The Web of Love
Second Sunday of Easter. Fr Peter Hunter ponders on the nature of faith, and of doubt.
It is very difficult for us human beings to focus on the background, to see the assumptions of our thinking. We have learned so many ideas from our culture, and even if there are sometimes people that change those ideas, some are so embedded in our way of seeing the world that when those people come along, we rarely listen to them at the time in the way that they deserve.
Ironically, one of those ideas of our western culture is the Enlightenment idea that we should think for ourselves. It’s ironic, because most of us simply accept the idea, and don’t stop to think for ourselves about whether thinking for ourselves is always a good idea! Or, to be a bit more precise, we don’t take time to appreciate how much we have in fact learned from other people, and how that is not only an inevitable thing, but actually a good thing.
The ideal of thinking for yourself is especially prevalent in scientific circles. Test the evidence, and follow wherever the evidence leads. Don’t lean on what everyone thinks they know. But in fact, our whole way of doing science depends on us learning from each other. Newton famously said that if he’d seen further, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. What he said is absolutely true, even if he probably said it only to have a dig at his great rival, Robert Hooke, who was a very short man! I have often, even in groups of physicists, offered the largest bank note in my wallet to whomever could demonstrate, from their own experience alone, that the Earth orbits the Sun. I have never given my money away, not because that’s impossible to do, but because most of us don’t have the relevant experiences. We learn from others, who have.
When we turn to the matter of human relationships, it’s much more obviously true that we cannot conduct our personal affairs by trying to know from our own evidence. I believe two individuals, Margaret and Jimmy Hunter, are my parents, and it would be absolutely mad for me to doubt that, even though I have no particularly strong evidence for that fact. I think I have a birth certificate with those names on it, but it’s not a very impressive piece of paper and might easily have been forged. Margaret and Jimmy have always been in my life, and told me they were my parents. If this turned out to be false, it would certainly be a terrible betrayal of trust, but that’s the point: I rightly take it on trust. It would be an adolescent, and not an adult, reaction to want proof. And part of the reason why that is so is that being a parent isn’t mainly about biology but more importantly about the web of love that makes trust reasonable.
So we may read this Gospel about Thomas, who wants to see with his own eyes, and touch with his own hands, and think him an awfully modern man. Isn’t it a perfectly reasonable thing to want to see the evidence, to handle it and be sure? Perhaps if a complete stranger told me that his friend had risen from the dead, that would be so, but Thomas was among friends. He had shared a life with these people and with Jesus. His refusal to believe isn’t about a sensible desire to see for himself. It’s about him breaking faith, rejecting what his friends say and refusing to trust them. It may seem harsh that he gets the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’, but that’s because he goes much further than simply wanting to see for himself. It may be hard to accept that others know better than I do, and we may feel that what the other apostles were asking Thomas to believe was so far beyond what trust could expect, but nevertheless, he rejected not an idea but the trust of his friends.
Jesus is of course characteristically loving in response to this rejection. I imagine his words to Thomas as being teasing, not stern. And in responding in that way to Thomas, he draws out from Thomas a reaction that goes far beyond what Thomas can see: ‘My Lord and my God.’ Such an affirmation requires the gift of faith.
In our own case, we have to make a decision to trust. It’s not a decision made in a vacuum. For me, it comes down to trusting the apostles, and therefore the Church, because there is no other way to get to know Jesus, and he has always seemed to me an utterly compelling figure. The love he has for me makes possible my trust in him, and in his Church. The mercy of God is that he shows me the love that makes trust, faith, a possibility. I can still refuse that trust, but if I were to, I would break faith with the One who has always been loving to me. We may struggle to trust, just as we struggle to love. If we do, Jesus will still be there, holding out his hands to us, giving us another chance to take hold of them.
Readings: Acts 2:42-47 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31
Image: detail from a mosaic of ‘Doubting Thomas’, Cathedral of Monreale, Italy © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Thank you Father Hunter. I find this topic quite difficult and challenging. How do we know who to trust these days? There are so many people who try to trick us into parting with out money for a so called ‘good’ cause only to discover they are cheating us out of our good intentions and hard earned money too. Social media try to con people to believe all kinds of nonesense. When it comes to religion and God people often feel totally distanced. Many people have little or no really deep understanding of these. It has taken me many years to find out how to deepen my understanding and appreciation, as lacking as it may be still. I wonder why Christianity has a poor number of followers in this part of the world. It’s sad. No wonder we lack priests. Other religions find it easy to talk about their faith. Christians, including myself often find it difficult, because it’s met with a response of complete horror as if that is a rediculous and meaningless subject, or that one must be a bit strange to even think of speaking of such a thing. Why do we no longer have pride in it and confidence to speak out. There have been many scandals of the church exposed and negativity. We all need to somehow do more to make this a thing of the past to help bring about trust. It’s quite a challenge.
Peter Hunter OP
Hi Catherine. Thanks so much for your message. Who to trust? The question we should be beginning with is, “Who loves us?” In people’s relationship with the Church, I think you put your finger on the problem: people feel totally distanced. I think that’s because we Christians often want to be talking at people, when, if I am right in what I say above, we should be winning their trust by building webs of love, ultimately founded on the love that God has for us. Once that trust is established, we will be credible. Before that, we will be taken to be talking about a ridiculous and meaningless subject, as you say. And I agree: the love that is required is a challenge. God bless. You’re in my prayers. Please pray also for me.
Finally there is a good sermon!
Thank you Peter and for your response Catherine.
I feel I have a fuller view of this Thomas incident and a way of understanding more about my own disbelief.
You make a good point when you say “We have learned so many ideas from our culture”.
Is bearing witness to my faith, the way Catherine describes it, and which is my experience too, one such learned idea?
My upbringing as a Catholic would be in a style of getting people to believe what I believe by argument for the gospel, or the existence of god or getting people to come to my church to find Jesus. And some more subtle ways of “persuasion” not always tolerant of differences or Religious freedom!
Like a style of colonialism, trying to make Catholics of them.
So I’m sitting here feeling a broken trust with my Church for the reasons you and Catherine described and wondering at Jesus’ words “As the Father sent me, I am sending you”. And His experience of the failure of it all.
I sympathize with Peter’s efforts to defend the trusting aspect of faith, so much devaluated by modern thinkers, and also with Catherine’s doubts about what or who to deposit our confidence in. I would say that both are right. Catherine’s comment is fair and cannot be dismissed, because it is true: we cannot simply believe in anything as long as we feel is trustable. But, none the less, we have to believe in something, it is simply impossible not to. Science uses trust as the base of its method, and this is true both in antique science and in modern science. But if that is so, it is very important to question our central assumptions because otherwise they will become tacit and hide invisibly deep in our mind. And before we know it, they will turn into superstition, or worse.
So, I think that what is maybe important to add to Peter’s thought is a warning about fideism, which is the parody of the faith toward most atheists and agnostics target their arguments. There is an interesting talk of bishop Barron in Youtube addressing precisely this issue: “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists are Right”.
In my opinion, one way to deal with this problem is to avoid opposing God against reality. The latter, of course, is nowadays identified with science. When we contrast God against reality, we are tacitly assuming that God is a thing among others and, within that notion of God, God should be expelled from the world because it occupies the place of our freedom. The true notion of God requires to approach analogically, metaphorically, by means of poetry. But this is also true for the basic questions of the scientific method. (I am a researcher; I know what I am talking about: foundational theories are like beautiful metaphors.) The surprising outcome is that any knowledge that we get is always open: in a way, to believe is to know through analogies. (See for example Timothy Radcliffe Oxford talk “I am Tolerant because I am Catholic”).
Having said so, I would like to raise some provocative questions to trigger interesting dialogues: what is the difference between believing in God (and the associated theological issues) and believing in superstitions? If trust is the base of our faith, then isn’t it totally subjective?