It is unfortunate that the Johannine Thomas has come to be known by many Christians as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas, however, is no different than the rest of the disciples or for that matter, you or me. In the broader narrative where the encounter with Thomas occurs, Mary encounters Jesus alive and announces the good news to the disciples, but they did not believe her. When Jesus appears to them they are fearfully huddled in a locked room hiding from the religious establishment (John 20:19).
We are all doubters just like all the disciples. It is simply not true that all doubt leads to cynicism or relativism. Doubt is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in a book titled, In Praise of Doubt, write,
“One can doubt big and important, or small and unimportant, things. One can harbor doubts about oneself, the world at large, or God. What these cases have in common is that they question whether something or someone is reliable, trustworthy, and meaningful – that is, whether something or someone is ‘true.’ Doubt and truth, in other words, are about relationships” (p. 105).
Healthy doubt is often the prelude to deeper relationships and a richer faith.
If the truth were told I suspect that many people who claim to have no doubts actually have any number of doubts which they have denied and repressed. It’s much easier to deny our doubts than do the difficult work it takes to face them and struggle with them by digging deeper into both our faith tradition and into our own carefully guarded souls.
The most exalted Christological confession in the Gospel of John is found on the lips of Thomas after his experience of Jesus alive: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). What is important to understand though is that this declaration is not a confession of belief in a propositional or creedal doctrine about the person of Jesus. That comes later when the creeds, whose primary purpose was to unify the Roman Empire, solidified belief in the metaphysical nature of Jesus as being equal to God.
When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” he is not making a statement about the metaphysical nature of Jesus’ divinity. He is pledging his allegiance to everything that Jesus stood for and lived for on earth.
In the days when John’s Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor who was proclaimed as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God manifest.” The early Jesus followers were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus – to the values he lived by and the kingdom he proclaimed.
Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). It’s important to understand that “to believe” in John’s Gospel involves more than belief. It includes belief, but it means “to trust in” and “be faithful to” the way of Jesus.
And in John’s Gospel “seeing” is a way of talking about spiritual experience, about being in relationship with God and being enlightened to spiritual reality. When John’s Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen” he means, “Blessed are those who have not seen in the way that Thomas has seen.” Clearly, we do not all “see” the same things or in the same ways.
Blessed are those who don’t see the way I see or you see, and yet walk in the way of Jesus and express the grace and truth he incarnated. Far more important than believing the right things is living the right way.
Consider the mandate the Johannine Jesus gives to the disciples: “As the Father sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). Of all the qualities and characteristics of the life and teaching of Jesus that could have been mentioned, the Gospel writer highlights forgiveness (20:23). Forgiveness is what disciples of Jesus do. The giving and receiving of forgiveness may be the most important way we can extend the incarnation of Jesus into our families, churches, and larger communities.
If our doubts can lead us into a deeper connection to our faith tradition where orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy and into a deeper relationship with the Divine where love trumps doctrine then we may indeed find religion and spirituality life transforming. Good religion and spirituality make us good and compel us to pursue the good within ourselves and in our larger world, thus inspiring us to work for the common good of society and our planet.
What you or I believe about some Christian doctrine such as the deity of Jesus or the virgin birth of Jesus or the metaphysical nature of Jesus will not amount to much of anything. But how we live in the spirit of Jesus, how we embody the compassion of Jesus, how we dispense the forgiveness of Jesus, how we incarnate the grace of Jesus, that is what matters and that is what makes a difference.