Friday, July 3, 2020

When In Doubt | The Feast of St Thomas the Skeptic 2020

Jesus Mafa, 1973 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

"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.'" - John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

Faith is not a virtue. It's often treated as such in the Americas and elsewhere, in places where theism is a given a book is held up as the complete revelation of a god. If you think about it, though, there really is nothing special about faith. It is belief, and in English it is usually treated as a mixture of belief and trust together. That isn't virtuous.

There was a time, many years ago when I was a missionary in Brazil, that I argued that people practice faith on a daily basis, and to illustrate the point I cited public transport. Whenever someone hails a bus and steps on, they are putting their trust in the bus driver and the mechanics who maintain the vehicle. It's not blind faith, but it's faith. In reality, it is faith, but one that is moderately well-informed. I can see the bus and the driver, and I may be aware of the bus company's safety record (particularly if it's bad). In the case of faith in the unseen, such as spirits and deities, I have nothing to go on but hearsay. 

In Christian apologetics it's generally affirmed that the four gospels are factual accounts and testimonials, when in reality we don't actually know who wrote them, and they likely weren't written until decades after the events described. In the case of John, it's rather obviously a theological treatise in narrative format used to convey a very specific theological viewpoint that is out of sync with the synoptic gospels in style, and doctrinally anachronistic. Whatever someone believes about God and Christianity, they shouldn't take the Gospels or anything else in the Bible as descriptions of concrete reality. 

It was in vogue some years ago, and for all I know may still be, for churches to explicitly welcome people and their doubts. Doubt was celebrated, in a way, and people were told it's merely part of being human. The tricky part was that when evangelical churches said it, the unstated understanding was that doubt should be transitory, and if you just study the Bible, pray, and go to church you'll eventually have a strong faith and be just fine.

Again, as if faith were a virtue.

'Doubting Thomas,' as he's been called, had the right idea. Pretending for a moment that this is a true story in the usual sense, he did what any reasonable person should do when presented with an extraordinary claim. Being told that people had seen Jesus alive and well, the man who had been publicly crucified not long before, Thomas said he'd have to see it to believe it. Then, he saw Jesus, and he made a mistake. He believed without further evidence. 

If you've ever been to a really good magic show you'll know that very convincing tricks can happen that seem absolutely impossible. If you've spent any time online you've seen doctored photos or videos, and have read crazy conspiracy theories that sound almost plausible, until you dig a little deeper. And that's where this likely fictitious rendition of Thomas fell short. He should have looked behind the curtain, asked more questions, analyzed just a bit more carefully.

In reality, this story is a bogeyman tale, intended to scare or inspire people to embrace the 'virtue' of faith. There are some now who would gripe and say that skeptics would never have enough evidence to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected. I don't think that's entirely true. Oh sure, there are always going to be some thick-headed folks who will deny overwhelming evidence. After all, we have plenty of anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers among us in 2020. Truly, if someone were to die, be declared dead by a medical expert, and then after a couple of days in a tomb were to walk forth in perfect health, aside from some scars, there would be more of a basis for believing. 

This is asking too much, according to the religious. For it to be faith, there has to be uncertainty. Room for doubt. I ask: why? Why is it so damned important that God sneak around, doing things that can't be conclusively attributed to him? So that people believe out of love and a willing heart? Please. I can believe someone out of love and a willing heart, if I can see them and interact with them. Hiding serves no purpose, and faith is no virtue. 

The truth is that whatever happened that started the Christian faith, it's lost to time. And so today, on the feast day of St Thomas, let's raise a glass to that glorious doubter who didn't go quite far enough.