Doubting Thomas and The Merit of Touch

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A Sunday Talk from Portland

I always wondered about Doubting Thomas. What did this biblical figure doubt? In the course of reading I became fascinated with his obsession with touch, with touching as an access to truth. And I soon discovered that my thoughts on the matter led to The Whirlwind (from The Book of Job) and to a theme from Thoreau.

I assumed Thomas was a real skeptic, a real doubter. But as Bogart says in Casablanca, I’d “been misinformed.” Lingering with the texts, it turns out that Thomas isn’t that much of a doubter. He can be contentious and cranky. But he’s more a yes-saying affirmer of Jesus than I had thought.

Thomas lives before any Christian creed or doctrine has solidified. (The Apostles’ Creed gets mentioned around 400 AD.) So Thomas wasn’t doubting a doctrine. But he did have to deal with whether Jesus was dead like any other crucified mortal, or instead, had risen from the dead, as the rest of the disciples were soon claiming. Was there that most unlikely of things, a resurrection?

The other disciples say to Thomas that Jesus himself has shown them that he has risen. Jesus returns after dying and being buried. He speaks to all the disciples but Thomas. Now, sometime later, they converge on Thomas. They want him to accept on hearsay – on their word alone — that Jesus is resurrected. Thomas resists. They didn’t come to believe that Jesus was resurrected only on hearsay. Why should he believe only on hearsay? They want him to accept something utterly implausible and unprecedented – a resurrection — on their word alone.

Thomas turns on them angrily for having a double standard:

Unless I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

That’s pretty emphatic – and graphic! But strip away the anger at the presumptuous disciples. The nuts and bolts of his rejoinder may well be that Thomas wants to touch the wounds to be sure Jesus is not a ghost or mirage. He gets over the top in his response because he feels provoked.

In Berkeley years ago I’d take a short cut to campus. It went up a gentle slope called Holy Hill – “Holy,” because a cluster of seminaries is perched there. I’m sure they discussed whether Thomas was unruly, an embarrassment. Isn’t doubt unfaithful?  But is he an unregenerate doubter?

Jesus doesn’t rebuke the other 10 disciples for wanting to see Him as proof of His resurrection. Why should Jesus rebuke Thomas? He doesn’t rebuke him. (So why do we rebuke him for hesitation and doubt? He’ll forever be doubting Thomas – as if he were a fool.)

But remember that Jesus blesses Thomas for wanting to see. Jesus never calls Thomas a doubter.

I confess that before I started reading the passages in John, my impression of Thomas came from a painting by Caravaggio. He’s portrayed there as unkempt and scowling. Worse, he pokes at Jesus’ wounds. But this portrait, however dramatic, is needlessly disparaging. It makes him look weird and a bit daft.

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Does Thomas really want to “thrust my hand into his side.” Caravaggio thinks so. This is a most striking and melodramatic rendering of Thomas’ threatened “thrust” or “poke.”

But forget the poking for a moment. If Thomas is going to believe in something as utterly impossible as a resurrection, he wants the same direct experience the other disciples were given.  That’s reasonable enough.

When Jesus appears to Thomas, his doubt disappears. He should be honored as Believing Thomas! He doesn’t suffer from Excessive Doubt Syndrome.

**    **

To tell the truth, Jesus is partly responsible for doubts people have about Thomas. Jesus gives a double message. First, Jesus praises Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you believe.” Then he seems to make a different point: “blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have believed.” Apparently if you believe, you’re OK. And it’s just not that crucial whether you’ve seen Jesus or haven’t.

If you focus on the idea that some who have not seen Jesus are blessed, you might suspect a slight rebuke. Thomas should have believed without having touched or seen Jesus. But read this closely. Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed; he doesn’t say that everyone one should believe without seeing.

Jesus has conflicting aims. He has to recruit the disciples into accepting resurrection — get them all on board, including Thomas. He provides a miracle – his appearance — to convince them all, and blesses Thomas for getting on board.

But Jesus also anticipates later times when people will not see him directly.  Jesus can’t make miraculous appearances to everyone forever.

In the “modern world” no one expects to find Jesus in the living room. We can say, nevertheless, that God’s incarnated spirit descends to be seen and touched by us, to visit us through a manifold Creation – it’s beauty, glory, and terror. Thoreau has the spirit of the divine infiltrate in moments of wonder and beauty available to us daily in the midst of the ordinary: in the glory of autumn leaves, in the radiance of a child’s smile.

**    **

Some translations of the passages in John are kinder to Thomas. They leave out the poking and say merely that Thomas wants to touch the wound. Touching wouldn’t be uncouth but just a reasonable way to check that Jesus isn’t only a mirage, a ghost.

Say we keep the King James version where Thomas wants to “thrust his hand” in the wound. I’d take his words as an angry outburst at the other disciples. They have the gall to say he, Thomas, should believe – and believe without the personal visit they were given. This double standard infuriates him. “I won’t believe unless I can thrust my hand . . . etc”

Touch would uncover a ghost, if ghost it is.  Touch and other channels for sensory contact with the world (taste, sight, hearing, smell) have wide merit.

Holding a child, tasting good brie, hearing a mourning dove or Bach, . . .  The senses allow us to get in touch with what’s valuable and real for us and with what makes life worth living. There is infinite merit in touch.

Communion is a moment of touch and taste. Good music touches the ear. Touch awakens us. If Thomas DID thrust his hand into wounds, that would be uncouth and unkind. But when it comes down to it, we’re not told whether Thomas actually did touch the wounds. Caravaggio takes liberties here. We’re told only that Jesus invites Thomas to touch him.  We don’t know that Thomas was incredulous or poking.

Thomas’ desire for experience of Jesus’ wounds is desire for a sort of communion, like wanting the taste of bread and wine. That desire for touch should expand to include experience of wonderful things generally – children to hug, smiles to smile at, music to hear, knitted caps to stroke. Thomas wants to see and touch his Lord. It’s touching that he wants that.

**  **

We can turn to another figure for whom the merit of touch is absolutely crucial.

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Job who wants to see the Lord.  Like Thomas, he’s a wounded, angry man. Job wants to see the Lord and interrogate him.  He wants to hear God explain why he suffers. Job laments bitterly:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble; he cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: if a tree be cut down, there is hope that it will sprout again, that its tender branch will not die. There is hope that through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth new boughs. But man dieth, and wasteth away . . . his flesh shall have pain, and his soul shall mourn.

Job fails to bring the Lord to court. His complaints are quieted not by a verdict pronouncing anyone guilty or innocent. His complaints are quieted at last by the powerful touch of The Voice from the Whirlwind.  Its music and grandeur – touches him. His suffering drops away.

For both Thomas and Job, touch, and its near relatives – seeing and hearing — are the medium that links the divine and the human. The spirit can touch, and touch can be spiritual.

Job seems abandoned by the Lord and by his friends. He’s lost his home and crops and family. The disciples must have felt abandoned by Jesus at his death. Job needs faith in new blooms. He needs to be touched by sunrise and spring snows and breezes.

On good Friday, after the bombings in Brussels, a friend wrote “We feel awe for life, even in the knowledge of its contradictions and hardships.” After the attacks, mourners had gathered in the square and grieved in the squalor. After three days the thousands begin spontaneously to applaud – warmly, and defiantly. They refused intimidation, and celebrated life.

Mourners seek touch with each other and with the dead. Thomas seeks touch with Jesus, who had died. Job seeks touch with the World that had darkened.

Job is visited by a snow squall, a storm, a Whirlwind.  In what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in any language, we are touched by the flight of hawks and the terrors of leviathan, by falling rain and the infinity of starry nights.

Hope, love, and awe rise above devastation, whether in Paris, at the Twin Towers, in Kristallnacht, or in Brussels.

**   **

The storm speaks and fills Job with awe:

Canst thou command the dawn?  Like clay, the shape of things is changed by it; they stand forth as if clothed in ornament.

The awakening touch of the world wins out. Thomas comes close to the hurts of Jesus, and is affirmed. Job is swept up by the swirl of life, and new dawn appears.

My own belief, no doubt theologically suspect in some circles, is that dawn is resurrection. Amidst terrible suffering the sun also rises.

Thoreau believes this. I believe this. The author of Job believes this.

Like clay, the shape of things

 is changed by it;

they stand forth

as if clothed in ornament.

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5 comments on “Doubting Thomas and The Merit of Touch

  1. Don Klose says:

    A beautiful reflection. Thank you, Ed.

  2. efmooney says:

    Thanks for your thought, Don. I think of you by the lake, wind in the trees.

  3. dirk says:

    lovely Ed, there certainly is a kind of intimacy to touch that taking something on “faith” doesn’t provide, will have to go back and look if Kristeva even analyses the attractions of fingering wounds.

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