I have a particular affection for St Thomas, who, faced with a bunch of his friends making claims that sounded impossible, asked for empirical proof. David Bennet, from Ancient and Future Catholics, says:
I think that we all have a little bit of Thomas in us all. Some of us become like Thomas when we go through hard times, others after taking a class that challenges us to think more deeply about God. Some become like Thomas when thought paradigms shift, such as in our time today, after the Newtonian and Cartesian worldview of modernism has shifted to a more dynamic postmodern worldview. Either way, most of us go through times when it seems like faith is not enough…we need proof and we need it immediately! Thomas symbolizes more than just plain doubt. Thomas symbolizes the deep human need for rational and empirical validation of our beliefs. Indeed, if in the year 2003 my friends came to me saying that a mutual friend that had died was risen from the dead, I would demand proof. I, like Thomas, would want to see this person alive and covered with the same scars that he had before he died. In fact, I think I would even be suspicious if I saw such a phenomenon happen. Even after witnessing such an extremely unique event, I would still doubt. I would doubt my emotional health at the time, and my ability to process facts clearly. Perhaps I would think I was delusional and would be convinced that what I had seen was but a fantasy.
Even years later, I would be presented with a dilemma as well: Did this amazing event actually happen? Often as we get older (and even at the “old” age of 26 I know this to be true) we no longer remember the actual events we often speak of, but only the retelling of the stories. It’s kind of like we develop our own little oral traditions. I have lately questioned details of very important events that I once firmly believed to be true, simply because I can no longer clearly remember the actual events. However, sometimes our memory serves us better than we know, even though it might need clarification from others who shared the same common experience…
We all have the capacity to doubt, and to struggle with our beliefs. In many ways, a basic level of doubt and investigation are survival mechanisms, and if we did not doubt, our species would not have lasted very long. If we did not base our sense of reality on empirical evidence, we would believe just about everything we are told, for good or for ill. We might believe that trolls inhabit Antarctica, or that cats talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Thomas was not some horribly wicked individual who was an anomaly to humanity; Thomas was…us! The scary fact is that if we took the place of the apostles, we would likely betray Jesus as Peter did, and doubt as Thomas did, and it seems as if the Scriptures often go out of their way to remind us how darn human the apostles were.
David goes on to describe how Thomas doubted. He stayed with the other apostles. He didn’t go out and denounce them to the authorities. He didn’t preach against the resurrection. And the other 10 didn’t excommunicate him for his doubts.
And note also that when Jesus did appear to Thomas, he didn’t keep arguing, and looking for the trick.
Even after Thomas did believe, he still had to have faith, and likely sought the validation of his experiences through the common experiences of his friends. He would surely have doubted the veracity of his experience as his memory faded, and as he remembered only his remembering and no longer recalled the actual event. In many ways, our creeds (The Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed particularly) are these common experiences put into words, and stand calling us to the faith of the Church even when we have doubts and are skeptics. This is why when we say, “we believe,” at times we believe on behalf of the Thomases around us, and even the Thomases within us.
In conclusion, Thomas’ experience in John 20 illustrates quite a few points. First, it shows that having difficulty and struggling with faith is a normal human experience. Second, it demonstrates that Jesus is not condemning us for our times of struggle, but he is gently calling us to be happier (blessed) through believing in Him by faith, much as potential love relationships beckon us to leave the comfort of our surety to enter into them. Finally, the text illustrates that the collective experience of the Church is the normative framework for the Church’s belief, and that this common framework should not be altered because of our personal struggles, even though the framework tolerates some individual difficulty…
In the end, we lose much when we see the world and our beliefs purely skeptically. While I am not advocating a thoughtless adherence to any system of belief, Christian or otherwise, I think that the life of faith is far more rewarding than a life of doubt. Our ways of doubt do indeed “cost so much,” particularly costing us meaningful love relationships, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Perhaps this is why after all was said and done, even Thomas ultimately believed. In a shaky and storm-tossed postmodern world, it is comforting to know that our struggles and difficulties are normal, but we are called to something much greater and more rewarding: faith in Jesus Christ.