Thomas and Truth

Caravaggio_Saint_ThomasThis gospel story today about Thomas speaks to us about the nature of truth and how we know it. In his homily last Sunday, Fr Neil spoke about the many ways that people come to decide as adults that they want to be Catholic, whether they are coming into Christianity for the first time or being received into the Church from another Christian tradition. As Fr Neil noted, there are many attractive aspects of our faith — from examples of personal holiness, to art, and liturgy — but ultimately those people made that decision because they came to believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is the truth.

This raises the question: How do we know something is true?

In the gospel passion that we read on Good Friday, the Roman governor Pilate answered that question by asking another one. He asked, what is truth? Pilate seemed to be saying that you just cannot know the truth and so you shouldn’t even try.

In real life, however, that approach really just doesn’t work. We cannot do anything with purpose if we do not have a fixed point of reference. We need a North Pole to know if we are east or west. We need a sea level if we are to know whether we are up or down. We need a truth to know if we are right or wrong. And it is always the case that this point of reference must be outside of ourselves.

I can think of only one example in nature of an animal that thrives with no purpose. The jellyfish floats in the ocean and the currents bring it the nutrients it needs, and they take it from place to place. But a jellyfish is different from human person because a human person has intellect and will. As a human person, we use our minds to direct our choices. As human persons, we are not supposed to be just like a jellyfish — meandering through our lives directionless and without any purpose. God made us with a purpose. He made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world so we may live forever with him in the next world.

Our Lord in his infinite wisdom knew that we would be tempted to dodge the question of truth or find some internal source for truth. Pontius Pilate chose the first path, just ducking the question. And St. Thomas chose the second path: choosing only to believe when he personally touched the wounds on Jesus’s hands and his side. For this reason, he is known as the doubting Thomas. Thomas was not the last man of doubt, however.

One of the earliest thinkers of the modern age was a Frenchman whose name was René Descartes. He chose to doubt everything, and only to accept something as true when he could fully experience it or understand it. He is the source of the phrase, “I think therefore I am,” because he realized he could not doubt his own existence since he realized he was thinking. Like St. Thomas, Descartes accepted as true only those things that made sense to him personally.

Doubt is one of the greatest tools of the devil. In the garden of Eden, the devil just asked some questions of Eve about what God said and raised some doubts in her mind. Doubt is often paired with pride, and Adam and Eve let their pride lead them to presume that it is appropriate for humanity – the creature – to know all that God – the creator – knows. Mankind fell away from God’s presence as a result of their pride.

When Jesus came through the locked doors to encounter St. Thomas a week after the resurrection, he let Thomas touch his hands and the wound in his side. He met the doubting Thomas where he was: needing direct sensory confirmation of the testimony he had received from the other disciples. Just as he had with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus met Thomas where he found him and loved him enough not to leave him there.

Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus said to Thomas, “Touch my side, but blessed are they who do not see and yet believe.” Through Thomas, Jesus is calling all of us to believe in a truth that is greater than ourselves and is found outside ourselves.

St. Thomas — the doubting Thomas — should be a comfort to us in the modern age which is so quick to tear down the social structures that have been handed down through the ages, and he should be a warning to us about the danger of refusing to accept as true those things we cannot empirically prove. St. Thomas was in some ways the first modern man, for he refused to believe the testimony of the other disciples until he had some data of his own.

We have a lot of data in our modern age. We have a lot of scientific progress in our modern age. In pursuing scientific progress, we have in many ways discarded the idea of truth and goodness as absolutes that exist regardless of our personal experience. Catholics cannot discard those ideas because we know they are from our all-knowing, ever-merciful, and unchanging, God.

So here on the first Sunday after the resurrection, in the encounter with Thomas, our Lord is teaching us that he is still with us even though the world has become dominated by doubt. Thomas the doubter came to believe, but our Lord said blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

We who live in a data-driven world are invited by our Lord to live with the Easter joy of knowing that life has conquered death and that truth has conquered lies. The data of our world suggests that death remains unconquered, and that lies always enjoy the final victory. Our Lord invites us not to limit ourselves to the available data, but to hold on to the testimony of eyewitnesses such as St. John, whose gospel we read today, and to the testimony of the fathers of the church who received first-hand testimony from eyewitnesses like John.

We must hang on to this because so many of our contemporaries have abandoned it. Jesus is our North Pole, so we know if we have moved to the left or to the right from the way of eternal life. Jesus is our sea level, so we know if we are sinking or rising toward eternal life. Jesus is the truth, so we know if we are following the father of lies or the son of God. When we encounter the real Jesus, as we will in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we must reply as St. Thomas did: my Lord and my God.

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