Being with Thomas

I would have been with Thomas in that upper room. Never an early adopter nor a joiner, I would have held back to watch others, see their reactions, imagine myself in their place, until the resistance I felt toward the new had reduced its charge.

It’s a question of how we know what we know, and whether what we know can be verified. It’s a question of how much you trust your senses and whether your rational faculties can puzzle it through. Mostly, it’s about whether you’re willing to look foolish in pursuit of truth.

Thomas gets the rap as the doubting one, forever holding out until he can touch and feel and see with his own eyes. Like it had never occurred to the rest of them that maybe this kingdom of God business was just too good to be true. Like all the other promises made that had not so much been broken as had not materialized beyond the promising stage. But with Thomas it was never skepticism about the nature of Jesus’ intentions. Nor was it cynicism about the possibility of goodness in the world. There was plenty of goodness, and beauty also, and where goodness and beauty live truth must be in the neighborhood somewhere.

No, what Thomas knew about himself with the clarity that comes from aloneness is that he lacked the courage to commit himself to another.

It hadn’t always been this way. After all, he was Thomas—Didymus—aka “The Twin.” There had been another, his brother, older by two minutes and stronger twice over. They had been inseparable, each the other half of the other, together as one, but not the same. He had led, Thomas had followed. Thomas was thoughtful, holding back, his brother plunging ahead with a shout. Thomas had read and questioned, his brother had acted. They had talked and argued late into the night about politics, religion, freedom. His brother joined a group; they were armed. He was adamant: “Better to die trying than not to try at all.” Later, after he was crucified with the others, the soldiers had come round for Thomas. By that time he had gone, into the night. Keeping to the back roads, he had traveled north to Galilee alone.

And now here he was amongst a band of brothers, younger than most, the first to ask, the last to step forward. When he had met Jesus it was as if he had seen his brother again: all the strength, but without the recklessness. And now He was gone, crucified like his twin; another one taken, promises dashed.

So, he might be forgiven, Thomas reckoned, for standing back when the others told him, breathlessly, that they had seen the Lord. “The door was shut, we were afraid, and then there He was!”

“I see,” said Thomas, but he didn’t really. “He asked about you,” they said. “He said he’d be back.”

“I’d have to see that for myself,” said Thomas dryly. Peter smiled. “He figured you’d say that.”

Eight days later he was with the others, the door locked and bolted, voices lowered. And then He was there, smiling, in their midst, and looking Thomas in the eye. “I’m real,” He said. “Touch me. Act on it! Believe.”

All this was a long time ago but set down this. Set down this: I came to faith, finally, by acting as if it were there. And then it was—and is and will be, if I but act.

For we are saved by hope:

but hope that is seen is not hope:

for what a man seeth,

why doth he yet hope for?

But if we hope for that we see not,

then do we with patience wait for it.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. An earlier version of this essay appeared on StillAdventist.org. More of the author's writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8670
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How many animals were led to the slaughter under the Old Covenant? Each one of them, innocent, cut down in the prime of life, was made a sacrifice for no other reason than to satisfy the requirement of an enactment of a promise of a Saviour to come; each one of them not knowing anything, but being made a spectacle for our sake.

Perhaps the providence of God prevented Thomas from being with the other disciples the first time so that he should become the representative of all who would come afterwards, who were not eyewitnesses of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. And therefore, though Jesus spoke to Thomas, yet His words carry over generations upon generations, over hundreds and hundreds of years to me and to you, quietly, personally:

Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:27-29

As it is written, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” – The End of the Gospel According to John, the Apostle, with an Addendum of One Chapter After This One.

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I’ve always identified with Thomas in many ways…I think he’s gotten a bad wrap, undeservedly so.

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I know this is probably a little off-topic, but I find this verse incredibly striking as a meta statement on faith and belief. It certainly touches on a theme that runs through the whole Bible, which I would summarize something like this “trust, obey and believe, even (or especially) when there is no sense data or evidence to justify that belief.” When any belief is trusted in such an unquestioned way, there is literally no way to falsify it or discover error. Of course this basic idea is central to most religions in some fashion, but if we think about it from an epistemological point of view, it strikes me as incredibly dangerous. As a philosopher, I wonder what Barry Casey would say about the role of epistemic responsibility in relation to faith. Are we justified in believing literally anything, without sense data or evidence? From my point of view, Thomas seems to have a higher commitment to finding justified true beliefs than the rest of the disciples, yet Jesus seems to knock him somewhat for it. In a world full of flat earthers, David Koreshes, and flim flam artists of all sorts, I find that a bit troubling. But perhaps my own moral framework is just too far from traditional Christian dogmas for this to make sense.

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Yes indeed.

But what Jesus Christ was asking Thomas to do was to believe what was told to him by his own “brothers”. The faith of a Christian is not blind conformity to dogma, but an expression of trust in the witness of those gone before – from generation to generation. We do not say Jesus died and rose again as a matter of natural law but because we believe in the testimony of those who witnessed it and passed the story down to us.

It is much like what you do when you tell people the earth is round. You don’t go travelling around the world with whoever disputes your statement, do you? You refer them to some authoritative trustworthy source and the matter is settled, hopefully. You yourself therefore, in so doing, do express faith in people you never met, believe something you never measured for yourself, and things you have never seen.

TRUST, faith, is an absolutely necessary part of life. But in whom you put your trust, well …?

Let’s hear what Barry has to say, shall we?
Should we put our faith in his wisdom or not?
What do you think?

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Yeah, I agree that to some degree we all rely on the testimony and authority of other humans for essentially all of our beliefs. But not all humans are trustworthy, and certainly not all humans agree. That’s why I think careful consideration of epistemology is critical. We must be skeptical of the things we hear from other humans, and ask for evidence that can rationally support the claims. The theme I see in the Bible seems to run counter to that, and as it’s been understood and applied through history, I think the idea of uncritical acceptance sets up a false sense of authority and certainty. As you correctly point out, most Christian believers base their beliefs on the testimony of those who have come before them. But I think many wouldn’t admit that’s the case. What I more often hear is not that we should trust the words of other believers, but that we should trust the words of God. But the only way most of us come to any knowledge of the God of the Bible is be reading the testimonies of the humans who have believed in him through history. I think there’s a dangerous slide that often happens where we co-opt the authority of God as an absolute underwriter of our personal interpretations of theology, rather than admitting that we, like the authors of the Bible, are fallible humans.

The flat earth case is a good one, because you’re right that most people form beliefs that the earth is either flat or spherical based not on evidence but on authority. The question then becomes, how do we determine and test these competing ideas? To do so, we need to use empirical methods. By engaging in testing and critical thinking, we can indeed come to reasonable conclusions that are based on evidence and data rather than authority. I think that often when it comes to religious beliefs, we are unwilling to place them under that same lens, and the Bible and verses like the one above actually seem to imply that we shouldn’t! That’s what I find so troubling. Trust is inescapable, but we must be careful where we put it, and have good evidence and reasons for it, lest we be deceived.

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I appreciate the arguments put forward here. In fact, I’m going to copy them for later! I’m with Thomas, not by choice as much as temperament. I also take as a constant prayer, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” In philosophy of religion anthologies there are two essays that often come up on this subject. One is by W. K. Clifford, a 19th-century British philosopher who wrote an essay on “The Ethics of Belief.” In summary, he argued that we have a sacred and ethical duty not to believe anything we don’t have proof for. He says, “To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” That is one view. For another perspective I turn to William James and his essay, “The Will to Believe,” in which he says that he can agree with Clifford even “when expressed . . . with somewhat too much of robustious pathos in the voice.” Basically, he says to Clifford to let a little humor and humility into his reasoning. But the argument that James makes is that we are often faced with a choice between two options: “We must know the truth; and we must avoid error.” He says they are two separable laws and choosing between them may shape our whole intellectual life. Clifford opts for the second, says James. “Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies.” James would rather risk being wrong than foreclose on something which could prove to be life-giving and reasonable. There’s something in this which really resonates with me. I know I’ll never have irrefutable proof (that I could reasonably accept _and_that I could understand!) of Christ and God as Clifford would demand. I try to think my way through, based on what I am able to arrive at logically, based on my own experience, based on the experience and to some extent, the authority of people I trust (including the Bible writers), and then on what my heart tells me. Faith, I think, is a commitment of trust first and an assent to belief second. After having thought it through, talked to others, prayed about it, I act – and see where it takes me. I’m not one to airily say, “God is far too mysterious for us to ever question Him or understand–so just submit.” I believe God has been communicating in a myriad of ways through the ages, but wants us to reach out in return. In the end, it’s never absolute, it’s never complete, it’s a risk, and it’s a journey.

I so appreciated – no, loved – your article. While I cannot relate to Thomas at all as I am someone who is fairly quick to believe, I have wanted to understand Thomas better, and you helped tremendously with that here and made it relevant to a very today audience. It was well composed also. Thank you.

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