Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From Doubt to Perfect Belief: Thoughts on St. Thomas' Feast Day

Today on the Church calendar we remember St. Thomas the Apostle. Drawing on Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, here's part of what we read about St. Thomas at For All the Saints:

The Gospel according to John records several incidents in which the apostle Thomas appears, and from them we are able to gain some impression of the sort of man he was. When Jesus insisted on going to Judea, to visit his friends at Bethany, Thomas boldly declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, he interrupted our Lord’s discourse with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). After Christ’s resurrection, Thomas would not accept the account of the other apostles and the women, until Jesus appeared before him, showing him his wounds. This drew from him the first explicit acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas appears to have been a thoughtful if rather literal-minded man, inclined to scepticism; but he was a staunch friend when his loyalty was once given. The expression “Doubting Thomas”, which has become established in English usage, is not fair to Thomas. He did not refuse belief. He wanted to believe, but he wanted to be certain that what the others had seen was not simply an apparition or a vision, that the one whom they had seen was actually the same crucified Jesus, that God had actually raised him from the dead. Thomas serves as a witness to the bodily resurrection of the Lord in a Gospel that bears witness to the Word made flesh. For this reason, Jesus gave him a sign, though Jesus had refused a sign to the Pharisees. And yet, the Lord’s rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29), demonstrates that the sign itself does not create faith, that faith would come by the hearing of the word of those who bore witness to the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

I sometimes think we Episcopalians make too big a deal out of doubt. It's almost as though doubt - not really being sure about much of anything when it comes to the Christian faith, remaining in a state of indecision about belief in basics like the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Trinity, etc. - is a virtue to be encouraged, nurtured, and sustained, while the strong conviction of belief is discouraged as somehow anti-intellectual and even a kind of "fundamentalism."

To be sure, honest doubt is as much a part of the life of genuine faith as trust and loyalty. Lord knows, we all go through times in our lives when what seemed sure and certain yesterday feels up in the air today. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the Prayer Book's emphasis on the objective character of Baptism: "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 298; emphasis added). The reality of my status as a member of the household of God transcends my feelings and subjective faith state at any given moment in time. And so William Willimon gets it right:

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we [the Church] told you so.

But falling back on what God does as opposed to what I do is no excuse for cultivating doubt as though belief about the basics of the Christian faith doesn't really matter. As Matt Gunter of Into the Expectation has noted: "Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."

It seems to me that one of the reasons why John's Gospel highlights Thomas' doubt is precisely to move us beyond a place of staying stuck in doubt to a place where we can not only doubt our doubts but also embrace belief in the risen Lord and the implications such believing has for how we live our lives. The language of the Collect appointed for St. Thomas' Feast Day is relevant to this point:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

To believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and our God "perfectly and without doubt" such that "our faith may never be found wanting" in God's sight: that is the end for which we strive. And that is the end in which we find the true fulfillment of our lives.

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