April 11, 2021

Sandy Burnett

I’ve always felt that Jesus chose his disciples as much for their weaknesses as their strengths, or perhaps because their weaknesses became strengths. St. Thomas, Doubting Thomas, is a prime example. I mean, at one time or another, we’ve all said “I’ll believe THAT when I see it.”

But, have we said it after 10 of our closest friends told us something?

I can’t imagine that Thomas thought the others were joking, given the precariousness of their situation. Perhaps he thought they’d been taken in by some impostor. Or perhaps he just couldn’t believe something so wonderful as Jesus’ resurrection could happen. He just couldn’t let himself go enough to believe in something that he so desperately desired.

Haven’t we all felt that we aren’t talented enough, smart enough, virtuous enough, or just plain worthy, to have our deepest desire granted? As Christians, we know that we’re completely unworthy of God’s love, yet we crave this gift of love, and we receive it, every moment of every day. But we often don’t believe it, especially when we are in the midst of tragedy, wondering how God could allow horrors to happen.

Like Thomas, we hear Christ’s gentle rebuke, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

At the time, I think only the men, and perhaps women, in that room believed in his resurrection because they saw the resurrected Jesus in person. Their great lifelong task would be to tell the rest of the world about it and to convince those who hadn’t seen, to believe.

How do we learn to believe? How do we know what we know? If there’s one thing our modern age has taught us, it is that what we see — or think we see — isn’t always the truth. Even back in the Dark Ages when I was being trained as a journalist, we knew that “eye witnesses” aren’t very reliable. Six people could offer six different versions of the same event, and none of them would necessarily be lying. An education in journalism trains you to be skeptic, to question almost everything. We are taught to  ask constantly “how do you know that?” We also are taught to be reporters, not arbiters of truth. We report that the mayor SAID the police department is incompetent, not that the police department IS incompetent. For that, we offer evidence or what we believe is proof: the crime statistics are unbelievable, the department is under federal investigation, etc.

Today, Doubting Thomas might have said, “Unless I see a DNA test that proves this living man is Jesus, I will not believe.”

This is where faith comes in. One simple definition of faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing or concept. In the context of religion, faith is belief in a god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion. Skeptics see faith simply as belief without evidence.

James W. Fowler, whose “Stages of Faith” is cited by Wikipedia, defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing and relating to the world based on a set of assumptions of how one is related to others and the world.

Fowler suggests that there are six stages of faith that a believer may experience, although he or she also can get stuck at any one of the levels. They are:

  1. a stage of confusion and high impressionability through stories and rituals. This roughly coincides with the pre-school period.
  2. a stage where provided information is accepted in order to conform with social norms, roughly the school-going period of development.
  3. a stage where acquired faith is concreted in a belief system where people, usually adolescents, come to associate with authority in individuals or groups that represent their beliefs.
  4. In early adulthood, the person critically analyzes their faith. Disillusion or strengthening of faith happens at this stage.
  5. Next, they realize the limits of logic and, facing the realities of life, accept that life is a mystery and often return to the sacred stories and symbols of a faith system. Fowler calls this a “negotiated settling in life,” which usually occurs in middle age.
  6. Finally comes the stage of universalizing faith, an enlightenment where the person comes out of all the existing systems of faith and loves life with universal principles of compassion and love and in service to others for upliftment, without worries and doubt. Fowler says you usually are aged 45 and up when this happens.

I related to some of Fowler’s stages. I was a Sunday School dropout at 11 and wasn’t confirmed until I was 35. But, the stages don’t address HOW a person goes from one stage to the next, other than by aging or maturing. I think this is where one of my favorite words comes in, a word used in Baptism when we pray that God will give the candidate “an inquiring and discerning heart.” This is something I find at the root of my belief system. Jesus knew that very few people would see him in person and that his disciples would have the job of convincing people of his truth. He didn’t give the apostles magical powers to make everyone who heard them suddenly believe. He gave them the tools they needed to help others discern the truth.

In the reading from 1 John, John says’ We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” This word of life, this is what Jesus imparts to the Apostles and all of their followers have imparted to us. Jesus knew he had little time left on earth, but he told his followers that the Word — the Good News — will be what allows Christians to discern the truth. “We are writing these things to you so that our joy may be complete.” John says. The Word is the essence of this completeness. It is the Word that we have received through the Bible, and through our Christian family over the past 2000 years. that gives us our ability to discern.

But what of St. Thomas? A practicing Jew, he went on to found the tradition of Christianity in Southern India which marries many of the customs of Judaism, such as the Saturday Sabbath, with a belief in Christ. Thomas was reported to have been martyred by jealous Hindu priests in 72 AD. Today, there are about 6 million Saint Thomas Christians.

And of course, there are billions of all kinds of Christians throughout the world today. Do we believe because we’ve seen Jesus in person? No, but I think we’ve those who believe encounter Jesus in their hearts through His word. We discern the Living Christ not just by what we’ve been told, but by what we feel, by what makes sense to us, by what we discern. It’s not always easy to believe and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Our faith may be inconstant. But when we believe, the Word tells us that even in our vast unworthiness, we are loved.