There is an enormous struggle going on within Catholicism today between those who question almost everything and those who want a "simple faith" and "blind obedience". It is an old struggle of course captured at the first Pentecost with the Fourth Evangelist's story of "Doubting Thomas". Today's Puzzling Passage from Dr Ian Elmer cuts to the heart of this controversy that has exercised the minds of believers since that first Pentecost. What can we learn from the story of "Doubting Thomas"?
Blind Faith: When "Ignorance is Bliss"...
The poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771) immortalised the phrase, "ignorance is bliss". The line is drawn from his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1742), in which he remembers the carefree state of his youth filled with dreams of great adventures now dashed by the cold realities of adult life. The sentiment is a common one and Gray, who was student of the Classics, probably had in mind Sophocles' sentiments about the ignorance of suffering being proper to childhood (Ajax, 555).
More broadly, such thoughts about ignorance have been applied as wise advice for anyone, young or old, in their journey through life. A century earlier than Gray, the playwright William Davenant (1606-1668) wrote that "Since knowledge is but sorrow's spy, it is not safe to know" (Act 2, Scene 1. The Just Italian. 1669) – which, in more common parlance today, might be rendered, "what you don't know can't hurt you!"
In religious circles we often also hear similar positive statements about people who have "blind", or more often "simple", faith. The idea behind such claims are many and varied; sometimes expressed as justification for ignoring theological complexities and conflicts; at other times used to rationalise some form of indifferentism or relativism that render all religions and/or denominations down to common "simple truths".
By way of an example, I read a letter to the editor in AD2000, published last year amid the St Mary's controversy, which stated that
"God is not interested in the outward show of religion, nor of observing traditions ... [but rather] a simple child-like faith in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus for your sin and my sin".
If one wanted to find rich material for exploring the continuing power of the whole Reformation "works versus faith" debate that split Christianity in the sixteenth century, the above statement would be a good place to start. But in today's commentary I want to examine the more fundamental notion of "blind faith" as a stance taken a priori in an unquestioning certainty that what one has been taught is true. By way of a biblical hook, I would draw the readers' attention to the story of Thomas in John 20:24-29, where Thomas demands evidence of Jesus' resurrection only to be confronted and reprimanded by the risen Jesus for his failure to "believe without seeing" (Jn 20:29).
Jesus' closest disciples were a motley bunch of misfits, including impetuous Peter (e.g., Mk 8:29; Matt 14:28, 17:4; Jn 13:8), the bad-tempered brothers, James and John (Mk 3:17; Lk 9:54), arrogant and bigoted Nathanael (Jn 1:45-46), and the over-zealous Simon who may have even been a terrorist (Lk 6:15). However, with the possible exception of Peter none of these disciples has captured the popular imagination like that of Thomas, the disciple whose infamous gaff in voicing questions about Jesus' resurrection has won him the title of "Doubting Thomas" (Jn 20:19-21). But, this hardly does this legendary figure justice.
Elsewhere (2007) I have argued that the Thomas story made a significant contribution to the development of the Christian faith. For Gnostic Christians of the second century, Thomas represented both a model of faith and a bastion for their mystical traditions. Many believed him to be the twin brother of Jesus and, thus, privy to secret knowledge ("gnosis") that could lead to enlightenment and salvation. A recently discovered Gospel of Thomas has even reached near canonical status in the eyes of the Jesus Seminar (1993) that number it as "the fifth Gospel" after Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
Ironically, it may have been Thomas' emerging notoriety with nascent Gnosticism in the late first century that accounted for his appearance in the resurrection story in the Fourth Gospel. Although he appears at various points in the Gospel, Thomas' best known appearance is in 20:24-29, where he expresses doubts about the report of Jesus' resurrection and demands to feel Jesus' wounds before being convinced.
Later Thomas followers would seek to redress the damage done to Thomas' reputation by the Fourth Evangelist. The non-canonical Passing of Mary, a late, second-century text attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea, designates Thomas as the only apostle to witness Mary's assumption into heaven.
According to the Passing of Mary, after Mary's death and burial, Thomas was transported from India to witness her bodily assumption into heaven, during which she dropped her girdle. In an inversion of the Johannine story of doubting Thomas, the other apostles, who were not present at the time, are sceptical of Thomas' story until they see the empty tomb and the girdle.
Of course, in both cases we are most likely dealing with legend and myth. Determining which if either of these stories is historical is impossible. The Johannine Jesus story differs radically from that found in Mark, Matthew and Luke — so much so that there are few points of contact between Johannine tradition and other early Christian texts. Indeed, Johannine traditions share more in common with the Gnostic Thomas school of thought in that they both claim to be in possession of "secret knowledge" imparted by Jesus about himself.
John's Jesus preaches no parables. There are no simple moral instructions. Even more importantly, there is no controversy over the Law that caused the Galileans to hail Jesus as a prophet — a feature that seems to have been a leitmotif of Jesus' ministry as demonstrated by the Synoptics. Instead, the Johannine Jesus is fond of allegories, involving complex symbolism, a technical and subtle vocabulary and, of course, a series of magisterial pronouncements, such as the "I am" statements, pointing directly to Jesus' divinity.
There is no doubt that the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is a genuine reflection of early Christology. However, the author does not appear to accurately reflect authentic Jesus' traditions (whether he knew of any in the first place is another issue). I would, therefore, suggest that the Fourth Gospel represents a later stage in the development of the Church's understanding of the significance of the Christ event and not genuine historical reminiscences about Jesus.
However, for all that the Fourth Gospel does provide a wealth of material for reflection and prayer. Like his characterisation of Thomas, the Fourth Evangelist has much to teach us, especially with regard to the notion of "blind faith".
The First Theologian...
Some people are comfortable in a "blind faith" or "simple faith" that does not seek to question and deconstruct the apparently improbable, or to probe such implausible ideas for deeper meanings. They prefer to imagine that ignorance of such theological explorations is bliss; that one should not doubt; only believe!
The Johannine Thomas was of a different mind; he doubted the proclamation of the improbable resurrection of Jesus. However, his doubt was turned to virtue. He alone of all the disciples is the first to "see" that Jesus is "true God and true Man".
Thomas' confession "my Lord and my God" (Jn 20:28), which brings forth a blessing on all future believers who will "believe without seeing" (Jn 20:29), forms the culmination of the Gospel's exploration of Christology, since it acknowledges the crucified/exalted Jesus as "Lord and God" (cf. Jn 1:49; 4:42; 6:69; 9:37-38; 11:27; 16:30). For John, all wisdom and knowledge derives from the logos, the Word of God, which is incarnated in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas alone, by pursuing his doubt, eventually recognises this and can proclaim what the Fourth Evangelist has already told his readers, that "the Word is God" (Jn 1:1).
This suggests that it is only the doubter, the one committed to rational enquiry and empirical "proof", who will see beyond both the mundane and the miraculous (both Jesus' wounds and his glorified, resurrected body) to the staggering reality that here stands the "Lord and God". For John, ignorance is not bliss and wisdom is certainly not a folly, as the poet Thomas Gray would have it. For John, wisdom was something to be sought above all else.
The Thomasine Gnostics believed they were in possession of some secret knowledge that gave them authority and power. The Fourth Evangelist rewrites their "Thomas myth", emphasising that true "knowledge" (gnosis) is hard-won; it is not a special gift to a few luminaries or mystics. It is available to all, if they but use their intelligence and reason.
To be sure, Thomas is reprimanded for demanding a sign before he will believe (20:25), as others had before him (4:48). It is suggested that he should believe on the basis of the word spoken to him by others (e.g., 17:20). But if he had simply accepted the (albeit) incredible proclamation of Jesus' resurrection, would he have sought to "inquire" or "theologise" further?
Like the other disciples he would have simply been caught up in the "miraculous" without understanding the import of that encounter. Only by demanding further proof, by seeking to analyse, deconstruct, and demythologise the proclamation could Thomas arrive at his extraordinary insight — Jesus is "Lord and God". Thomas was our first theologian.
For me, the lesson of the Johannine Thomas, is that doubt is a virtue and that there is nothing blissful about continuing to be blindly ignorant of the deeper meanings of our received traditions. I am not sure that ignorance in any sphere is all that blissful anyway. In a recent round table discussion on ABC Radio National's "All in the Mind" program (2010), Edward de Bono, quipped that "if ignorance was bliss there would be a lot of happy people in Canberra".
Returning to the issue of religious devotion, I would argue that it is only by seeking the path of radical doubt that we can arrive at a genuine appreciation of our faith. Of course, that is probably true of our political affiliations as well; not to mention our often uncritical "blind" faith in liberal democracy (but that is another story).
By appealing to the notion of "radical doubt", I am not counselling that you should "trust nothing" that cannot be verified via sense experience. Nor am I advocating an overly rationalist or minimalist approach to faith; which would be only another form of "blind faith" — that is, rejecting any notion of a priori revelation per se and blindly assuming that "truth" can only be attained by rational means or that the phenomenal world is the only reality. Rather, I am suggesting that genuine faith must, like that of Thomas, be won through a rational engagement with the revealed truth.
I am not advocating a "trust nothing" stance; but rather a "test everything" approach. I am suggesting that to really own one's faith, one must "push the envelope" and discover what one's faith means to one personally in the here and now. Don't just leave the tenets of the faith in the pages of the Bible or the paragraphs of the Catechism, or accept them at face value. Don't just be content to be a member of the blissfully ignorant; the Fourth Evangelist would say that there is no virtue in that position. Like his Thomas, you must seek to know more, to see more, to be more.
If the legends are true, such was Thomas' thirst to "push the envelope", to question and probe, that his zeal brought him as far as India. While the other disciples, and even Paul, seem to have restricted their activity to cultures with which they were familiar, Thomas was prepared to stretch beyond his comfort zones and embark on a mission into the unknown. His missionary activity reflected his intellectual curiosity. Just as his need to "know" and "see" led him to a greater understanding of the Christ-event, his need to "go where no one has gone before" (apologies to Gene Roddenberry) led him to carry the Word beyond the bounds of the then "known world".
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer