Often we speak of ‘doubting’ Thomas. Yet the Thomas we encounter here is not so much doubting as demanding proof. There is an aggressiveness in his demand for sure proof that is disturbing, and is matched by the fervour of his response once proof is provided. ‘My Lord and my God’ he proclaims: the loftiest acclamation of Christ anywhere in the New Testament.
In terms of personality it would be more accurate to characterise Thomas as a fundamentalist than a doubter. For him things are very clear with no grey areas. Such clarity produces great zeal and a capacity for courageous and devoted service. It is also potentially very dangerous.
Today across our world we see an increase in fundamentalism. This is true alike of all the mainstream religions and also of liberal securalism. It is a human phenomenon of our times, arising at least in part in response to the uncertainties of the post modern era, with the rapid pace of change brought about by the technological revolution. Fearful of the attack on familiar elements of culture and the perceived rubbishing of important values many people are attracted by the simplicity and apparent clarity of a fundamentalist approach. We can recognise it in ourselves; and we can see it just as clearly in those who would outlaw all religion as having evil consequences as in those who see themselves engaged in ‘Holy War’...
Fundamentalism emerges when people feel under threat, whether that threat be economic, cultural, or personal, or all three together. It represents a pathological reaction to the familiar being removed. It is about a value or belief being protected at all costs – and, because it is ‘at all costs’, the capacity for self criticism is rejected and fanaticism with its attendant dangers is all too likely to result. Today all religions are faced with the challenges of new technologies, secularism, pluralism, and a scientific culture which is only very lately recovering an interest in the usefulness of myth and symbol as tools of communication. Some have responded by attempting to read their scriptures as though they were immutable laws written in stone, rejecting all notions of historical development or human transmission. This is true of all the great world faiths and represents a profoundly reactive and fear-filled response to a sense of being pushed aside by an alien secular world. The philosopher and linguistics expert Noam Chomsky described the USA in the 1990s as the most terrified nation in the world – and that was well before 9/11. As we see today across our world, fear fuels fundamentalism, and fundamentalism fuels violence. And as Christians we are called to challenge both.
The World Council of Churches is helpful in urging us to consider carefully and soberly the role of religion in the violence of the world. One of their papers for example says: ‘As religious people we need to shoulder responsibility for what is done in the name of religion, even if it is done far outside our fold, house or place of worship. We need to have a second look at what our religion is offering as a tool for fostering peace, justice and human dignity for all and not just our own tribe. It should be an obligation for people of different religions to offer an alternative to an understanding of religion that sometimes seems too ready to bless the guns and justify terror, violence and war”
Thomas’s declaration on its own is subject to misuse and to the excesses of fundamentalist interpretation. “My Lord and my God’ can leave too little space for ‘our Lord and our God’, leave alone ‘your Lord and your God.’ Which is why the risen Jesus expressed a preference for faith over certainty. As the Gospel records: ’blessed are those who have not seen – and yet believe.” For faith presupposes honest doubt and allows for a humble and receptive attitude towards others. Such was Jesus own attitude, when as a Rabbi he sought to reinterpret the Jewish tradition in which he was raised. He tried to open people’s eyes. He did not threaten or coerce. He wanted people to follow him freely and with both eyes open. And he came that we might have life, not just hereafter, but here on earth too, and have it to the full.
This is partly why, on May 2, World Labyrinth Day, our parish will host not just a labyrinth walk open to all, but a walk though our city, affirming our community’s multiculturalism and diversity and expressing our desire as a city to ‘walk as one’ regardless of our religious or other beliefs. It will be a really fun and positive occasion, with children’s activities , food and entertainment and I urge you to come and bring your friends. As Christians within that gathering I hope that we will stand for the life and love that Christ seeks for all. So let us seek that fullness of life for all people, no matter their creed, and let us take the courage not to retreat into our fears, but to reach out with the hand of peace to all from whom we feel estranged, for such is the costly way of Christ. In whose name. Amen
by Penny Jones, for Easter 2 2015