Thomas was a reasonable man. He had heard stories that Jesus was back again from the dead. But he knew otherwise: the dead don’t return to haunt the earth. So, even when his friends told him that Jesus was truly risen, he didn’t believe them. They were fooling themselves, so he thought.
Thomas has become the bogeyman of many a sermon. “Not enough faith, Thomas”, the preacher says. “You should have had more trust in Jesus”. Even though he eventually responds to Jesus’s appearance to him with the most exalted of all declarations, “My Lord and my God”, that won’t do for those Christians who think he got there too late and with too much help.
In recent years, however, another spin has been put on the Thomas story. There’s no better patron saint for our skeptical age than Doubting Thomas. So, in liberal churches, Thomas becomes almost a hero or, at least, the disciple we can most relate to. He’s a man for our times, who speaks to our uncertainties; an antihero, perhaps? Like us, he knew that failure and disappointment are woven into the fabric of life, that no good deed goes unpunished.
As it happens, I’m not sure that either assessment of Thomas, the faithless follower or the pessimistic pragmatist, does him much justice. I picture him somewhat differently.
Thomas seems to have been a reasonable man. But was he? Are we really dealing with a man who follows evidence wherever it leads him, whatever the cost to his hopes and dreams, a man would like to believe but can’t? Maybe. But I’m not convinced. I don’t think it’s Thomas’s fierce and fearless intellect that best explains his cynical reaction to the news that Jesus was raised from the dead.
He’d had a terrible shock. When Jesus died, so did Thomas’s hopes and dreams, all his plans for the future. When his friends told that him that God had raised Jesus from death, if Thomas been another sort of person he might have been thrilled and super-hyped. But that wasn’t his way. He’d been hurt and didn’t want to be hurt again. Allowing himself once again to hope and dream would be unbearable, if these accounts were simply fantastic tales fueled by liquor, wishful thinking, and hysteria. Thomas wasn’t super-rational so much as frozen in grief, using reason as a barrier to stop him being hurt again. He wasn’t a skeptic; he was in pain, that pain of the spirit and of the imagination which is just as real as physical agony, and often longer lasting.
If Thomas was as I have said, then the words of the risen Jesus to him could seem very harsh indeed: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Except: when you’re locked up in yourself, almost unable to function because of the hand life has dealt you, sometimes it takes a harsh word to set you free, a word that is cruel in order to be kind. Something, maybe, that provokes you to a flash of temper, an outburst that jolts you back to life. When Thomas finally sees Jesus again and responds to his mocking words, I can imagine him saying: “Not fair, Jesus. How dare you do this to me?” And then, with the adrenaline rush of rage, its attendant reactions of tears, relief, joy and hope; once suppressed, now set free.
This is the last story of John’s gospel, who sums up his account of Jesus by declaring that he’s written “these things … so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John places all of his stories in a masterly way: Thomas rounds things off, because John is telling us that anyone like Thomas, who wants to believe but whose main problem is within themselves, so that they can’t quite get to where they want to be, may still be shaken and stirred by God’s love, until they do.
Like Thomas, I am a reasonable man, who sometime uses reason as an excuse not to take risks, to stay in my comfort zone where I can analyze, reflect and comment at one remove from where, perhaps, I ought to be. I laugh at the follies of others, and also at my own. I don’t like joining things. I’m wary of getting hurt. This works, for much of the time. But maybe it’s a coward’s, or an antihero’s attitude to life, in need of change.
The thing is: because life sucks, we get hurt anyway. So maybe we should take the risk of accepting the limits of reason. It isn’t the only tool with which to uncover the secrets of life, or to know how things really are. And it’s a particularly bad master if you use it as an excuse for not taking life by the scruff of the neck and becoming all you’re capable of being.
To put it another way: we’re more than our brains. Life should be experienced and interpreted though emotions, imagination, intuition, and many other things that lie beyond reason’s compass.
But, just in case you think I’m encouraging you to be unreasonable, let me put in a word for the life of the mind. I only have to read a student essay to realize the importance of reason. I am always amazed how many confident eighteen-year olds think that their trivial prejudice, based on nothing at all substantial, trumps facts, wisdom and commonsense. In class conversations, as well, some students reveal their self-absorbed fantasies; for example, a belief that the truth or falsehood of human-made climate change is decided by their uninformed opinion, what they want it to be, rather than by verifiable scientific evidence.
And, let’s face it, it’s not just a young and entitled generation that insists on the truth of its own ignorance. Religious people excel at believing impossible and hurtful things that are easily disprovable. A Muslim friend of mine who runs a mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, tells me that many of his congregation, when they take off their shoes before entering the worship area, leave their brains in them.
Would that it were just a few Muslims! Turn on the television most days, and you’re likely to hear an unctuous Christian pastor peddle his mindless and venomous drivel, passing it off as the will of God, and encouraging his followers to abandon the constraints of decency and of reason.
So hats off to everyone who thinks, and who thinks things through. No wonder Jesus was sort of okay with Thomas’s skepticism. Better that than pious, self-serving claptrap.
Yet reason is not, of itself, a sufficient compass by which to navigate life, any more than is phony religion. As I see it, the religious life, at its best, does not bypass reason. Rather, it surpasses reason. There is more to life than meets the eye. Beyond what we observe and process lie holiness, wisdom, the meaning and end of all things
It is to the mystics that I turn, to sustain my faith. The mystics covet an experience that takes you through reason but lies beyond it. The word mystic comes from a Greek word, muein, meaning to shut your eyes. You close your eyes and then you really see, scanning the universe with the inner eye of the soul; with what some Hindus call, the third eye. Truth lies beyond our capacity fully to grasp it, by reason or any other tool, so we must allow truth to grasp us. How it does, is hard to explain. So let me tell a story. When, like Thomas, I was once frozen in grief, I read the words of the great Muslim mystic, Jamal al-Din Rumi. He wrote this dialogue:
I said: what about my eyes?
God said: Keep them on the road.
I said: What about my passion?
He said: Keep it burning.
I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
At that moment, I knew that I had found in Rumi a friend across the centuries, who understood. Just as I think that Thomas found in the risen Christ a bracing friend, who got him.
I admire Thomas, in part because he took the gospel to India, a country very dear to my heart, where I learned to be me. Thomas gave his life to tell others of Jesus, in a far land where he knew nothing and no one. To do that, he needed more than his doubts; he also and certainly needed more than reason; he needed to close his eyes, and let the light enter him, warm him, transform him. If, like him, we are to embrace life in all its fullness, then we too need to let the light enter us, warm us, transform us. From what I learned in India and, fitfully, since, I know that it can and does.