Friday, March 29, 2013

Doubting Thomas

Among all the disciples, I identify most closely with Thomas.

Poor Thomas. His reputation was sealed the moment that Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he wasn't there to see it. Tradition holds that Thomas later traveled as far as India in order to share his faith with people, but we will always know him as "Doubting Thomas", a byword to urge evangelicals reach higher levels of trust. Yet despite this rather selective use of Thomas's history, I do not find his story to be one of condemnation for those who doubt. I find his story to be one of grace and encouragement, a reminder that Jesus Christ Incarnate is always with us and is always compassionate.

When we read the story of Doubting Thomas, we tend to start with what is (to us) the subject: Thomas's doubt. Thomas's doubt, however, is not as extraordinary as we sometimes believe. Yes, Thomas had traveled with Jesus for three years and had seen men raised from the dead before. Yet in this case, the person who was doing the raising from the dead was Himself dead. Who was there now to raise Jesus from the dead? Is it any surprise that Thomas doubted? Even the words with which Thomas voices his objection suggest how understandable his doubts were:
Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.
That Thomas asks to "place my finger into the mark of the nails" and "place my hand into his side" recalls the extensive physical torments of the crucifixion. When Jesus raised people from the dead, they were usually physically intact. Jairus's daughter daughter died from an illness. The widow's dead son was being carried out of the city in one piece by a crowd. Yet crucifixion did not leave the body intact. To ask after the wounds of Christ as Thomas does is to remind the reader that there is no coming back from this death. We are told that Jairus's daughter looked like she had fallen asleep. Jesus looked like nothing human after the crucifixion. Much as we like to read Thomas's story as if we could somehow have expressed a stronger faith than he, the story does not allow such self-congratulation. Indeed, the horrors of crucifixion render Thomas's doubts relatively reasonable. 

Yet, as with most biblical stories, the real subject of the story is not Thomas but Jesus. It is his words, not Thomas's, that are most important. Importantly, the words of Christ are words of encouragement and grace. The narrator John, having told us of Thomas's doubt, then tells us this:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, 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; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve 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 believed."
Incidentally, even the greeting that Jesus uses signals that this encounter is one of blessing. Peace be with you was of course a traditional greeting in Roman Israel, but its frequent use makes it all the more remarkable here. John could have left these words out. He could have glossed over them like this, "Jesus greeted the disciples". Thus, that John, writing in the Spirit, includes the full greeting reinforces to the reader what Jesus's purpose is here: His purpose is not to vent frustration with Thomas's doubt but to bring peace and rest to His disciple's troubled soul.

Perhaps what is most striking in this passage is how accommodating Jesus is. Thomas has asked to touch the nail marks on Jesus's hands and to put his hand in Jesus's side, and Jesus tells Thomas to "put your finger here" in the nail marks and to "put out your hand and place it in My side." The parallelism speaks to Jesus's great patience. There is nothing that He withholds from his disciple Thomas. Sometimes, we expect Thomas to reach heights of faith for which the disciple was not ready. We believe in Jesus without touching Him, and we expect Thomas to do the same. Yet Jesus had no such expectation. He allowed Thomas to touch the wounds of the crucifixion. In doing so, he shows us what grace is: The whole point of grace is that Jesus helps us when we are most helpless. We who live two thousand years after the time of Christ do not receive the exact help that Thomas does, but make no mistake: We will receive help. Jesus is glad to give whatever help we need.

Even Jesus's words speak to his grace for us. I think we read His command, "Do not disbelieve" as condemnation of Thomas's doubt, as if Jesus gets up in Thomas's face a bit. Certainly Jesus could get in people's faces; think of the money-changes in the temple or the Pharisees. Yet I don't think that's what Jesus is doing here. Only the NIV translation, which renders this line "Stop doubting!", sounds harsh. All the other versions render Jesus's words more gently, in some variant of the ESV translation above: "Do not disbelieve". What Jesus is doing is not so much criticizing Thomas but inviting him out of his own self-imposed darkness into the light of grace and faith. To get the idea, imagine advice about more ordinary matters, perhaps from a parent to a child: "Do not worry about the bully. Mom and Dad love you." I am not saying that our sins are never condemned. They are, of course; Jesus is just as well as merciful. Yet we must not imagine that Jesus is impatient with our faults and go to him out of fear or, worse still, try to make ourselves into an independently virtuous person. This will not work. Jesus is saddened by our sins but is infinitely patient with us. His words to Thomas remind us of His mercy: The invitation is not to come and be judged but to come and rest our troubled soul in Him.

Thus, Thomas's story is not really about condemning unbelief or doubt. It is not an encouragement to work really hard at becoming more faithful (as if we could do that without grace!) It is a beautiful reminder that Christ invites us to rest our troubled soul in Him, that He heals all wounds and darkness.

Such an invitation, of course, does not mean the wounds and darkness will not come. Eight whole days elapsed between when Thomas first expressed his doubt and when Jesus appeared to him. To someone who is troubled or worried, eight days can feel like a very long time. Job suffered for weeks before God eased his pains, and even Jesus was forty days and forty nights in the desert before the angels came and ministered to him.

Yet the invitation remains: Jesus Christ Incarnate waits to ease all our burdens and anxieties and to bless us with His presence. Ultimately, this is what Easter is about. People sometimes point out that Easter is only a Christian variation on a pagan celebration of spring. So what? What the pagans celebrated when Spring returned was a forerunner, a preparation, for the reality that we celebrate on Easter weekend: the Incarnate Christ, who calls us out of Winter and reminds us that Spring is coming.

For what it's worth, I do not find this story compelling because I have managed to lay my burdens down but precisely because I haven't. I am better than Thomas at looking at what I consider realities, at harping on all the problems, at fretting over my worries for a long period of time. Yet we believers, as much as unbelievers, need the reminder that Jesus gives us rest. Thomas had walked with Christ for three years. He was there when Peter proclaimed Jesus the Son of God. He was there when Jesus predicted His own death. He was there for the Triumphal Entry. He knew who Jesus was. Yet he, one of the Twelve, is nevertheless again welcomed to rest in Christ. We too, even though we are believers, even though we are champs at worrying, are also welcomed to rest in Christ.

Easter is an opportunity for that reminder.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Uncertainty & Faith

One of the most telling memories of myself as a child is standing on a chest in a friend's bedroom, pointing down with one finger, vehemently arguing my side of a particular issue.

As a child, I was a debater. I was sure I was right.

Perhaps the sign of growing older is that I am no longer sure that I am right, and that I think such uncertainty is a step towards personal and even spiritual maturity.

In American Christianity, there is a push to eliminate uncertainty from the faith. As a teen, I remember attending Christian apologetic conferences. The speakers laid down arguments as if, following one conference in a large Midwestern church, there could nevermore be legitimate discussion on these topics. The timing of Christ's return, courtship as an alternative to dating, and the need for more stringent Christian laws in our country were all obviously decided. Faith was no longer a choice but rather an intellectual certainty, explicated by knowing speakers from the platform.

Indeed, believers assume that, provided sufficient attention is given to a problem in the Bible or in personal life, there need be no uncertainty. We can, they suggest, know without doubt what every single Scripture passage means. We can know every step and action that must be taken for us to live as Christians. No doubt about it.

A writer on the blog "Project TGM: Theology, Gospel, Mission" sums up this belief: He suggests that "uncertainty . . . leads to destruction" and that our faith should be marked by "peering into the mind of God" - presumably, understanding what we see there.

I agree, of course, that we have great certainty in our God. Proofs for His existence and for His goodness abound. If it were not so, C.S. Lewis would not be a household name, and we would not have such pleasure in Nature, seemingly outfitted (especially in the springtime) expressly for our pleasure.

Yet the fact that we can know some things about God does not change the fact that we cannot possibly know everything about God, that "peering into His mind" may well leave us with more questions than answers. Indeed, uncertainty is a crucial part of our faith.

The Apostle's Creed begins, "I believe in God the Father, Almighty".

Stop.

"Almighty."

Who are we to think that we can fully comprehend God the Almighty? That we can offer reason and proof for his existence? That we can conclusively and without doubt describe His character?

Yes, He has offered us the Bible, but the Bible is His Word to humanity - the Word of Infinite Being to finite Creatures. Can such words be wholly understood? Do any of us really stand ready to accurately interpret the flaming wheel of Ezekiel? Are any of us ready, unlike Moses His servant, to look upon the face of God?  No? Then God, even in the Bible, transcends intellectual apprehension.

Mystical Christianity flourished a thousand years ago, as writers such as St John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Lady Julian of Norwich reminded us that God cannot be wholly known. Like the horizon that is perceived but never reached, such writers, in contrast to contemporary apologists, suggested that God may be perceived but never apprehended. Indeed, they suggested that only by admitting the failure of intellectual machinations can individuals perceive God clearly.

The mystics' legacy lives on in T.S. Eliot, and it is to Eliot that I turn in order to explain why uncertainty is such a crucial part of our faith. Eliot, known for The Waste Land, is often not known for his mid-life conversion to Christianity. After his conversion, he wrote Four Quartets, poems that clearly express both his faith and his uncertainty regarding how he ought to approach God. In the second of four poems, Eliot writes,

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God. (East Coker)

Most believers lean hard on "the wisdom of old men" to guide our faith, wisdom we find in books published by Francis Chan or John Piper.

Yet is is in the "folly" of old men that Eliot finds wisdom - in other words, what such men don't know about God. Moses, who wrote portions of the Scripture, saw only the back of God, and certainly Chan and Piper and others like them know no more. This is why Eliot begs to know the "folly" of wise men: That which is unseen is perhaps the truest part of the divine; it was the face of God, the most identifying characteristics, that Moses did not see. Let no one imagine that what we understand about God describes His character at all completely. Who God is baffles our intellect, so that the closest we come is, compared to the divine reality, but folly.

Such uncertainty ought not to alarm the orthodox Christian. Yes, God is eminently logical, but He also calmed the storms while He was on earth. Perhaps the story is too familiar now to raise the shock that such an illogical event ought to raise. Storms, we know, are not the outpouring of Zeus' wrath but the meteorological consequence of a high-pressure front meeting a low-pressure one. That Jesus averted such a natural event conflicts with the wisdom of modern science. Yet the storm was calmed, and so we see that God is sometimes seen best in that which is unexplained and considered folly.

Perhaps this is why Eliot follows up his demand for the "folly" of old men with this passage:

As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

In the first stanza, Eliot suggests that the observable world is but a "bold imposing facade" - in other words, no more significant than the cardboard tree that appears in an elementary-school production. Such crafts do not accurately represent the world as it exists, so why, Eliot implies, do we expect our senses to accurately represent God as He exists? As the facade must eventually be rolled away, so eventually our senses must be rolled back so that the soul may perceive God without the errors introduced by human cognition.

Ultimately, Eliot recommends that we believers lay aside cognition to "wait without hope" and "wait without love" and "wait without thought" for God to reveal who He is. Perhaps Eliot's advice sounds anti-Christian, but it is not. Have we, for instance, never hoped that God would cure someone of cancer, yet that person died? Have we never thought that God will provide a job or a spouse for us, only to find ourselves out of work and single? So often, what we think and hope and love about God is not at all aligned with who God is. The Pharisees thought they loved God, until He showed up on their doorstep forgiving tax collectors and hanging out with prostitutes.

Consider the demon-possessed man that God healed, the man named "Legion". When Legion was healed, the entire town came out to beg that Christ leave their city. This too is another portion of Scripture we gloss over too easily: Glad as we are that Legion is healed, a herd of pigs and thus an entire city's economy is destroyed on behalf of that one person. Will you pretend you understand this miracle? Will you say, "Well, the soul is worth more than anything?" To save Legion, Jesus Christ doomed an entire city to hunger and continued poverty (they weren't raising the pigs for fun!).

In part, this is why robbing Christianity of its inherent uncertainty is dangerous. If we claim to know who God is, then we must likewise claim to know why He permits particular instances of human suffering, which is (as Job learned) a question far beyond us. If we, however, know that we do not wholly know God, we also know that we cannot explain His actions.

The only answer is trust. 

I am watching Battlestar Galactia right now. At the beginning of the third season, Admiral Adama sends out on a crucial mission one of his officers: a Sharon Valerii, who belongs to a race traditionally at war with Adama's.

Sharon, though proud of her appointment, nevertheless asks Adama, "How do you know you can trust me?"

"I don't," Adama replies. "That's what trust is."

That's what trust is. 

If there were no uncertainty, faith could not exist. Towards the end of his poems, Eliot writes this:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

"Verifying" faith with proofs is, in the end, not faith at all. "Instructing yourself" in the supporting evidence misses the point of faith. Ratiocination has its uses but also its limits. We who believe in God ought most of all to "kneel / Where prayer has been valid". Faith is ultimately about laying aside questions upon questions about the complexities of religion and worshiping what we know, and what we do not know, of Christ.

Uncertainty is not a bad word. It is not a faithless word. It is part and parcel of a faith that asks us believers, in the end, to lay down our weaponry of intellectual debate and experiential proofs. All we can do, in the end, is trust that the God who is never fully seen is the God of Peace.