The transformation of Thomas from sceptic to worshipper is a sign of hope for our age. As a metaphor, Thomas’s experience might represent a move from rational materialism to faith. It suggests that people in our society can move on from the limits of accepting only what can be proved and demonstrated to a respectful openness to the mysteries of spiritual and mystical experience. Our own tradition and most other cultures give far more weight to experiences that are by their nature intangible and unrepeatable, and yet are recorded in spiritual writings, poetry, drama, music and art. Sceptics may mock religious experiences, but just because they lack those experiences doesn’t mean there is no truth in the recorded experiences of others. Thomas shows us that. He demands physical proof, but once he has a personal experience of the risen Christ, he no longer needs the tests he thought he required in order to believe with integrity.
Twentieth century westerners were encouraged to seek concrete evidence for anything before believing. It was thought to be scientific and modern to ask to touch, see, and test any claim before it was accepted as real. Thomas’s requirement to see and touch the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in his side is a metaphor for the continuing fascination with evidence and proof, which perhaps explains the popularity of police and forensic dramas. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, a healthy doubt about the limits of scientific thinking is growing. Perhaps this move beyond science is aided by an awareness that unquestioned technological advance can lead to dangerous environmental damage. As we see the risks to our physical reality created by over reliance on science, we hunger for something beyond that reality, a wholeness that will motivate us to value and heal creation, rather than exploit it for short term profit.
In the global village that our world has become, we are increasingly aware that every culture has its blinkers. We tend to see what we expect to see. Christ’s ironic question and comment to Thomas is relevant to us: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” It’s not wrong to seek personal experience, but openness to the experience of others can be equally illuminating. Listening to others can show us what to look for, and give us a way of naming and recognizing what we have experienced, and possibly ignored or discounted. Insights from those who have a different perspective can open up new learning. Scientific experiments can only prove or disprove the hypotheses that the experimenters are capable of conceiving. It has been shown that experimenter bias can influence what they expect to find, and therefore what they count as evidence. Paradigms shift as the minds of geniuses skip ahead of the limited understandings of a previous age. Newtonian physics of cause and effect gives way to the mysteries of quantum physics. In order for science to study any phenomenon, the theories that shape the hypotheses and the tests designed to prove or disprove them, have to be within the capacity of the minds of the age to formulate.
It is just as intellectually respectable to turn doubt upon a narrow use of scientific method as upon records of personal experience such as Thomas’s encounter with the risen Jesus. As we begin to accept that matter can be transformed into energy, so it begins to be possible that there is a scientific way of understanding resurrection as a differently constituted physical reality in which matter and energy are in different proportions. Whatever physical explanation may be possible does not lessen the spiritual significance of the event, nor lessen faith in the divine prime mover. Fortunately, some scientists are open to the bigger picture, and it becomes possible to see a bridge between mathematics and mysticism. If both are open to other ways of perceiving, science and religion may well find that common ground will continue to widen. Respect and open minds are the key qualities needed. Often what sceptics lack is respect for the experience of others. That was evident in Thomas’s response to his fellow disciples. If he had been more open to what they reported as their experience, and more willing to be present earlier to see for himself, he might have been spared a couple of weeks of grief and self blame. However, perhaps it is his grief and guilt that shut him off to community and respectful listening. After all, Thomas was the one who said, when Jesus chose to return to Bethany to Lazarus despite the danger of being stoned: “Let us go with him, that we may die with him.” When Jesus died, Thomas wasn’t there to die with him. Such an experience of grief and self doubt can cause a questioning of any source of hope.
Perhaps that is what we need to bear in mind when the sceptics mock Christian experience. We don’t know what wounds or losses have closed their minds and hearts to the possibility of new life in Christ. It seems to me that we ought to look to the reaction of Jesus to Thomas when we try to negotiate these debates in a way that respects the differences of people with different personality types and different backgrounds. Jesus’ first statement when he appears in a gathering where Thomas is present is “Peace be with you.” I imagine this may not have been the reaction of the other disciples to Thomas when he seemed to be discounting their experience of the risen Lord. Jesus immediately shows that he has heard Thomas’s needs for provable fact, and is prepared to accommodate him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” As Christians, we need to give those who doubt a chance to experience the reality of Christ, and we need to do our best to provide rational accounts of faith that can convince people intellectually. We do our faith no service if people believe they need to leave their brains and their life experience outside the door of the church. It’s one of the strengths of our Anglican tradition that we don’t dumb the faith down, or shut imagination or questioning out.
Still, there’s a sense in which questioning and intellectual probing become unnecessary when we have a personal encounter with Christ. We see this in Thomas’s reaction. Once he encounters Christ and Christ speaks to acknowledge his needs, Thomas simply worships – “My Lord and my God!” In our faith life there is a limit to what we can experience and test out personally. At some stage, many of us move on from our first experiences and the evidence that convinces us then. The Scripture record and the writings of deep spiritual thinkers down the ages provide us with material that vastly expands our first basic response of faith. We also become more able to open our awareness to the spiritual realm that gives meaning to the physical facts. Ultimately belief in the risen Christ is a way of opening ourselves to the possibilities of his risen life awakened in us. The evidence serves as signs to lead us into an encounter with Christ where we, like Thomas, can make our own response of recognition: “my Lord and my God.”