Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas”

This past Sunday was Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a new feast, established by St. John Paul II, to emphasize the need for our world to encounter Christ's mercy. Many parishes held daylong events of prayer and confession, centered on the Divine Mercy devotion established by St. Faustina Kowalska.

Though the feast day is new, the readings of the day are not. Completing the octave of Easter, the Church has long reflected upon Jesus' appearance in the upper room to his disciples on this Sunday. Though the doors of the upper room were locked, the risen Jesus enters the room, presenting to them his wounds and saying, "Peace be with you." It is a powerful passage that, even after almost 14 years of priesthood, brings a moment of pause to the congregation when Christ's words of peace are proclaimed.

The second half of the Gospel presents what many call the story of the "Doubting Thomas." The typical misread of this passage is that the disciples were elated at Jesus' resurrection while Thomas, noticeably absent from Jesus' first visit to the upper room, played the empiricist, demanding hard facts instead of faith to believe in the resurrection. Here is the passage I am speaking of to help us all explore this together.

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, "We have seen the Lord."
But he said to them,
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you."
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe."
Thomas answered and said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20:24-29)

At first, it may seem that what I have called a "misread" of this passage might have a great deal of merit. Some may argue that the words of Jesus to Thomas, "'Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed," seem to be a clear belittlement of Thomas' supposed empiricism. However, this is not the case. Instead, what this passage is referencing is a blessing to be given to future generations who did not have the privilege of being present at the resurrection, not a marginalizing of Thomas' desire for physical proof.

The reason I start this post with a brief reflection on Thomas is that it bothers me how some will use this passage to bash science. Too often I have come across oversimplified reflections of how Thomas' doubt reflects the scientism of our world, casting Thomas' doubt as a bad thing. I disagree with this assessment. Instead, I belief that Thomas simply reflects the natural human desire to seek evidence that all of us possess and that this desire is necessary to help us come to truth and prepare our hearts for an encounter with Divine Revelation. Let's explore what I mean.

When reading the resurrection narratives, they need to be read as a whole and not in isolation. Drawing upon St. Augustine, it is dangerous to isolate one passage from Scripture and develop an entire theology around it apart from the rest of the Bible. Therefore, when examining Thomas' approach to the risen Lord, we must also explore how the rest of Jesus' followers received the news of the resurrection.

When we look at how Jesus' followers received the news of the resurrection, one word can summarize their initial reaction: Doubt. Earlier in the same passage we have just explored, Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, runs back to the disciples, and explains that Jesus' body was taken. Peter and John then run to the tomb to see with their own eyes what it was that Mary had seen. Do these reactions sound like expressions of "blind faith" to you?

I could reference other passages from Scripture as well, but the main point is that all the disciples questioned the first news of the resurrection. Thomas, unfortunately, was simply absent when Jesus appeared in the upper room. If Peter had been gone, we would have the story of the "doubting Peter." Therefore, to cast Thomas as some type of modern empiricist among Jesus' followers is simply a gross exaggeration.

What I find to be more insightful with these passages is that they point to the natural, healthy human tendency to question and want proof. Too often Christianity is cast as the uncritical myth of blind, unintelligent credulity. Yet, when we actually read the Bible, what we find is a critical assessment of the most radical and central claim of the Christian faith: Jesus rose from the dead. If Christianity is a "blind faith," why didn't the story of Mary Magdalene have her rejoice at the empty tomb, blindly presuming that Jesus must have risen from the dead? Why didn't Peter and John just believe that Jesus had risen at the report of the empty tomb? Wouldn't the sprint to inspect the burial cloths seem a bit unnecessary? And if Christianity is a faith of unthinking conformity, why at the end of Gospel of Matthew, with the risen Christ standing right in their midst, do we find that some with him still doubted?

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17)

What we can glean from these passages (along with many others I could have cited) is that the resurrection was first approached from a desire to physically see the risen Lord, but then there was a spiritual ascent required to fully understand what Jesus' mission as Messiah meant for them and the world. The resurrection narratives reaffirm that faith and reason are, in the words of St. John Paul II, the two wings upon which the human soul ascends to God.

What I find consoling about this affirmation of faith and reason is that to help overcome the divide between faith and science, Catholics merely need to embrace our own tradition of accepting science on its own terms. Granted, science cannot speak to everything, given its limited scope and indifference to questions of meaning and purpose. Nevertheless, what the Church teaches is very clear: Catholicism embraces both Natural Reason and Divine Revelation.

What I often think is at the root of many fears from people of faith about science is the aggressive tendency of a small number of atheists who not only reject God, but think that science can become the foundation of all of society. As much as I can celebrate and affirm the "March for Science" that occurred in the United States last week that asked our civic leaders to take seriously the issue of climate change, I was concerned about small pockets of people I heard in interviews speaking of wanting all of our public policies as a county to be based completely on science due to its "objective" nature.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Recipient of the 2016 Templeton Prize

These comments remind me of a BBC documentary put together by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks entitled, "Science Versus Religion." This documentary concludes with a discussion between Rabbi Sacks and atheist Richard Dawkins. Though there were obvious parts of the interview that I clearly disagree with Dr. Dawkins, there was one reflection that I found profoundly hopeful. When discussing Darwinianism and Social Theory, Dr. Dawkins stated that a naive approach to Darwinianism that thinks the science of Darwin can be the foundation of a society's political thought can lead to a type of Nazism in which the strong in society seek to eliminate the weak, disregarding the poor and vulnerable. Dr. Dawkins provides a powerful summary of his understanding of Darwinian thought and Social Theory that I can easily embrace: I (Richard Dawkins) am a passionate Darwinian when understanding how we got here, but I'm a passionate anti-Darwinian when deciding what type of society we want to live in. [Richard Dawkins, Science Versus Religion, BBC Documentary (minutes 23:00 - 23:25)]

This quote then gave way to one of the healthiest discussions I have heard in some time between a person of faith, Rabbi Sacks, and a hard atheist, Richard Dawkins, when both affirmed that the answer to a bad application of science and a bad application of faith isn't to disregard both faith and science, but to weed out the abuse so that faith and science can work together to explore questions of human rights and dignity in a way that does not see each other as enemy. To apply this to my reflection on our "Doubting Thomas," Thomas' desire for proof is not his weakness, but a natural part of the human exploration of truth. And when the risen Christ stands before him, allowing him to see the evidence he seeks, Divine Revelation allows him to ascend to a deeper understand of Jesus as Messiah affirmed in his words, "My Lord and My God."

For those who are interested, I have provided the BBC Documentary I referenced. Rabbi Sacks has dialogues with three atheist scientists, seeking to find common ground between faith and science. It is an illuminating documentary and I would highly recommend it to anyone regardless if you are a person of faith or not. Enjoy and have a great week!

Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas” — 2 Comments

    • Richard, Thank you for your response! Yes, sacred art is a powerful tool to assist us in our “imaging” of the risen of Lord. The primary means of encountering Christ, of course, would be through Sacred Scripture, Tradition, the means of grace provided in the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and a sincere life of faith rooted in prayer and service. One thing I deeply appreciate about your response is that it can lead us to a healthy understanding of the spiritual of Icons. That might be something for me to write on in the future!

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