A Scripture reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2022 – Divine Mercy Sunday.
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. (John 20:29)
At first glance, this verse sounds like a trite caricature of religious belief. Doesn’t it seem to endorse a type of blind faith, one that is scorned by atheists and abhorred by scientists? Jesus’ response to Thomas has been used as a cudgel against those who strive to understand their faith as compatible with other forms of knowledge. The most famous atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, once tweeted that Thomas the Apostle should be the “patron saint of scientists.” This is likely why the story of “doubting” Thomas has for years been an occasion for sermons, reflections, and articles on the proper relationship between faith and science.[i]
But Dawkins and others are mistaken, of course. To hold to a belief in the risen Christ without any evidence or justification is not a precept of the Christian faith. The story of Thomas is not intended to be an indictment of the use of rational thought or empirical evidence. The first thing to note is that it is not “blind faith” that Jesus is praising in this story. Thomas is not unique in initially doubting the Resurrection of Jesus; in fact, that is the initial response of virtually every other figure we encounter in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus struggled to believe or understand even after seeing the risen Christ—Mary mistakes him for a gardener and the other two disciples fail to recognize Jesus even after a rather lengthy conversation. The rest of the disciples are bewildered, terrified, and incredulous when they are first presented with the claim that Christ has risen.
Furthermore, the other disciples in today’s Gospel had seen the risen Christ. Far from being blind, their faith was rooted in personal experience, in the empirical evidence of having seen the marks on the Lord’s hands and side. It is not because of his initial doubts that Thomas warranted an entirely separate Resurrection account in John’s Gospel, but because of his refusal to accept the testimony of others. Thomas hears first-hand accounts of the Resurrection from his closest friends and colleagues. But he refuses to trust these witnesses. In so doing, he not only falls short as a disciple of Christ but as a scientist.
Consider the scientific method for a moment. Scientific inquiry involves experimentation, falsification, gathering data, and drawing conclusions. But this process is not intended to be undertaken by isolated individuals. How would scientific progress be possible if every scientist felt compelled to prove that the earth was round, or that the sun was at the center of the solar system? How could scientists develop human knowledge if they did not accept germ theory, the existence of electrons, or gravity? Without trusting what others who went before have already discovered and reported, humanity would be limited to what could be confirmed by a single generation. Science tests hypotheses, yes, but it also requires trust. The breakdown of this trust has catastrophic results for science and for society at large.
While science is a different way of knowing about the universe than faith[ii], to be sure, both share this in common. Both faith and science are built upon the testimony and witness of trustworthy people. Thomas did have evidence; he had the testimony of his most trusted friends, women, and men with whom he had spent years and shared a deep bond.
I am not trying to be hard on poor Thomas. He is responsible for the most concise and powerful profession of faith in any of the Gospels, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas would witness the faith to countless people, and he was ultimately willing to die a martyr’s death. Nor am I trying to ignore doubts; they are natural and human and play their part in every person’s spiritual life. But trust is not some irrational concept, foreign to empirical knowledge; it is what binds us who seek knowledge together.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” does not make us “unscientific” in our faith. It makes us human. To be fully human is not only to occasionally have our doubts, but to place our trust in the testimony of those around us, those who have gone before us, and those who hold our beliefs in common. This trust has allowed science to advance, building upon the work of those who have gone before. And this trust is what will enable us to grow in the faith that has been passed down from the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, to our ancestors, to us.
[i] The review I offer is not a novel insight or a particularly interesting spin but rather an invitation to explore the wisdom of those who have contributed to the faith-science discussion like Br. Guy Consolmagno, Rev. John Polkinghorne, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and countless others.
[ii] Rabbi Sacks offers a beautiful distinction—“Science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
Image: Thomas the Doubter by Eduard von Gebhardt, Wikimedia Commons.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.