Friday, July 3, 2015

Doubting Thomas and Christian experience

Today is the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle. He's better known as "Doubting Thomas."

It's always disturbing to me when Christians and non-Christians alike reduce being a Christian to moralism and then gauge the "Christianity" of themselves and/or others by how well their life/lives conform to a rigorous set of moral prescriptions and proscriptions. I wholly agree that our Lord sets the bar impossibly high, insisting that act and intention align to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Our intention cannot be so we can earn merit in order to go to heaven. Try as you might, you'll miss the mark. If you're anything like me, you won't even come close to hitting it. Rather what we do, or refrain from doing, must flow from a genuine love of God and of neighbor.

Loving God and our neighbor, while distinguishable, are inextricably bound together. So bound together are they that we read in Sacred Scripture: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). See what I mean? If I ask myself how often does what I do, or refrain from doing, rise to this standard I am bound to be disappointed by the honest answer. But then I am not really all that holy, which is why I need help. I don't write that in an attempt to be charmingly self-deprecating. It's true. I am not very holy. I am not very righteous, which makes the times I am self-righteous all the more ironic.

The point of the above digression is simple: in Jesus' apostles, or, as they are denoted in St John's Gospel, His 12 closest disciples, we do not find 12 guys who have it all figured out, who have their act together, who have their path to God's kingdom greased so they can easily slide along it. Jesus chose flawed, broken people because there weren't any other kind of people to choose. Even so, I often wonder, weren't there better people around to choose? Looking at it from a moralistic perspective, I am pretty sure there were better people. From a divine perspective, the answer is - Jesus chose the right guys. Jesus came to reveal God to us fully. I don't believe for one minute that Jesus chose Judas because His mental checklist, like that of a casting director, required Him to choose a betrayer. But that would be a digression beyond the scope of this reflection, but worth deep consideration and meditation (see Andy Freeman's take on Judas here and here).

Doubting Thomas, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

And so, Thomas...

When Christians, myself included, read the Gospels we're prone to romanticize it beyond belief. Reading the Gospels this side of Christ's resurrection makes it very difficult for us to understand how disappointed and even disillusioned Jesus' disciples were after His death. WTF? I am sure doesn't begin to express what they were feeling. I believe my own experience, which is the only one I have, confirms Thomas' experience, which is that disappointment and disillusionment constitute the starting point of grace.

George Carlin, who became and remained a disillusioned Catholic most of his life, once said, "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist." But isn't it our idealism that gets us into trouble in the first place? I mean, there is the world as I would like it to be and the world as I experience it. If I live life this way every day I have a huge chasm to bridge every day. I'll be honest, many days I choose to live this way. I'll be brutally honest, those days suck.

The answer to this truth about human existence is not to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but through the eyes of faith. As with our tendency to reduce being Christian to being "moral," we all too often think that to see ourselves, other people, and the world through the eyes of faith is the same as putting on rose-colored glasses. No! Faith requires us to see ourselves, others, and our circumstances for exactly what they are. At least for me, the power of the writings of Joris Karl Huysmans, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy lies in the fact that each in their own way show us just this. But for a Christian to leave it at that (i.e., seeing everything for what it is) is also to reduce reality. It is a failure to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute the world.

"The world," what an expression! What is "the world"? I take my cue from the very beginning of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "The world is all that is the case."

Faith requires an object. You can't have faith in faith. There is no point in having faith in fate, which is both arbitrary and indifferent towards you. The cornerstone of faith in Christ is His resurrection from the dead, which "is the case." This is why it is so vital to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord. It is not enough to have just one encounter with Him. We need to encounter Him over and over, daily, if you're up to it. Where does this encounter happen? It happens in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. He meets us in our need via our acknowledged neediness. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote, "Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done." Sometimes I find this simple statement frightening and discouraging (see "Beginning anew each day is a grace"). As He did with doubting Thomas, Jesus shows us time and again that the path to the Father's house runs straight through disappointment and disillusionment. How else can we break through to what is real? Eugene Peterson put it this way: "Our faith develops out of the most difficult aspects of our existence, not the easiest."

Our traditio is Rich Mullins' "Surely God is With Us," the demo tape version of the album we was working on prior to being unexpectedly killed in an auto accident way back in 1997. Has it been that long? Damn.

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