More on “Doubting” Thomas

More on “Doubting” Thomas

Skepticism isn’t usually considered a religious virtue, but as I wrote last week “doubting” Thomas has something to teach us.  (It’s interesting that as Saint John tells the story in his Gospel, it’s Thomas, not one of the other apostles or even St. Peter, who is the first to grasp fully Jesus’ true identity.   Until that point, no one had yet been prepared to say, “My Lord and my God!”  When he sees the evidence, Thomas does.)  Where might some healthy skepticism help us to come to mature discipleship and a fuller knowledge of Christ?

Let’s dispose first of superstitions.  They’re rife today, from “new age” trinkets to fortunetellers to people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead.  Our church has always tried to steer people away from these things, but (especially in times of anxiety) people can turn to them for comfort.  But these things do spiritual damage.  Usually it’s only because they waste time and money and turn people away from the true path; but that caution is also based on the realistic sense that occasionally such practices and trinkets can open windows into dark powers (in the human psyche or in the cosmos) that are best left unopened.  (When I was a university chaplain I would occasionally greet a small group of thoroughly-scared undergraduates when I opened my office on a Monday morning.  They had been “playing” with a Ouija-board over the weekend, and some things were uncovered {from the depths of their own psyches} that they had no idea existed, and it terrified them.  As the Buddhists say about opening the doors to the depths in those who are unready for it, Don’t sell intoxicating beverages….)

Then there are the folk-customs and legends in our own church.  I’ve been asked more than once if the obligation to attend Sunday Mass ends when you turn age 65.  (No, it doesn’t.)  But in the absence of good and accurate religious information, the vacuum formed by curiosity sometimes gets filled with what you dimly-remember hearing from Aunt Eustacia when you were a kid.  This can be miracle-stories, myths about the requirements to say certain prayers for certain things, burying statues, and a whole lot of folk-customs.  Most of these are harmless, but they distract attention from what’s true and important about our faith.  So they’re best treated with the skepticism we can learn from Saint Thomas, and held lightly or politely ignored.

Skepticism also has a role to play with regard to religious leaders, especially those who are attractive because of the force of their personality or their talents.  These range from traveling evangelists through pastors of mega-churches to “celebrity” leaders in our own Catholic dioceses and parishes.  While it’s certainly acceptable (even useful) to seek out a religious leader who is especially skillful as a counselor, confessor, or preacher as an aid in one’s growth in discipleship, it’s a mistake to let oneself be carried along by any emotion this figure generates.  (Wise religious leaders will warn people against paying too much attention to them, and point beyond themselves, knowing that they are only messengers and don’t, ultimately, matter: only the Message does. Wise leaders are also especially aware of their own sin and weakness, and know that anyone putting him/her on a pedestal is bound to be disappointed at some point when that sin or weakness comes to light. Finally, wise leaders are good at laughing at their foibles and others’; overseriousness is a warning sign.)

Above all, mature discipleship requires some skepticism about ourselves, especially about the purity of our motives.  Self-deception has been known for millennia to sages in every tradition as an obstacle to wisdom.  Consider, from Jesus himself: “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never even notice the great log in your own?” [Matthew, 7:3]  Accurate self-knowledge is vital for mature discipleship.  (“Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” – Mt 7:5.)  An admission that our motives are often obscure even to ourselves can both protect us from judging others unfairly and from any sense of spiritual superiority.

So there you have it; with thanks to “doubting” Thomas!  Until next week, peace.