In Praise of Doubting Thomas


John 20:21-29

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 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.”

20:26 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.”

20:27 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.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 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.”

When I think of this story, I have two responses. The first is to preach against the text. The second approach is to wrestle with the text to see if a positive meaning can be had out of it. For this blog post/sermon I’ll preach against the text.

Mark Twain once identified faith as “believing in things you know ain’t so.” This is not an easy thing to pull off. Especially if life presents so much evidence to the contrary. This is why the difficulty of faith is given so much focus among evangelicals.  To pull this off, we have developed any number of habits that can retain faith despite the evidence.

The most common way is to build what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures”

…patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given community, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not….Thus when…a belief is held to be “reasonable,” this is a judgement made on the basis of the reigning plausibility structure.”[2]

Plausibility structures are ideas that we take for granted on both a personal and societal level, but they determine what we are likely to believe or not believe.

When we are confronted by an idea, whether we accept it as true will be largely determined by whether it fits within the framework that our plausibility structure provides for us.

Now there is no life that exists without a plausibility structure. The modern sciences have done so, political parties do so, religious communities do this. You and I live and move and have our being in such structures. But to add realism to this discussion, the structures must be in a position to connect up in the world as it actually is. That is not easily done. It becomes difficult to step out of these structures, to the world as it is. But the natural world has a way of impinging on our structures.

The coronavirus has almost no up sides. But the way a virus works is indifferent to our religions, our politics, our desires and wishes, our economic systems. We can build any structures to justify our practices and our beliefs, but then a virus comes crashing in and upends these beliefs. Because getting this virus right is not based on these things. It happens when we deal correctly with the virus, with the biology, with the facts as they are and then make decisions accordingly.

Beliefs that are impervious to those facts is what threatens us all. Denying climate change doesn’t change its dangers. Believing coronavirus is like the flue does not affects its deadliness. But if you get into the habit of thinking our beliefs can trump the world as it is, this will feed into itself and re-enforce itself. In the case of the coronavirus, quite literally, as people increase the spread of the virus by protesting the social distancing required to stop the virus.

But if the natural world seemingly does not impinge on our plausibility structures, then perhaps other people can? That depends on who the other people are.  If you are not part of the same political and religious tribe you may be counted as the enemy as Rush Limbaugh writes:

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

This is a form of epistemic closure, where the possibilities of hearing people who disagree with us becomes next to impossible. When our politics align in this way, it becomes impossible to come together to solve problems, or even to recognize the same  problems. as problems. Even Coronavirus, is seen through partisan lines. Our president is stoking those partisan divisions over the virus to remain in office.

Contrast that with Canada where the Conservatives and Liberals signed off the stimulus package. Or the UK where 94% of the British support the government in social distancing. Or where in Denmark all 10 political parties from the far right to the far left and in between not only agreed on the legislation to respond to the virus but are coordinating a united front in dealing with re-opening the country.

For Aristotle, this suggests concord, that is political friendship where a community or a nation wants generally the same things.  They may disagree on the particulars on how to get there. But they share the same fundamental values  and want the same results.  Aristotle believed such friendship was necessary for governance and we are discovering in the US he is right.

But another option is when someone from inside the tribe decides to call the plausibility structure into question. The structure no longer admits of the data coming in and somebody notices this and calls attention to this. The ex evangelical movement is powerful in that they came out of the religious right. In the sciences, this is what Thomas Kuhn, calls paradigm shifts.

In the Gospel of John, all the disciples but Thomas had seen the risen Jesus. Instead of going with the group, he calls the group’s account into question. And he raises a standard that in modern terms would be called empirical “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.” The crux of the story is not Thomas affirmation of Jesus. It is the line Jesus gives “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

But I want to reverse this. Blessed is the one who believes because the evidence requires us to believe. And blessed is the one who questions the group and seeks the evidence. And I say this because as I think of how we might get out of the tribal epistemologies that have produced an emotional civil war in this country, I’m reminded of John Dewey’s essay “The Task of Creative Democracy”.

Knowledge of conditions as they are is the only solid ground for communication and sharing; all other communication means the subjection of some persons to the personal opinion of other persons.

I remain perplexed on how to cross the divides in our country but if we do manage it it will involve lots of folks like Doubting Thomas seeking an empirical basis by which we can build new structures that better reflect the world as it is.

This presumes a shared world, shared not just in terms of epistemology but in terms of the structures, economic, political, religious and otherwise that include all people in its benefits.  The possibilities of subjection, which feeds into our divides, would cease to be in such a vision.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings




Categories: Blog, Feature, Politics, Religion

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