Easter 2 2012
John 20:19-30
Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to trust and who meets us where we don’t or can’t. Amen.

Over the last few hundred years interest in the historic veracity of the bible has increased. There have been various attempts to locate biblical sites, to prove the occurrence of miracles or to defend the historicity of Biblical stories. These efforts have met with various degrees of success. For example, there appears to be no clear archaeological evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt and to date no one has found the site of the biblical city of Jericho. At the same time there is some rich evidence of the life of people at the beginning of the first century and archaeologists are uncovering homes such as those that might have been lived in by the disciples.

A similar amount of energy has been applied to the interpretation of biblical texts. While some scholars have applied themselves to “proving” the bible to be true, others have been examining the style of writing, the use of rhetoric and the historical context of the writings of the bible to uncover the agendas of those who wrote them and to try to find the historical Jesus beneath. One form of “excavation” serves to “prove” the stories, while the second shows the way in which the stories reflect the interpretation of those stories by the authors.

The search or desire for “proof” with regard to the biblical story, is in part a reaction to the Enlightenment and to the scientific revolution which brought some aspects of the bible (miracles, the creation story) into question and in part it is a reaction to those who wish to question the validity of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The availability of scientific or analytic skills has also fuelled a desire among Christians to learn more about their own history and the way in which it was recorded.

It is only in relatively recent times that Christians have demanded historical accuracy of the biblical texts. In previous eras Christians were quite content to live with ambiguity and with a degree of uncertainty. Religious texts were seen as just that, not as proof texts to demonstrate that a particular event really did occur. A different kind of truth is involved – the truth about a relationship with the living God.

This ability to sit lightly with the texts meant that Christians did not have to be overly worried with a conflict between religion and science – to their mind there was none. Religion was religion and science was science. The truths of each could be held in tension without causing great distress. Christians had no problem believing that the world was round, while at the same time holding on to a religious idea of God in heaven. Scientific knowledge complemented rather than contradicted religious knowledge.

Unfortunately, there has been in some quarters an active campaign to separate religion and science and this not just from without. Within at least some churches, there has been an attempt to ‘protect’ believers first from scientific discoveries which were seen to threaten the ‘truth’ of the Bible. Similarly believers have been protected from the results of a scientific study of the Bible itself, a study which revealed contradictions and hidden agendas behind and within the text. As a result many believers feel disloyal if they question the Bible or if they embrace for example, the theory of evolution. They are also ill equipped to interpret the text for themselves and to respond to those like Richard Dawkins who criticize a faith that many educated Christians no longer hold.

Today’s gospel indicates that faith is that which takes something (in this instance, the resurrection) on trust. In the face of Thomas’ questioning, Jesus is reported as saying: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It would be wrong however to claim that as a consequence those who have faith are never to question or to test their faith. It would be equally wrong to insist on the basis of the gospel that Christians abandon their intellects and ignore the progress of knowledge and science.

The reverse is true. Today’s gospel suggests that searching for the truth will be rewarded by conviction (not lack thereof). Jesus might commend those who believe without seeing, but, rather than censure Thomas for not believing, Jesus makes it possible for Thomas to see and touch for himself.

When it comes to faith there is not a policy of “one size fits all”. Everyone is different – that is why the Christian faith can boast mystics and adventurers, priests and prophets, teachers and disciples, artists and scientists. There are those like Thomas who demand and search out solid information and others who are equally happy to accept that some aspects of faith cannot be tied down and who are prepared to take at least a certain amount on faith.

Faith and doubt are not polar opposites but are complementary conditions in the journey of faith. Too much of either can be detrimental, but together they work to deepen and enrich our trust and understanding. The very unknowability of God demands that we continue to be open to growth and change – that we have the confidence to question and to doubt. As we grow in faith so our understanding of God alters and matures and new questions and doubts arrive. Over time we leave behind concepts that we have outgrown or which are no longer helpful to describe what we have come to know.

On the other hand, certainty can be a deterrent to growth. Absolute certainty can be a deterrent to the development of a mature faith. A person who is sure that what they believe is absolutely true, has in effect declared that they know all that they need to know. In effect their very certitude implies that God is no longer necessary. They have closed the door to God’s presence in the world and to the possibility that God is more complex than they can ever know and that God might have more to reveal about himself. (The gospels characterise the Pharisees as those whose certainty and confidence in faith meant that they were blind to the presence of God among them – so blind, that instead of welcoming Jesus, they sought to destroy him.)

Thomas’ doubt, led to his recognition of Jesus as “Lord and God”. Our “questioning”, our seeking for deeper meaning and our quest for truth will be rewarded, not necessarily by certainty but by a richness and depth of faith and a sense of awe and expectancy as to what is yet to be revealed.


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