“Doubting Thomas”: Science & Religion

I have a deep appreciation for our scripture, known as “Doubting Thomas”.

The disciple Thomas is forever identified by this moment of so-called ‘doubt’ that is often embraced as a simple narrative about a contentious relationship between said doubt and faith.

And yet, it is not. The narrative before us is more complex and layered. It echoes with a truth that our world, our lives, and thus our faith does not exist in black-and-white alone, but rather upon an infinite gray-scale.

This complexity, and my appreciation, is rooted in a respect for the disciple named Thomas.

One. Thomas is practical and willing to speak difficult truth.
After the death of Lazarus, Jesus decides to return towards Jerusalem, and thus his own passion, crucifixion, and death. Although the disciples attempt to discourage Jesus, he is determined. It was Thomas, perhaps mimicking Eeyore, who said “Fine. Let us go to Jerusalem and die with him”.

Two. Thomas is not too proud, or ego-sensitive, to admit a lack of understanding and to ask questions.
Prior to Jesus’ arrest, he foretells of his death, resurrection, and ascension to the disciples. Although the disciples are confused, it is Thomas alone who raises his hand to pose questions; thus confessing his own lack of knowledge and further seeking to understand.

Three. Thomas does not demand more than the other disciples.
Lets rewind a moment.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and encounters the Risen Christ, who sends her to the disciples proclaiming: “Alleluia! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!”.

The disciples do not believe her.

  • Perhaps, it is because it was improbable.
  • Perhaps, it is because Mary enjoyed creating, less-than-truthful stories.
  • Perhaps, it is because Mary was a woman.

The disciples, minus Thomas, continue to huddle together within the dark room behind locked doors.Then, the Risen Christ appears within the room. The disciples, again minus Thomas, fear that it is not the Risen Christ but the ghost of Christ. In order to demonstrate that the Risen Christ is not a ghost, and thus Mary’s proclamation of the Risen Christ was true, Jesus eats with his disciples.

When Thomas returns to their hiding place, the disciples proclaim to him:
“Alleluia! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!”

Thomas did not believe them.

  • Perhaps, it is because it was improbable.
  • Perhaps, it is because the disciples enjoyed creating, less-than-truthful stories.

But, Thomas who is practical, speaks the hard truth, not too proud to admit lacking knowledge, and asks questions seeking a deeper understanding will not believe until he experiences the presence of the Risen Christ… JUST LIKE THE OTHER DISCIPLES!

Although as one who is practical, willing to speak the hard truth when necessary, and not too proud to admit a lack of knowledge in order to seek further understanding….. I can resonate with Thomas every year.

However, it seems more so in our current place and time.

Throughout the centuries, the misconception has existed that the natural enemy of the Church, its mission, and ministry is science, its knowledge, and questions. But, the enemy of the Church is evil, plain and simple.

Although I am personally lacking in the active skills to assist with the COVID 19 pandemic, I have had individuals, who are active on the frontlines, thank me for being a person of faith while using my voice:

  • to share information from the scientific and medical communities;
  • to promote World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations; and
  • to encourage people to adhere to hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and social isolating orders and recommendations.

Similar to the disciple Thomas, we are people of faith, or trust, in Christ.

  • However, that trust does not require us to deny scientific and medical knowledge.
  • However, that trust does not require us to be impractical.
  • However, that trust does not require us to speak overly optimistic, perhaps dangerous, non-truths.
  • However, that trust does not require us to turn a blind eye to the information and data.
  • However, that trust does not require us to not pose questions seeking more knowledge and understanding.

During the ministry of Martin Luther, his community was exposed to and suffered from the Black Plague. Luther, per normal, received inquiries about Christian vocation within that chaotic, challenging episode of human experience.

Luther wrote a response entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”. It is a document that demonstrates a dedication to our Christian, baptismal, vocations to seek justice, to act with compassion and mercy, and to love and serve the most vulnerable while embracing the scientific and medial community of that time and place.

Luther essentially argued that:

  • We should ask, or pray, God will mercifully protect.
  • We should care for, love, and serve our neighbors.
    This echoes our Trinity mission statement.
  • We should avoid unnecessary risks as able without neglecting that care for, love, and service of our neighbors.
  • We should sanitize our homes, social distance, and social isolate, but if contracted we should seek and receive medical treatment.
  • Those who are responsible for the spiritual care (clergy), civil matters (public officials), medical care, and basic needs of another are not permitted to flee.

A direct quote is:
“It is not forbidden but rather commanded that by the sweat of our brow we should seek our daily food, clothing, and all we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever we can, as long as we do so without detracting from our love and duty toward our neighbor. How much more appropriate it is therefore to seek to preserve life and avoid death if this can be done without harm to our neighbor, inasmuch as life is more than food and clothing”.

Martin Luther was not a man of word alone, but also of action. He opened his home to those ill with the Black Plague and tended to them as able and at risk to self.

Thus, Martin Luther did not embrace the misconception that science was an enemy of the Church universal.

Similarly, the disciple named Thomas, did not embrace the misconception that doubt was the enemy of faith (or trust). In the words of Paul Tillich, a 20th century Lutheran Systematic Theologian:

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith”.

However, the author Anne Lamott expanded upon it writing:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely.Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

This so-called doubt, in my opinion, is not merely an element of faith but the significant driving force on our journey of faith. It is this so-called doubt that requires us to wrestle with questions that ultimately lead to a deeper understanding and further faith formation.

Thus, may we echo Thomas’ practical truth-telling and ‘doubting’ questions for our own growth.

Thus, may we reflect upon Martin Luther’s example in word and deed during the COVID 19 plague.

Thus, may we practice hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and social isolating per the pleading of scientists and medical professionals, who have the knowledge and active skills needed at this time.

Thus, may we dismantle the misconceptions of “science vs. religion” and “doubt vs. faith”.

Thus, may we be granted the wisdom to understand that the enemy of science and religion, doubt and faith is willful ignorance and unfounded mistrust.

May the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Sprit
be present, sustain, and guide us all,

but especially the scientists and medical professionals.

Scripture was John 20: 19-31.
Originally preached digitally 19 April 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).

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