Doubting Thomas, Doubting Doubt  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Sunday after Easter is often called "Thomas Sunday", since the appointed Gospel reading from John relates the apostle Thomas' skepticism regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Thomas almost comes off as the first-century version of  a hyper-rational empiricist.  Of course, when Jesus offers him the hard evidence he demands, Thomas can only stammer out "My Lord and my God!"

Today's offertory hymn at my parish, Trinity Episcopal in Santa Barbara, California, These things did Thomas count as real, encapsulated Thomas' skepticism quite succinctly.  What struck me is that the de facto official theology of the parish--or at least much of its leadership--is that of the Jesus Seminar, which explicitly denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  So perhaps someone on the worship committee managed to sneak it in, or perhaps it was included as a gesture of evenhandedness.  At any rate, I include the lyrics, followed by some words of NT Wright on Thomas, found on p 715 of his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress 2003).


These Things Did Thomas Count As Real
These things did Thomas count as real:
the warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
that one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
and thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

NT Wright
Thomas comes to the question with one particular epistemology uppermost in mind:  he wants to touch as well as to see.  Indeed, he insists that the data must be caught within his proposed epistemological net or he will not acknowledge it as real data at all.  However, when Thomas is confronted by the risen Jesus, and even invited to touch,  John does not say...that Thomas went ahead and did so.  Seeing was enough...

Enlightenment historiography has often placed itself in the position from which the doubting disciple began.  Like Thomas, it protests that it has not shared the deep Christian experience of those who now believe, who look as though they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land.  It insists on "hard evidence', on "scientific proof".  It maintains a dignified if perhaps brittle skepticism.

Equally, certain branches of theology have stressed the gentle rebuke of Jesus.  If you need proof, if you even want proof, that seems to show that you have not yet discovered true faith.  One should not reply to the Enlightenment in anything like its own terms.  As the book of Proverbs warns, answering fools according to their folly is itself a foolish thing to do.  And yet the very next verse declares that one must answer fools in their own terms, lest they be wise in their own eyes--in other words, lest they imagine they have won their case by default.  Far be it from me, of course, to agree with the totally negative view of the Enlightenment implied by that use of Proverbs 26...There was much wisdom, as well as much folly, in the eighteenth-century appeal to history against dogma and hierarchy, even if now, with the Enlightenment's own dogma and hierarchy firmly in power, it is time to turn the historical argument against post-Enlightenment skepticism itself.


Posted by Joe Rawls

One of the high points of the Easter Vigil liturgy is the chanting of the Exultet, a hymn in praise of the newly lighted pascal candle, which is a very rich symbol of the risen Christ, with links to both Passover and the Exodus.  It is very ancient in the western church, originating during the 5th-7th centuries.  Traditionally, it is chanted by a deacon, as in the picture at left, though in many congregations without a deacon--or at least a deacon who can chant well--it is sung by a member of the choir. 

Some more information on the Exultet is available here.  I also include a video of a good English version.