Saturday, April 6, 2013

"Doubting Thomas" - a person of faith or a person of beliefs?

This weekend we will read about Thomas.  Likely someone will refer to him as “doubting Thomas” though he was brave enough to be out and about after Jesus’ crucifixion while many of the disciples were fearfully cowering in a locked room.  Because he was brave enough to be out and about, likely continuing work in imitation of Jesus, he missed when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the “chicken” disciples locked in the room. 

Now, none of these female and male disciples believed Jesus had risen until they saw Jesus.  Yet somehow over the course of history, Thomas’ character has been maligned as though his faith is of inferior ilk because he too didn’t believe until he saw the resurrected Jesus.  One might argue that since Thomas was brave enough to continue Jesus’ work, his faith surpassed that of the chicken disciples.  He operated in faith without the certitude of belief, and the opportunity for certitude presented itself a week later for him than for those paralyzed in fear.

Faith is acting based upon trust.  Belief is certitude that something is so.  We act in faith without knowing based upon what we accept in certitude as beliefs.  So, in some ways faith is the opposite of belief while at the same time stands upon the shoulders of belief.

What did the disciples believe?  What was their certitude? 

Scripture writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).”

Ah, they believed Jesus was the “Messiah” and “Son of God” and such belief would give them life. 

Once upon a time, Christians had no creed.  They just came to simple acceptance that Jesus was Son of God and Messiah and somehow following his example would render life.  The various Christian communities approached this in slightly different ways but were united in their simple foundational beliefs.  They acted in faith upon those simple beliefs and their actions galvanized a caring community.  One might say they were long on faith-based actions and short on certitude coming from beliefs.

But, as time marched forward and human nature’s impact took its toll, things changed.  Within a few hundred years of Jesus’ death people had vehement arguments as they tried to complete the sketch of Jesus, filling in details not recorded.  People sought certitude where there was none and so they ascribed certitude to their suppositions.  Yet scripture tells us that Jesus did many things not recorded.  Scripture seems to tell us at the end of the last written gospel, that the details about Jesus aren’t as important as just remembering a few key things: Jesus is the Messiah and is Son of God.

But since humans are curious to know intimate details about celebrities, the interpolations and interpretations continued.  Also, the cerebral exercise of “believing” in certitude is a lot less work and involves a lot less risk than the physical effort of “acting” in faith.  It seems too that many humans fixate upon being right more so than on doing right. 

History tells us laypeople argued in the marketplace and on the streets about these unknown and unknowable details associated with Jesus.  Uncomfortable with the public debate and in an effort to force unity, the emperor Constantine, not Pope Sylvester, called the Council of Nicea. 

The debate tearing apart Constantine’s kingdom was one around the question, “What does it mean to be the Son of God?”  One camp insisted one relationship between God and Jesus and the other camp insisted upon another.  Church leaders leading the different camps sanctioned violence against those holding different views.   As emperor, Constantine could not defend his kingdom with intra-country division.  So, he called all the bishops together in hopes that they would end the internal argument.

The Council of Nicea produced the Nicene Creed, which expanded upon what one must believe to be called a Christian.  It primarily was trying to give a definitive answer about the somewhat unknown and unknowable relationship between Jesus and God.  But the debate did not subside with the imposition of the Creed.  The creed just divided people.  Some of that division went underground while some of it remained public.  The creed said nothing of love.  It said nothing about actions.  It said nothing about faith. 

We fast forward to today and see the continued shift from people who acted caring for each other due to a trusting faith based upon limited certitude of beliefs to being people who build an elaborate, complex and intricate set of certitudes (beliefs) and whose actions focus mainly on imposing or propagating their certitudes upon others. 

According to scripture, God is the full embodiment of love and truth.  One might assume from Jesus' actions, words and role as son of God that he's big on love and truth too.

However, somehow “love” has transformed from being patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude, not seeking its own interests, not quick-tempered, not brooding over injury, not rejoicing over wrongdoing but rejoicing with the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things (1 Cor 13:4-7).

Though scripture admits it does not provide a complete record, certitude is ascribed to interpolations of things not said.  Scripture says nothing of Jesus mandating clergy gender for all perpetuity.  But “love” has been perverted to ascribing certitude to Jesus’ intentions and using that certitude to marginalize and excommunicate people unless they affirm certitude drawn from conjecture. 

Oddly enough certitude is ascribed to things contrary to what is recorded in scripture too.  For example, scripture indicates Peter was married yet “love” has been perverted to ascribe certitude to Jesus’ desire for celibate clergy and using that certitude to marginalize and excommunicate people too.

Scripture says nothing about birth control yet “love” has been perverted to ascribe certitude to Jesus’ opinions on the topic and using that certitude to marginalize people, deny health benefits and sue civil governments that insist upon providing healthcare coverage.

Scripture indicates Jesus likely healed a homosexual centurion’s male sexual servant/lover.  (As background, Matthew 8 and Luke 7 contain the story in which a centurion asks Jesus to heal his pais who is his entimos doulos.  The Greek word pais can mean son, servant or a special servant who is a male lover.  Entimos doulos means “honored slave.”  Given the context, it is unlikely that the centurion speaks of his son and the added qualifier of entimos doulos seems to say this was no ordinary servant.  This leans towards the likeliest meaning is that the centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have him come under his roof to heal his male sexual servant, but if he only said the word, his honored servant would be healed.)  Yet “love” has been perverted to certitude about dehumanizing marginalization of homosexuals instead of following Jesus’ example of extending tender inclusive care.

Scripture indicates Jesus used compassionate, merciful common sense but somehow “love” has been perverted into certitude that Jesus wants mothers to die unless the child she carries who is killing her can also be saved.  Somehow love has been perverted into certitude that Jesus would prefer two dead people than just one dead person.

Scripture doesn’t indicate Jesus excluded people from communion based upon their morality or political voting patterns.  Indeed “at that first Eucharist before he died”, Jesus gave communion to Judas, knowing that Judas had already betrayed him and had not confessed to it.  But, somehow “love” has been perverted into certitude that communion should be withheld from people who don’t share certitude of beliefs 100% in line with those of the hierarchy.

Many in the church scratch their heads that the masses flee organized religion.  Yet, many who have fled organized religion do so because they passionately desire to imitate Jesus’ caring actions acting in faith rather than certitude.  The certitude they carry is that they must care for the world and all its creation without judging it. 

Are you a person of deep faith trusting and acting to unite, include and care though you do not know or are you a person filled with certitude of beliefs that justify your inaction, rejection or divisiveness?   Do you believe scripture when it says it doesn't contain Jesus' complete history or do you require so much certitude that you ascribe certitude to your interpretation that scripture is the complete revelation of God?  Do you require more certitude than scripture offers so you insert certitude into interpolations, traditions and dogmatic utterances?  Are you like Thomas able to act in faith despite uncertainty or are you like the majority of disciples, locking yourself in somewhere, cowering in fear waiting for certitude?  Do you malign those who act in faith while you enshroud yourself in what certitude you have and hide in fear?  Are you a person of faith or a person of beliefs?


  1. Brilliant! I see some conversations from book club and from family in there. Yes, I have faith and not facts and blessed am I for believing without seeing because I look through the eyes of faith.

  2. whoa...seeing that you judged Judas...I'd like to offer another possibility. I'm not so sure Judas was the bad guy everyone paints him out to be. Just like people have done with Thomas, we don't know the whole story. My belief is that Judas was just disappointed that Jesus didn't turn out the way he expected. Judas didn't want the money. I think he was trying to get Jesus off the dime, so to speak. He wanted Jesus to get with do something instead of being so passive. Yes, I think that's what Judas was thinking. Anyhow, he threw the money at the priests. Yes, scripture says he committed suicide, but we don't have a clue about his motivation. I still think we paint too many from scripture in black and white. It's never that simple. I know I took one little phrase out of your wonderful essay, but I do take umbrage that Judas is so maligned when we don't know the whole story.

    1. I don't think Judas intended to betray Jesus. I think Judas was honestly trying to save Jesus, but doing it through his own connections, trying to play God in Jesus' life. When he saw that he didn't have the power to do what he wanted to do, and that Jesus would be killed, he despaired and committed suicide.
      Of course, I also think Judas was the brother of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and the son of Simon the leper/Pharisee.

    2. Ray T, I've never heard the angle of him trying to save Jesus. Can you elaborate on that? It's an interesting point to consider. Kind of like when we "help" others. Sometimes it's hard to know what is "help" and what is "harm" because of our limited view of the universe and the minds and feelings of others, and last but not least, the will of God.

  3. Good point. I have often commented to other people's chagrin that Judas did what needed to be done. No Judas, no Good Friday and no Easter. So, I think he gets a bum rap. But it illustrates a great point as to why withholding communion isn't for humans to judge - even the ordained humans.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful reflection! I have struggled with church attendance for quite some time, and certainly not because my parish is dull or annoying--quite the contrary--my parish is a vibrant Franciscan parish. But I've been in the doldrums. It's been an inside thing....we have had a couple of JPII/Benedict XVI appointed bishops that dramatically changed our experience from community of love to community of rules, certitude (as you say), fidelity and hierarchy. So, out of un-certitude and apathy, I've just not been attending, but still been supporting my parish through direct deposit. I finally went back this last Sunday. It was good to see friends. I'm encouraged by the new pope & his appointment to the congregation of religious. Your reflection was very powerful. We must be the change we want to be and see.

  5. Ewe, happy to have discovered your blog. Theologically educated and critical thinking Catholic women like you give me great consolation. I'm in tears so often over the works of the devil inside the church... He almost succeeded in making me belief I am a very unworthy person in not accepting my supposed inferior status. But my faith won. Last week I let my parish priest know I won't be attending Mass anymore because it is an experience of humiliation for me. Jesus never ever humiliated women like the male clergy do. Thank you so much.