When reviewing this morning’s readings I found myself prompt to reflect on the nature of belief and then in turn on truth. Fairly weighty themes! Where to begin? Well perhaps it’ll be helpful if I share with you a recollection I have of a period during my own faith journey when the nature of belief became a prominent issue for me.
We profess the Christian faith in the words of the creed and that word is derived from the Latin ‘Credo’ – I believe. Now I wouldn’t say I was fixated on the creed during this period of challenge in particular but it’s a good illustration. There were areas of life where I could confidently describe some personal beliefs and inclinations but plenty of others where I’d only venture to do so tentatively and plenty where I’d recognise that I lacked sufficient understanding to form much of a view of what I believed. I realised that the views I had formed where shaped by my experience and that if I’d been born at a different time and place those would be quite different.
I found when I heard people of faith profess their beliefs that I would feel that eluded me. I would also find myself quite sceptical of what those people were actually claiming and it appeared obvious to me that different people professing belief didn’t necessarily mean the same thing at all. I’d ask myself what people’s beliefs were based on and what it might take to for them to re-evaluate or even reject them.
In retrospect, as I look back to these questions that I grappled with, they all relate I think to questions of what belief is based on and how solid its foundations might be. Traditionally, whilst truth has been seen as something that exists, externally, objectively; belief is formed, internally and is subjective. We seem to have departed from those traditional understandings in different ways. We often here talk of truths (plural) that are multiple and various. There is both an assertion of ‘my truth’ and more respect to those of others. This also extends to others’ beliefs, at least in liberal secular society, which are much more likely to be defended as rights. Whilst the idea of objective truth is much less fashionable, conversely, scientific method is often taken to be the only lens through which we reasonably assess truth claims. That has certainly been the case for me and of course reflects my conditioning.
In our Gospel reading, Thomas’ understanding is very similar. He was a man ahead of his time. He needs to see and to touch the physical reality of the risen Christ or belief is out of the question. Many of us share his predicament. What’s reported– Jesus raising from the dead – is not consistent with our understanding of reality. It’s a nice story at best, or at worst a dangerous delusion. It doesn’t fit within what is scientifically possible. We understand that science can’t answer all our questions of course, at least not yet, and some sorts of questions fall outside its scope or are simply illegitimate but it constrains our minds nevertheless. Malcolm Guite has written that St Thomas gives voice to questions that we often feel ourselves and he gives thanks in the following poem:
“We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
Of course whilst we give thanks for St Thomas we also recognise Jesus’ teaching – ‘Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe’ he says. He points us to different ways of seeing. In our reading from Acts, Peter articulates an understanding of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection routed in the Jewish scriptures and their understandings of humanity and divinity. This is a very different foundation for belief based on where we come from, on our inherited understandings and experiences. Peter’s message was at once profoundly challenging and profoundly comforting to his audience. The scriptures recount the repeated failures of the people of Israel and God’s merciful response. The prophets foretold the coming of a messiah, a saviour but the people imagined a rather smaller, more worldly victory. A victory over Roman occupation rather than sin and death. Peter proclaims to his audience Jesus Christ the promised saviour whom they killed, whom we, killed. It’s very important here not to regard those who were responsible for Christ’s death as other. That’s the historical route of antisemitism and of other discrimination. Peter encourages all of us to recognise our culpability and yet that it is through Christ’s death that we are redeemed. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Where Acts focuses on the history, scriptures and traditions that define people, the first epistle of Peter focuses on living hope, it describes something of spiritual experience. This is another very different foundation for belief. The scriptures often adopt the metaphor of fire when describing the spirit. We may struggle to understand its promptings or direct its energies. Perhaps its flames are apparent to us only amongst our immediate family and friends, or in our attachments to where we live or the teams we support. But life in the spirit, if we have the courage to open ourselves, to tend its embers, is an invitation to a fullness of life. “Though now for a little while we may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials, we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are guarded through faith”.
Thanks be to God.