Doubting Thomas - a role model
Yesterday was, in the western Church, the 2nd Sunday of Easter (that is, the Sunday one week after Easter Day itself),, and the Gospel reading for the day was from John's Gospel, telling about the risen Jesus' appearance to his disciples. But one of the disciples, Thomas, wasn't with the rest, and when told that they had seen Jesus, that he was risen from the dead, Thomas didn't want to accept their word for it. To this day, we refer to him as 'Doubting Thomas'. But is this fair? In his place, would any of us have been less sceptical?
Thomas was clearly someone with good old-fashioned common sense. Even if Thomas' Judaism was in the pharisaic tradition, that believed in the resurrection, he would have understood that as something that would happen at some time in the future - at the end of time. What his friends were telling him was completely outside of normal experience, so it was reasonable not to accept at face value, without any supporting evidence, what the others said. Very few of us would believe an extraordinary and unprecedented claim like the one made by the disciples - we'd think that we were being tricked, or made to look foolish and gullible. If we were in Thomas' position, perhaps we would think our friends were the victims of their own wishful thinking. Before believing the seemingly impossible, Thomas wanted to see the evidence first-hand, with his own eyes - just as we probably would.
Seeing for oneself is at the heart of scientific enquiry. Whenever a question about the natural world arises, the scientist draws on available knowledge and information to form a theory that explains the situation and/or providesan answer to the question under consideration. That theory is then tested through experiment and observation. If the results are those predicted by the theory, than the theory is confirmed, and if the results are not what the theory predicted, then the theory is either discarded or revised in line with the observable results.
Doubting Thomas should really be known as Scientist Thomas, because this was, more or less, the method that he followed. He had been told that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This created a question: could one man really be raised from the dead (and would this happen before the great resurrection)? Thomas forms the theory that this is untrue. He declares that he won’t believe until he sees the marks in Jesus’ hands and places his own hand in the wound in Jesus’ side. This is the observation and experimentation: he wishes to observe the phenomenon for himself, and test whether the body is really alive and really Jesus. Then he is given that chance. Jesus again visits his disciples, this time when Thomas is with them. Despite depictions in various art works, Thomas doesn’t actually make it to the experimental stage of putting his hand in Jesus’ side. The observation is enough to convince him that his theory was incorrect, and that this was Jesus and he was risen indeed!
We, of course, don't have Thomas' advantage. Jesus is no longer physically present on earth for us to see and speak to. Does that mean we must discard faith because we can't subject its claims to rigorous scientific method? No. We, like scientists, can draw on the knowledge and information gained by previous generations, including Thomas' first-hand observation recorded for us in scripture. This, John tells us, is the purpose of his Gospel, "these are written so that you might come to believe." (Jn 20.31). We don't - or shouldn't - simply accept the things of faith uncritically, however. This is a lesson that people of faith can learn from science. We can learn to question, to be curious and, like Thomas, to be a bit sceptical when that’s called for. There are times when we need to question. We should, from time to time, ask ourselves, why do I believe that this is true? Seeing is believing. Sometimes, we believe what we’ve seen with our eyes. But sometimes we believe what we see with our hearts, and that, too is a valid belief (some might call it intuition). And we can believe what we have received from a trusted source, be that the scriptures or the great theological thinkers of this and previous generations.
Asking questions isn't a sign of a lack of faith. It is a means of engaging deeply with one's faith. Faith is not a rejection of critical thinking and enquiry. It is one source of knowledge and wisdom within many that inform our understanding of the world, our place within it, and the way in which we live our lives. Faith and critical enquiry are both essential.