"You are such a doubting Thomas."
Many people have heard the phrase "Doubting Thomas" applied to them in a conversation with a radical believer. The conversation might go something like this, "I seriously doubt the Cubs will ever win the World Series in my lifetime." The fanatic Cub fan would reply, "You are such a doubting Thomas."
Few people realize the origin of this phrase is found in the Bible. Specifically, the phrase is a reference to the story found in John 20:20-29. Thomas is the last apostle to see the risen Jesus. He is questioning the sanity of his fellow apostles concerning their delusional stories about a bodily resurrected Jesus who had been crucified a week earlier.
St. Thomas has become something of a patron saint in the student group that I started at The Ohio State University. When I arrived on campus, I realized something: there seemed to be plenty of good Christian groups of all stripes on campus. I didn't feel I had anything to add.
I soon realized that a place did not exist for students to express honest doubt. Many groups had one or two nights dedicated to questions, but I felt we needed more than that. I decided to invite Christians, doubting Christians, agnostics and what I call Pirate Atheists into a discussion group that became known as The Thomas Society.
We covered every topic ranging from "Why does God Allow Suffering" to "Science versus Faith" in our discussions. This group of students carried their conversations from small groups into large settings. Students from all walks of faith (or nonfaith) began to honestly engage each other in real dialogue from their dorm rooms to a service project we all took to New Orleans.
While in New Orleans, we sat at Lafitte's Pirate Tavern on Bourbon Street on one particular night. Our group had just finished a long hard day of demolishing abandoned houses from hurricane Katrina. I asked all of them to share why they believed in God or why they didn't.
As I listened to their stories with the craziness of Bourbon Street passing by, I realized how all of their stories and questions could be encapsulated in St. Thomas' story. All of their questions about science, God, faith, suffering, justice and injustice could be summed up in Thomas' intellectual and emotional doubt.
Thomas asked for concrete proof of Jesus' resurrection, he essentially asked for intellectual proof. He needed tangible, real evidence. Contrary to popular belief, most people in the first century didn't believe people just rose from the dead.
There is also an element of emotional edge to Thomas' doubts. Thomas and the apostles had staked their entire lives on Jesus. They believed He would throw out the hated Romans and that they would be Jesus' right hand men. Such a belief ended cruelly and abruptly with each nail that was hammered into Jesus. Thomas and the apostles had every reason to believe they might be hunted down and given the same treatment. Their hopes for life had pretty much come to an end.
When conversations in our culture center on religious issues and doubt, false dichotomies are always given as the only choices. We are told that we doubt God out of the need for intellectual proof or we doubt God out of strong emotion. The Pirate Atheists (or the New Atheists as they are commonly known) would argue that much of their doubt comes from the intellectual side. On the other side, many Christians argue that these atheists are all just abused former church kids. If we hit their hearts, it's commonly thought, their intellect will follow.
As my students talked at that pirate tavern, I realize each of them had an endless knot of intellectual and emotional reasons wrapped up in their stories of heartache, struggle and severe questioning. These struggles often resulted in radically different conclusions, depending on who told the story.
This lesson taught me a lot about how we work as people. Our beliefs can't be boiled down into either purely intellectual or emotional categories. Belief is never that neat or clean. Our lives are never that segmented. We are a curious nexus point of the seen and unseen worlds. Jesus Himself recognizes this as he tells Thomas at the end of the story, "Blessed are those who don't see, but believe." This isn't a rebuke to Thomas, like many Christians think; rather, it's a profound recognition of our struggle to believe. Jesus blesses those who will walk the road of doubt with a full heart, open mind and a willingness to bow to the truth at the end.
Through my students, I realized that I would have been right there with Thomas asking for the same intellectual and emotional truths. I have realized that my search for truth must go deeper then the superficial answers given to us by our culture in the church and the culture as a whole. I realized that my search for the truth must answer my intellectual or emotional questions, otherwise, my search will never be satisfied.