(Before launching into my own missive, I should probably direct you to the words of a more learned blogger than I for his groovy take on Saint Thomas. I'm an undergrad, he's a priest.)
Yesterday was Saint Thomas’ feast day. I don’t have nearly the scholastic knowledge of saints that one of my Idaho priests has, but I do know enough to be confident of these two things: one, that the word I just used, “scholastic,” comes from the name of a saint (thank you, Fr. Jack), and two, Thomas is one of my favorites. The most famous story about Thomas comes from John 20:24-29, and is where he gets that awful nickname, “Doubting Thomas.”
"But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’"
We tend to look down upon Thomas for being a doubter, but I think there are two important things to remember. One, we all pattern ourselves after Thomas in one way or another, and two, Thomas was so much more than this passage’s one moment in time reveals.
It is easy to chide people for being doubters, yet at the same time we scorn “blind faith.” The best path lies, as it so often does, somewhere in between. We have to have some measure of doubt if we want to avoid the crazies, but too much and we’ll miss the real deal. If we believe every man who comes along claiming to be a prophet or the Messiah returned, we will fall for the false prophets the New Testament warns us about (coughpatrobertsoncough). Take it too far and you wind up giving money to every corrupt televangelist healing someone’s hiccups, or refusing to associate with Samaritans. But we can also go too far in the other direction: if we refuse to entertain what might otherwise seem like a fantastical thought, we will fail to hear the real messengers, and might even miss the real return. Become too much of a skeptic and you’ll wind up rude and bitter, mocking all those with any shred of belief, like those militant atheists the New York Times bestsellers list loves oh so very very much. To put it in a more secular, political way: If we blindly accept whatever the environmentalists tell us, our nation may unnecessarily wind up spending more than our economy can bear. But if we completely ignore their warnings, it won’t be long before we’re seeing ten Hurricane Katrinas a year and New Guinea is underwater.
All of us want physical proof that spring is coming – we need to see that robin in the yard before we plant one seed. We want to have our Christmas bonus in our hot little hand before we’re secure enough to spend it. Is there anything wrong with that? It’s how our minds were made. And why should faith be any different? There are millions of left-brained folks who demand physical proof that God exists. I clearly don’t join them, but can you really blame them? When you boil it down, is “This book says Jesus is God’s son so believe it or else!!!” really that compelling a message to someone who hasn’t grown up with it?
But you can ask for too much proof, or demand that the proof be too physical. It is in this latter category that Thomas falls. Proof does not exist just in the hands or in the mind, but also in the heart. Logic has a place in this world, and it is an important place, but we can only be as logical as our minds will let us, and this universe is so much bigger than our tiny minds. We need to ask serious questions, critical questions, but we also need to learn to trust our hearts. We were given emotions for a reason. Love, hope, and the stillness within will tell us just as much as logic and tangible, physical evidence. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” To believe in God based on absolutely nothing is silly, but to accept Him for the non-tangible evidence is blessed. That is the definition of faith, and for at least one week, Thomas lacked it.
But while Thomas may have demanded more proof than he should have, once he got it, he did more with it than most of us can ever hope to achieve. The global church continues to exist today in large part because of Thomas and his evangelism. It’s important to note, I think, that when a college kid screams, “Zap a tree with lightning right now, God, or I won’t believe in you!” God just rolls his eyes and says, “What kind of leverage is that? You think you’re in charge now? Do you really think I’m so small that *I* have to meet *your* demands?” And yet when Thomas asked for that lightning bolt, Jesus gave it to him. Thomas was special. Remember, for all his doubt, Thomas still did something worthy of becoming a Saint. Joseph of Arimathea wrote that he was the only person to witness the Assumption of Mary. Quite an honor, but quite a man. It was Thomas who, whether by converting Hindus or immigrant Jews, started the church in India, and perhaps Syria and Persia as well. Wikipedia (I know, I know) informs us, “While exploring the Malabar coast of Kerala, South India after Vasco Da Gama's arrival in Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese encountered Christians in South Western India, who traced their foundations to Thomas.” Father Lane Denson at Out of Nowhere tells the story far better than I can:
"We call him Doubting Thomas. Braveheart Thomas might be more fitting for his enterprise.
While the rest of the disciples were cowering full of resentment and fear that they’d bet their lives and whatever fortunes they had on a loser and that the Romans were breathing down their necks, Thomas was out pounding the pavement, risking arrest, renewing old contacts, checking the want-ads, and looking for work. He didn’t believe the talk about Jesus, and he wanted better evidence than the closeted behavior of his former colleagues.
But then, when he got what he wanted, he signed on for good or ill. There’s a line in a translation of Psalm 146 that fits him to a T, “Praise (God) for what you can fathom; for what you can’t fathom, praise him.”* He accepted his commission as an apostle, wrote a gospel, and, some say, started a new church over in India. “Brother Thomas’s Sawdust Trail.” Sounds like an evangelist to me."
Jesus isn’t going to give us the same proof he gave Thomas. But we don’t need it. We can learn from Thomas’ mistakes and listen to our hearts. We can also learn from his example, and follow them once they speak. Fr. Lane continues,
"Faith is risk, and risk wouldn’t be risk without doubt. And faith that comes only after evidence is no faith at all. It is trust, yes, but not faith. Faith is that act of the will, that daring commitment that climbs out on life’s limbs and leaps. And that is all the evidence we get. Faith creates trust….
The disciples in the upper room would probably never have convinced Thomas until he experienced the vision of the risen Lord, himself. Nor if fear is keeping us in the closet will we ever convince those who pass by. Not until we show the world by the way we love one another — one of the greatest risks of all — can our witness ever become a winsome and compelling evangel of and for the Lord."
(Picture Credits: 1, 2, 3.)