Monday, December 22, 2008
Thomas: the Apostle With Ants In His Pants
"Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith." (Frederick Buechner)
My Roman Catholic training to the contrary, I've always sorta figured that we're supposed to have doubts. How boring to claim to have all the answers! Where would be the excitement, the challenge, the exhilaration of pushing the envelope a little? I think Buechner has it exactly right in his wonderful image. Doubts, like ants (especially fire ants), on our spiritual backsides will get us going every time, stir things up a bit, enliven our conversations with one another, especially if we happen to disagree on a particular matter of faith.
I think poor Thomas the Apostle has been given a raw deal. After all, we generally refer to him as "Doubting" Thomas. As I read John 20:24-29, Thomas doesn't actually say he doesn't believe. He merely says, in a rather forceful way, that he needs to see the mark of the wounds and actually place his hand into the wound in Christ's side. I think he must have been what we call a "visual learner". He wasn't the kind who could simply take the unexamined word of his fellow apostles. I have a hunch that, given their obvious human weaknesses on occasion in regard to faith, if he disbelieved anything it was their accuracy and supposed understanding of what was really going on in relation to Jesus the Master. They'd all certainly done their share of bungling during their years with Jesus before he died. Why should Thomas simply take at face value their glib proclamation that "We have seen the Lord"?
This makes sense in light of John's account of the subsequent reappearance of the Risen Christ the next week when Thomas was present, and Jesus, knowing the kind of person who Thomas is, invites him to come to him and test the wounds out for himself. Thomas' immediate reaction, without the blink of an eye, is to say "My Lord, my God." John doesn't even say that Thomas, at that point, actually needed to do an actual probe. He recognized in Jesus' risen presence the reality of the being before whom he stood, and he responded with a simple faith-response far more genuine, I think, than any of his fellows had ever done.
Being able to ask pointed and provocative questions of faith seems to me a much more wholesome enterprise than spouting off pat, dogmatic answers on issues of great complexity and nuance. Doubt, I believe, can be a healthy thing, causing us to push back the horizons of our convictions. Someone has said that doubters might be described as those who are conscious of gaps in their faith and are desirous of filling in those gaps, at least as much as that is possible. Sometimes, it would seem, refusing to admit doubts of faith may indicate that a person has stopped growing in faith for whatever reason.
I once read a story about a dedicated church scholar, a man who'd devoted his life to a careful reading of Scripture and serious study of theology. During one of his lectures he was very open about how, despite all his learning and study, he still continued to wrestle with many questions of faith. A woman, coming away from the lecture, was heard to say:
"I came to be inspired, but the speaker has so many doubts I can't really get anything out of what he said. How can someone who doesn't believe be a professor of Christian theology!" Her closed mind obviously missed the message. Her mind was made up and she didn't wish to be confused with the facts! In effect, he'd try to suggest to his audience that knowledge shouldn't be confused with faith, nor doubt with lack of faith. I wonder how she processed the story of "Doubting" Thomas when it came up each year!
Robin Van Cleef puts a nice spin on this topic which is at the heart of the Thomas story:
I look for Easter evidence.
The whole world is looking too,
searching for some sign,
some sure signal
that Christ is alive.
But all I ever seem to see
are other persons.
And ever so often
along comes someone
whose very life
is a resurrection song,
I guess that's all we have.
I guess that's all we need.
I guess that's what I need to be as well.