Several weeks ago I was reading through the Doubting Thomas passage from the Gospel of John when I stumbled upon an image from the 17th century. In 1601-1602, the famous Michelangelo Caravaggio painted the scene where Jesus is guiding Thomas’s hand into his side. Caravaggio, best known for his use of light — not dissimilar to his contemporary Rembrandt — shows the disbelieve on Thomas’s face as Jesus kindly and gently shows Thomas the wounds he inflicted during his crucifixion. The painting is just one of Caravaggio’s Bible scenes, but what struck me almost as much as the painting itself is its name: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. It helped me reframe Saint Thomas. Thomas wasn’t simply a doubter; he was incredulous. In other words, it wasn’t simply doubt from which Thomas suffered. Thomas had a bigger issue than doubt. He was incredulous.
Incredulity is the inability or unwillingness to believe. This is a much more intense characteristic than doubt. Doubt can be good and even healthy. Doubt shows suspicion and sometimes it’s good to be suspicious. When something is too good to be true, doubt may be a sign of wisdom. When the televangelist promises miracles based on our capacity to send money to his/her ministry, doubt is a prized quality. Healthy doubt helps us navigate through the treacherous waters filled with liars, scammers and cons. In fact, doubt may be another way of saying scholar. A scholar is one who has enough suspicion to read and research long enough to figure out what he/she thinks about a certain issue. Many times this helps one understand what and why she/he believes in something (or not). I think doubt is a quality that should be lauded more than it is in our Christian circles. Incredulity is something different all together.
Incredulity may define the current state of affairs in the United States — especially within the political atmosphere. In place of civil discourse where we can agree to disagree, we tend to simply be incredulous — unable or unwilling to believe. Even facts have become a place of incredulity. It doesn’t matter what science says because everyone knows that science is nothing more than the laboratory of liberals! That’s incredulity — unwillingness to believe. Lest I completely show my liberal bias, left-wingers can be just as incredulous. This probably comes with the polarization of everything, but none of us do any of us any favors by being incredulous. We get nowhere fast when we live this way. Obama said it, so it must be wrong — incredulous! Paul Ryan said it so it must be wrong — incredulous! Clinton said it so it must be wrong — incredulous! Trump said it so it must be wrong — incredulous, too! What will it take for us to get past this incredulous impasse?
Interestingly enough, incredulity may be part and parcel of postmodernism. Jean-Francois Lyotard famously said in 1979, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives.” While this certainly sounds postmodern — mainly because it’s hard to understand — it put into language what was happening in the late ’70s and has only blossomed into what I would call popular postmodernism today. Popular postmodernism, simplified to the extreme, is just incredulity. Metanarratives are those big stories that organize (or disorganize) our lives like atomic theory, quantum physics, religion, patriarchy, American exceptionalism, etc. Personally, I find postmodern theory and philosophy really helpful because it challenges establishment thinking and forces people to think and re-think and think again. The force of postmodern theory, however, has unfortunately created brutal defensiveness and/or reckless abandonment/nihilism, i.e. popular postmodernism.
I love how postmodernism challenges what passes as science/fact, but this challenge, used without the serious thought exemplified by people like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault (among others), simply fails. Popular postmodernism is incredulous for the sake of incredulity and doesn’t require any thought whatsoever. It is dystopic by nature and quickly begins to resemble that terrible 2006 movie Idiocracy staring Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph. Intellectual elitism is no better option either. In fact, it only perpetuates the populist postmodernism that I’m trying to describe. So, what do we do? What can we do?
Here’s my answers: 1. I don’t really know. I’m really at a loss. Even my mother and I — and I’m a momma’s boy — can’t have a decent conversation about politics. It’s as if we speak two different languages and we don’t care to learn the other’s tongue. We just shake our head at each other and can’t get past how dumb the other is because she/he doesn’t speak our language. I had a friend that use to joke, “I don’t like traveling overseas. There are too many foreigners over there!” Incredulity!
A couple of years ago I need the tweezers, so I opened my spouse’s bathroom drawer. I’ve always been scared of that drawer. It’s filled with all sorts of things that I don’t know how to use or can use or should never use or just don’t understand. In that drawer is a small make-up bag where I know she keeps her tweezers. I summoned all my courage, and I picked the bag up and unzipped it. It was worse than I imagined! Filled with powders, pencils, and such, I almost put it down — but I needed those tweezers. After finally finding them, weak and pale-faced, God spoke to me: “Go buy your own tweezers!” It was so simple! A giant weight had been taken off my shoulders. I was a new person. The next day I drove to the store, and low-and-behold, there were all sorts of tweezers for me to buy. I bought a pair and I’ve been a proud owner of my own tweezers since then.
This life experience isn’t a perfect analogy for solving the problem of popular postmodernism, but I think there is something important in it. My spouse’s tweezers were not a problem for her; they were a problem for me. Actually, I was the problem. In the face of our incredulity problem in America, I may need to reassess my own incredulity. Maybe I’m the problem. I’m certainly the only problem that I can fix — incredulous me.