An Uncertain Faith

An Uncertain Faith

Susan Adams

Sun 08 Apr

Thomas wants some data…

He’s not a sucker!

None of this  ….. “I’m your friend – believe because I tell you” stuff!

He’s a ‘show me the evidence’ man.

‘And what’s wrong with that?’  we post-enlightenment people might well ask!

With him we too might want evidence before believing something (strange to our ears) is true … and anyway dead men don’t walk or appear through walls!

We hear a lot about ‘facts’ and ‘alternative-facts’ these days and sometimes it is quite difficult to sort out what is true and what is not. Knowing what to believe and what not to believe is not always easy. So it is not difficult for us to identify with the ‘doubting’ Thomas in the story.

We know a ‘fact’ is data, verifiable in time and space, so if an event didn’t happen in time and space, and    there is no verifiable evidence for it, how can it be true? And so ‘why are we bothering with it?’  So much for the story of Jesus appearing through locked doors and displaying his crucifixion wounds – how relevant is      that for us today?

We have just been through one of the Christian church’s most significant festivals, and we are still in the liturgical season of Easter. So while today is called ‘Low Sunday’ in recognition of the tiredness that many feel if they have participated in the full raft of services in Holy Week, it is certainly not a time when we put all the events and challenges of Easter out of mind. Rather, we might wonder  what we have been engaged, in and might even have asked ourselves why, and be still wondering about the ‘new-life’ we are promised. I’ve been wondering how this story the writer of John’s gospel is telling, with the demand for evidence before belief, is any different from the story of the disbelief of the male disciples when told of the empty tomb by the women on that third morning after Jesus was crucified!

At some stage in our faith journey we may well have asked ‘Is the ‘Doubting Thomas’ story true?’ and perhaps we searched the scriptures for evidence to support the Church’s teaching of previous decades that Jesus had risen; teaching that fed a compulsion to participate in the liturgical rituals of the season – and enjoy the beauty of the music inspired by the story and its promise. But the story is hardly one of ‘normal’ physicality!

The general consensus amongst biblical scholars about this story that John tells, of Thomas and his     doubts, and his subsequent conversion, is ‘yes it’s true’ and ‘no it didn’t happen.’

“Good science begins with doubt” is something Stephen Hawkins is purported to have said when someone challenged a proposition he made inviting them to provide the facts to prove he, Stephen, was wrong. In this respect the Thomas in our story would have been in very good company.

 Just a side note: there is no evidence that there was such a person as the ‘Thomas’ of John’s story. He seems to be a creation of the writer – who following convention, I will refer to as ‘John’ although         scholars suggest there is no hard evidence that his name was actually ‘John’ either!

But we are not interrogating hard data in order to prove the story is either true of false. We have no ‘facts’ to interrogate. No access to hard data contained in time and space that is verifiable by sources outside this particular gospel itself. We have only a ‘story’, recorded at the earliest 60 years after the event is purports to describe, and that has travelled across 2000 years of time and half a world of space; we have only words painting a picture for us and pointing us toward a ‘truth’ that lies buried beneath history, beneath church doctrine and beneath argument.  

So why is it important, why do we keep telling it? For that we need to interrogate the story from a perspective that is older than our ‘modern’ expectation of hard data to prove ‘truth’. We need to avoid the all to frequent ‘category confusion’ that besets us when we read the Bible. We too often treat stories and myths as if they were history and we read metaphors as though they were descriptions and so confuse ourselves. We need instead to consider the distinctive  truths of myths and metaphors and parables and what they points us toward: in today’s story that is the significance of doubt; the place of community; the impetus of conversion.

      This is a conversion story!

      This is a story about community building

      This is a story about being human; the power of ‘ego’ and what can happen when it is set aside.

We know that John recorded his story at a time when the emerging Christian community was under siege from both the persecuting Roman authorities and the Jewish communities that were expelling the Jewish ‘Jesus-followers’ out of the synagogues. John seems to be driving a wedge between the two communities and positioning Jesus as the revelation of God; the Messiah come amongst them to lead them into ‘fullness of life’. He is encouraging the Jesus-followers to have courage and to establish themselves in communities that recognise different authorities and ‘laws’ from those communities bound to the synagogues and the Pharisaic authorities and lawyers.

To do this John draws on ancient Greek myth and metaphor, on picture language and poetry, on imagination and, it seems to me, on significant insight into human nature, to tell his story. This gospel is very different from the other three in the use of language and seems not to be about ‘proving’ stuff as much as telling us timeless truths about our human-selves. After all Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus even when invited to, and those who ‘believe’ who Jesus ‘is’ without seeing any post-crucifixion manifestations of him are blessed! Those who ‘believe’ or as I prefer to say these days ‘have faith’ without factual-evidence’ are promised life.

Now we are getting to the nub of the story it seems to me:

To activate the blessing we must choose, if we are willing, to set aside our demanding egos; to set aside our expectations of being in control; of ‘knowing’ what is true; of being able to organise things to suit our personal preferences and goals – including our expectation of evidence. We have to be willing to stand in the liminal space between what was and what could be, in the moment of ‘conversion’ if you will from what we have been to what we might become – an uncertain moment filled with possibilities. When that happens somehow ‘our’ needs will find themselves wrapped up in the needs and wellbeing of the community we are committed to and which cares about us. And this is a conversion experience that we need often. The last verses of John’s gospel include Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, three times, to  ‘feed my sheep’ and to ‘follow me’ – an invitation to turn from the demands of our ego for protection and place to considering the needs of others and the wellbeing of the community. For them in deeply troubling political times and religious confusion.

The first reading we heard today, from Acts, describes for us how the earliest communities of Jesus followers, Christ-communities, tried to put this into practice ’till there was not a needy person among them ‘… But we know this isn’t straight forward especially not in our complex world of today. Thomas’s doubts led to a conversion, to faith notwithstanding his doubts. There can be no faith without doubt… faith without doubt is certainty – you can’t have faith if you are certain  – and our egos love a certainty we can defend and lock in! So in the liminal space of conversion, of  uncertainty and of faith we can ask and explore ways in which life in all its fullness can be manifest; we can be a community that seeks the wellbeing of all people; that wonders how in our increasingly technological and robotised world we can share our wealth with those who no longer have paid employment;  how we can provide housing for those who are in need of shelter. No one of us might have ‘the’ answer, but we can have faith that an answer can be found through our collective doubting that what we already have is the best it can be. If we are seeking new life for all, health and well being, peace and kindness, then it behoves us to doubt: to confront the certainty of our egos and to have faith in each other to find the way into resurrection life together and so continue Jesus’ mission to seek peace through justice.