The phrase, ‘doubting Thomas’, is very much part of our lexicon. You don’t have to be religious to know it. Doubt, as we were taught last year by Bishop Tenga-Tenga is often part of faith - and even part of your thinking. Wrestling with God is often a sign of commitment to life, hope and love. We don’t have to lose our reason to find love, but we do need to adopt certain and specific ways of being and thinking. I hope it isn’t going to far, to say, that the phrase, ‘doubting Thomas’, is part of what it is to be human.
Thomas is viewed in differing ways, by different people, and through the centuries, Thomas has received differing treatments by different scholars. For some, he was defective in his belief and religious inclination, because he doubted. Nowadays, his treatment has been more sympathetic, with allowance made for his dubious inclination towards the accounts of his piers and companions concerning the accounts of the resurrection. And yet, although we are inclined to think that Thomas did say these things, and perhaps that it reflected his personality and thinking about Jesus, and the Resurrection, in all truth, the story was created for a purpose. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ appears to his disciples, and there he shows them the marks of the nails, and to demonstrate something of the nature of his Resurrection, he eats something. Luke didn’t go as far as John to personalize the nature of the doubt that Thomas was said to have expressed.
The Gospel writers, Luke and John, and the development about the physical demonstration of the resurrected body, was considered key to the early church, in stating categorically that the resurrection was an event which happened. There are two ways that we can interpret this. We can either say that the resurrected body was the body which was taken from the cross, and laid in the tomb, or, we can say that the resurrection was an event which was of such psychological importance, that it was as though the body had physically resurrected, and then we leave it to the individual to decide for themselves as to what actually happened.
However, now that we are nearly two thousand years on, we are entitled to say that the strongest argument for the resurrection is simply that we are celebrating it today. The early church, and Christians, persisted in insisting on the truth of the event, despite terrible and brutal acts of repression, throughout the first centuries of the existence of the church. It is just improbable to the point of impossibility, that so many, let alone anyone, would have gone to their death, insisting on the truth, of an event which they knew to be false. It just doesn’t make sense.
The Gospel writers tell us in detail about the failings of the Apostles. Before the resurrection, this was a group which would have struggled to organize the proverbial drinking party in a brewery. They were riven by jealousy, duplicity, vanity and cowardice, and if there was something to be misunderstood, they would misunderstand. After the resurrection, they were transformed as individuals and a group. They healed, they preached openly and with conviction, and when faced with adversity, triumphed. I doubt if it was just the event that confronted Thomas that brought about the change. To transform one’s character in the way that the disciples changed, suggests a time of considerable thought and reflection. We know that after his conversion, Paul spent several years before he embarked on his public ministry. Without the conviction that God had ordained the ministry, and the conclusion of Christ’s life in the way that we are taught, the church would not have started or developed as it did. The Christian faith is now adopted and followed by 2 billion people throughout the world. It appeals to peoples of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds. It has a universal appeal, because the tenets and foundations of our faith have meaning and substance to humans of all ages, races, levels of educational attainment and more. Christ, his story, and his triumph over death, appeals to people from every part of the world, and of every inclination and level of society. The notion that our faith is predicated by a lie, a kind of conjuring trick with bones, or an act of cunning and deception is beyond reason.
Which then leaves an awkward question. Why is it that more people do not believe and live according to faith? Well, perhaps that’s the wrong question. Many do live according to some kind of faith or another. Various surveys suggest that as a nation, we are one of the most secular countries on earth. The figures suggest that at the last census nine years ago, 6 out of 10 adults reported that they were Christian, but then only 30% of them, attended church at least once a month. It doesn’t suggest that religion, or worship, is terribly important to many of those who identify as being Christian in the UK. In other countries, faith, whether it is Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, or of another creed, is very much more important. My brief times in India influenced me, as I noticed that to most people, their local temple, mosque or church, was one of the most important parts of their lives. Most of them had far less than we do, and yet for the most part, they were friendly, hospitable and seemingly happy. Although we are pretty good in Cleobury, few would describe their experience of their communities as being positive, although many have rediscovered neighbourliness in the current crisis.
So it would seem, that the more privileged we are, the more inclined we are to take things for granted. And sadly, the risk is also present that the more we have, the more at risk we are of being cynical and calculating about life and relationships. It is dangerous to generalize, and there are many wealthy people who are incredibly generous and kind, and there are those who are impoverished who are thoroughly difficult and dangerous people to be around. However, all of us know that material wealth can lead to an unhealthy state of mind, in which there is a risk of predation or grasping behaviour being to the fore. And again, it has to be acknowledged that having a Faith does not automatically lead to a generous approach to life. There are exceptions to every rule, but we are urged to ensure that part of our faith is expressed and explored by generosity in giving. Christ was often straightforward to the point of bluntness on this point.
So, if we return to the awkward question, of why don’t more people believe?, I would suggest that it’s not so much about what we think actually happened, (at the Resurrection) as being more about how we actually live. And to take this point a bit further, I would suggest that it is more about how we choose to think, rather than what our rational minds allow us to consider as being rational or credible. We are now being taught by behavioral psychologists that if we nurture gratitude, optimism, hope, loyalty and many other positive frames of thinking, that we become more settled, more cheerful and more positive in our outlook. John Gray, in his book, ‘Seven types of atheism’, points out that belief is more usually thought of in most religions, as being about observance, or the way that we conduct and spend time in our lives. Some theologians, say that the way that God exists is beyond the ability of our minds to understand, or even experience. God, in this discussion, is the Creator. But for those of us of the Christian Faith, God is also the ultimate example and expression of love, and that those things in us which are good, holy and exceptional, are of God.
Returning to Thomas, when he, and Christ, in John’s account, talked about belief, they were not talking about a set of rational thoughts about what happened in the grave. They were talking about a state of mind, which not only influenced, but directed Thomas’s approach to life in every respect. Thomas changed in all kinds of ways. He was transformed from being calculating and fearful, to being open, and optimistic to the point of bravery and commitment to a better world. The resurrection changed the disciples in that they finally got the point about Christ’s teaching. Christ was committed to a life of prayer, and responding with compassion and love to those who approached him needing help. Whilst Christ looked to God the Father for inspiration, the disciples thought back to Christ’s life on earth, and began living according to his teaching. They changed their world. In fact, they changed the world forever. From those improbable beginnings, a movement began which led to our faith and community of today. We believe in the power of love to change lives. We believe that God redeems us from the darkest of places. We believe that in commitment to togetherness and hope, we face a better future. Of course, from time to time, things go wrong. Life falls apart with tragedies and disasters, both for us as individuals and families, as well as for nations. But the commitment and belief in the power of love, changed not only Thomas, but changed the world. We will get through this crisis, and we will be together again, and love, conquers death. Love, never fails.
MQ, April 2020