Believing is not always seeing: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:19–31:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

We live in data-driven times, and for good reason. Our rationality, itself a gift from God, allows us to unlock the mysteries of His creation. For centuries, that path toward discovery and the scientific method was even viewed as another way to comprehend the Lord — through His creation. The mathematical precision of astronomy, the incredible detail and diversity of life, and the invention of technological solutions to the burdens of life could all be seen as yet another way in which we approach the Creator.

The greatest tool in this approach is personal observation in a systemic fashion. We conduct experiments over long periods of time to confirm these observations; in the scientific method, we devise procedures to attempt to invalidate assumptions to test them. Even children grasp this concept quickly, in their zeal in discovering the world around them.

I mention all of this to underscore the reasonable nature of Thomas’ declaration in today’s Gospel passage. If someone — especially at that time and place — had been told that the man they just saw crucified a couple of days earlier had dropped in for a visit a few hours before, the first reaction would have been … you’re nuts. And the second reaction would be to demand a personal observation of the phenomenon. You don’t have to live in the 21st century to see that as a legitimate request to verify an extraordinary scientific claim.

So Thomas does exactly that when told that Jesus has come back in the flesh. Let me validate this claim through observation, he tells his friends, who likely were taken aback. And the reason for that is that Thomas failed to grasp the essential limitation of the scientific method, even as a way to come into communion with the Lord.

This isn’t about science; it’s about faith. One does not need to believe science, real science is demonstrable and repeatable. Science teaches us much about the physical world we inhabit, and eventually it might even teach us everything about it. The advances of the last two centuries have accelerated our ability to comprehend it that any limitations seem less and less sure.

What it cannot teach us is the why of our physical existence. While we can marvel at the amazing complexities in its systems and the design that knits them together, it can’t answer the questions of the identity of the designer, or His intent. Those simply cannot be revealed by observation or experimentation. Those questions go beyond the what and the how. And while those paths lead us to massive improvements in our standard of living, they eventually leave us empty. We only know; we do not have belief, and without that we do not have hope.

This is one reason that Christ came back from the dead after becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins. It was to remind us that this world is not all there is, and that we are not solely material beings. Christ transcended death and returned, which does not negate science but demonstrates its limitation. Science can explain everything in this material existence, but not outside of it. It can deconstruct Creation but not the Creator. Science can help us master the universe — as we have seen spectacularly with the vaccines — but it doesn’t go any farther than that, because it can’t.

And that is a joyous revelation! We are meant to celebrate that truth — that death is not our end, and that the Lord wants us with Him for all eternity. The Octave of Easter reminds us of that salvation, and not just the need for faith but the joy of belief.

In this case, seeing is not believing. Blessed are those who do not see and still believe, because our vision is far too limited to touch belief in the first place.

 

The front-page image is a detail from “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Wouter Pietersz II Crabeth, c.1626-30. On display at the Rijksmusaeum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.