“Doubting” Thomas

“Doubting” Thomas

Some of us are old enough to remember when Japan made only cheap trinkets and laughable cars, while Studebakers and Pontiacs and Chryslers ruled the roads. (My first car was a ’65 Ford Mustang.) Now you may well drive a Toyota or a Honda (just as I drive a Mazda) because Japanese-designed cars’ now have a reputation for quality and long life. If there’s one man most responsible for that change, most knowledgeable people would cite W. Edwards Deming. You may never have heard of him, but he’s not only a key player in the turnaround to quality of many industries, but a man after today’s saint’s heart. His most famous quip can be found on posters in industries from (nowadays) Ford to Google:

“In God we trust; all others bring data.”

In other words, don’t rely on custom, impressions, habit, or guesses, or other people’s say-so: Look for facts. That’s how Deming turned Japan’s auto industry around.

Thomas didn’t say exactly that, but “I’ll never believe unless I put my fingers into the nail-marks” comes close. This is an attitude our church needs more of today, in individual believers and in congregations. I’ll talk about congregations another day, except to note that this is exactly why we invite Gallup to survey our parish every few years to measure how we’re doing in fostering the spiritual health of our community. But today’s focus for me is how individual disciples grow through asking questions and looking for facts.

The famous priest-sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley one said something to the effect of, “Most Catholics believe too much; the mark of growth in faith is that mature disciples believe fewer things but believe them more firmly.” That’s my point today: In God we trust; all others – including God’s alleged representatives – bring data. Let me examine the nail-holes for myself, say today’s young (and not-so-young) people. Quite rightly; because that’s the way to truth.

I don’t deny that this gets us into very complicated territory; much of the evidence for our faith (and yes, there’s lots of evidence) takes years of study and practice to appreciate. Just as you’d never walk into an astrophysics lab and say, “I’m not convinced that quasars are found in galactic centers surrounding supermassive black holes – prove it; you have five minutes” – a beginner or a dilettante can’t expect the evidence of faith to be so obvious it will slap him in the face without any effort to learn and study that evidence. And it takes a “leap of faith” to trust that investing years or decades of effort, time, sacrifice, and money in becoming a mature disciple will have a payoff – otherwise no one would do it. But that “leap of faith” comes at the start, not at the end of the process. (In a famous interview, the psychologist Carl Jung was asked if he “believed in God”; his answer was, “I don’t believe; I know” – with an enigmatic smile.)

We suffer from the illusion that knowing things – especially things about the most difficult topics in existence – will be easy and effortless. That illusion is fed by religious charlatans, some quite possibly sincere, others likely not, who serve us up “quick and easy answers” to issues that sages spend decades wrestling with. Thomas’s attitude can be a useful corrective.

Some years ago I was listening to a lecture about the early church’s organization, and was sitting next to a priest-scholar of the New Testament I very much admired. The lecture was spellbinding and convincing. At the end I turned to my colleague next to me, and got his one-word reaction: “Nah.” Spellbinding, but not supported by the evidence as the speaker claimed – if you really knew the evidence. That was a useful Thomas-lesson for me.

Of course few of us can be scholars of anything, none of us of everything that matters in faith. That’s why we need to develop trustworthy guides, whose judgment we can rely on. But we need to ask about most things religious these key questions: Who says? On what evidence? Can I find out at least some of this for myself? More next week; until then, peace.