  Yet Jesus Christ and his church are about the common good above the individual.

We value skepticism.  But when Thomas’s skepticism went too far and he compromised the common good of the early Christian community, he was branded forever with the moniker doubting.  Whenever we compromise the common good for whatever reason—whether it’s skepticism, distrust, prejudice, or plain old pride and arrogance—we go too far.

So what do we do about it?  I mean, if the predominant culture values skepticism and doubt to such an extent that we regularly and routinely compromise the common good and even idolize individuality, where can we go?  We are all products of our culture, whether we realize it or not.

Well, first, let me suggest where not to go.

Let’s not try to tackle this cultural problem as a church, standing on the corners and proclaiming to every passerby who might care enough to listen that you’re all a bunch of Narcissists.  That would make St. Paul’s look like we don’t really love this fallen world the way we say we do, the way Christ says we ought to.  So let’s not go there.

But, second, let me suggest where I think we ought to go: to ourselves.

We are products of our culture.  And that means all parts of our culture—the good parts and the bad.  It’s the air we breathe.  This means that we reflect the culture without even realizing it.  So, with respect to what we’ve been discussing today, yes, without even being aware of it we value skepticism too much.

If something comes up in our community we don’t like, more often than not it’s easier in our culture just to walk away from the community and find or create another one that suits our needs better.  Or, if there is some problem to be solved, isn’t it often the most critical, skeptical, independent minds that get noticed?  And don’t we want to get noticed?

So, the first step is to become aware of this cultural tendency—in the world around us, yes; but even more importantly in ourselves.

And, then, whenever we catch ourselves compromising the common good; whenever we catch ourselves not trusting tradition; whenever we catch ourselves idolizing the individuality of self—that’s when Jesus meets us.

Just like he met Thomas, one week after Easter Sunday; and he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In that moment, all Thomas’s skepticism and doubt fell by the wayside—all his compromising attitude towards the early Christian community; all his distrust of tradition; all his idolatry of self.

And he responded, simply, “My Lord and my God!”

Whenever we catch ourselves valuing our skepticism too much—whenever Jesus meets us in our individual arrogance—may we respond as Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

[i] Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church (2014), 16.

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