Friday, September 6, 2013

Was “Doubting Thomas” Supposed to be Credulous Instead?

It’s been a while since I last posted, in part due to the beginning of the school year, and in part due to my prioritizing of work on a paper on the analysis of mercy. (See previous entries here, here, here and here.)

This post deals with a religious topic, and it may bore the unreligious. And in general, my thoughts about religion are directed “in-house.” The theme of most of my writings on religious topics can be summarized thus: “Christians, we’re doing it wrong.” Having said that, the topic of this post is of some interest to non-Christians, since it involves a common theme in criticism of Christianity. It was first triggered by a post in an internet forum in which someone argued that the famous story of “Doubting Thomas” constitutes a biblical recommendation to be unduly credulous. This person argued that, from this story, we’re to take away a lesson that we should believe certain extraordinary claims even when there is insufficient evidence for believing them. 

I don’t think that’s the lesson of the story, though. In fact, I think that the story specifically fails to support that lesson, instead having a payoff that’s at odds with the idea that belief on insufficient evidence is a virtue. Briefly, I think the point of the story can be put this way: Whatever it means to affirm Jesus’s resurrection, the testimony of friends is sufficient to establish the prima facie believability of the claim. This in itself may seem unacceptable, of course, but I’ll try to explain how it’s not an example of undue credulity.

Of course, the author of the text had an idea of what it means to affirm Jesus’s resurrection, and this idea was a very literal one. But in my view, the lesson of the passage generalizes (as all lessons do) and applies just as well even given that the resurrection of Jesus does not consist in a physical, recordable, touchable revivification of Jesus’s dead body.

I don’t expect a view like this to convince a non-Christian that there’s something to Christianity. And I only mention that because my comments on topics like this are often misconstrued as having that intention. They’re not—again, my comments here are basically directed in-house. Having said that, they’re made in public, and I think interesting discussions can be had with people both inside and outside Christianity about the significance (and reliability) of views like the one I’m expressing here.

Recall the famous story. Several disciples told Thomas they’d spoken with Jesus after Jesus had died. Thomas said “I won’t believe it until I touch his wounds for myself.” Later, Jesus appears to Thomas, Thomas (presumably) touches the wounds, and then believes the resurrection occurred. Jesus then says “You believed because you saw. Congratulations to those who believe even though they haven’t seen!”

So then, do we have here a recommendation that we should believe an extraordinary claim (resurrection) on poor evidence?

I want to note that I don’t think it’s actually psychologically possible for someone who understands the concepts of belief and evidence to affirm something like “It can be virtuous to believe on insufficient evidence.” The reason I say this is, such a claim would amount to saying that evidence insufficient for belief is sometimes sufficient for belief—an outright contradiction! If someone seems to be saying this, my natural assumption has to be, either they don’t understand what belief is, what evidence is, or else, they’re simply not intending to say what they seem to be saying. In any of these cases, my task (if I want to engage at all) is to puzzle out just exactly what they do mean.

In the Doubting Thomas story, Jesus’s act of congratulation at the end may seem to be just such a case—he counts fortunate people who believe without seeing. Is the author of this story recommending belief in the face of evidence insufficient for belief? As I just said: Surely not, if he knows what belief and evidence are. Let’s take that assumption (that the author basically understands the concepts) and see where it leads us.

Notice that believing what you haven’t seen for yourself is not, in itself, a bad thing. Someone who never believed anything unless they’d physically touched the evidence for themselves would be making a mistake. A hard-nosed, strictly scientific worldview, in fact, requires that we accept most claims, not based on examination of evidence, but based on testimony from others who have—or even others who have heard such testimony themselves from still others. This point shouldn’t be overplayed—there are certainly differences between claims like “The temperature of the globe is rising on average” and “A man rose from the dead,” and I’ll discuss those. But the point here is just that, belief based not on personal examination of evidence but rather testimony is, in itself, unobjectionable. 

I bring this up because, if we assume the author basically grasps the ideas of belief and evidence, then we have to figure out what he means that doesn’t imply that belief on insufficient evidence is virtuous. And to do that, we should take note of just what evidence is available to Thomas prior to the wound-touching incident. And that evidence is: The testimony of several of his friends. So then, it seems, the author is saying that this testimony was sufficient for belief. Belief based on that testimony would have been virtuous. And I bring up the point about science just to make sure that my reader doesn’t immediately recoil from a claim like that, realizing that very similar claims hold true as a matter of course for at least some fields of inquiry.

Here it will be pointed out that a scientist accepts testimony at least in part because she could, “in theory,” go and examine the evidence for herself. There are a two replies to this. For one thing, surely the author of the passage also thought one “in theory” could examine the evidence for himself—should Jesus come to visit one, for example. Of course, that’s an implausible scenario, but it’s also implausible to think of a person actually going and examining the evidence for every scientific claim herself. Both scenarios are implausible, but possible “in theory.” Another reply is just to point out that what is possible “in theory” isn’t really relevant, since the whole point of the story concerns what one can or should do in the absence of such an “in theory” encounter. 

Another objection to the parallel I drew between the Doubting Thomas story and ordinary acceptance of testimony is the fact that the resurrection of a human being is one of those things we call an “extraordinary claim.” And as we all know, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A couple of replies here as well. For one thing, even if someone were to make an extraordinary claim in a strict scientific context, it would be inappropriate for every person hearing the claim to demand an encounter with the physical evidence. Especially after several people have come to accept the claim, then even as the claim remains apparently extraordinary to most people, they can nevertheless be virtuous in accepting the claim on the basis of testimony without a direct encounter with the evidence. But in any case, what constitutes an “extraordinary claim” is relative from person to person, from situation to situation. (As was just illustrated in fact.) For all I know, anyway, claims about resurrection were not treated as so “extraordinary” by the people at the time and place of the passage’s author. A somewhat amazing claim, to be sure, but I have the impression that it was not considered outrageously impossible for something like a resurrection to occur. Just very, very special. Of course, to you and I it’s an extraordinary claim, but now’s a good time to remind the reader what I’m trying to do here. I’m not trying to argue the resurrection really happened, nor am I trying to argue that Thomas would have been virtuous in accepting that claim prior to touching the wounds. Rather, I’m just trying to figure out what the author of the passage means when he says “congratulations to those who have believed without seeing.” And in figuring that out, it’s important to keep in mind just how extraordinary or ordinary that author would have thought various claims were.

As I argued, it seems like the thrust of the congratulatory exclamation is to endorse belief, even in amazing claims, based on testimony, when direct evidence is unavailable. How amazing? Resurrection amazing? The author thought so. Do I think so? 

Suppose a dozen of my friends told me one day they’d visited an alien from another planet in his spaceship, and learned a lot about their place in the world and how to live as human beings. And over the next year or so, I see that in fact, they are much happier, deeper, interesting, and benevolent than they had been before.

But I just can’t bring myself to think an actual alien in an actual spaceship did this. I think surely there’s some other explanation. That’s fine: The claim that they visited an alien, in the absence of any physical evidence of such a being, is extraordinary. I’m excused for not believing it, even if it’s true. But I can also imagine myself believing something about the situation, namely, that something happened to all of them that day, and that the something that happened had profound positive effects on them, not just in the sense of making them feel good, but in a properly humanistic sense. They’ve become better human beings as a result of it. And they all describe that something as “The day we visited the alien.” I could insist they didn’t visit an alien. And another thing I could do instead is, start using the phrase “the day you visited the alien” to refer simply to whatever happened to them. In that sense, I could affirm that I believe an alien visited them that day.
Of course, this seems dishonest! I’d mean something different by these words than they do. I’d be misleading them into thinking I believed an actual alien visited them, when in fact I don’t think that at all.
As described, I would certainly be being dishonest. But, let’s suppose I actually tell them, “Listen, I don’t believe an actual alien visited you. But I know something happened that day, and I can tell that it was a good thing, and I’m interested in learning about it. And like you, I’m going to refer to that event as “the day the alien visited you,” and use that kind of language when talking to you about it, since that is how you are comfortable talking about it. Are you okay with this? 

I can imagine some personality types being totally okay with this, and others not.

So listen, Christians. I think if we could go back in time and we trained a camera on Jesus’s tomb (assuming things actually went down that way in the first place), we’d see his body decay and stay right where it was. At no point do I think we would see his body revivified. We would not see a physical figure visit disciples, and we wouldn’t see an incident where Thomas touched wounds on that figure. (I will probably write a post someday that explains this in more detail—it’s not just that it’s an incredible claim, though that’s probably sufficient. It’s that there are very good reasons to doubt it internal to the scriptures themselves, albeit not on a straightforward literal reading.) But it definitely seems like something happened that seized some communities of the day and brought them to say some very profound, interesting and benevolent things, and that in opposition to the main religious and moral currents of the day. I get this idea from the testimony of some people from a few decades later, who themselves heard the testimony of the people it originally happened to. And I am happy to call that thing that happened, whatever it is, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ.” I can use the logic of the resurrection stories to talk about and think about the something that happened and its significance for those who experienced it at the time, and those of us who inherit its legacy and continue to be part of that something happening. I am wholly comfortable speaking to you guys in these terms. I’ll even affirm “If Christ wasn’t raised, then our faith is in vain,” because the resurrection of Jesus Christ, i.e., whatever happened, is the central premise of our faith, and what our lives in Christ revolve around. 

If I affirmed the resurrection and didn’t tell you this is what I mean by that affirmation, I’d be lying to you. In the past, it would not surprise me if there were those who understood the claim in something like this way, and refrained from telling others that was their understanding, for fear of shunning, exile or maybe even execution. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore (well, I don’t) and so that understandable excuse for deception isn’t available to me. If I’m going to use the phrase to mean “something happened etc” then I’d better be up front about it.

The thing is, I think this is the right way for any Christian to understand the resurrection. But I know that many Christians will profoundly disagree with me on that.

So then. I’m Thomas before he touched the wounds. But I’m a version of Thomas who believes just because of the profound effects of the event he saw in his friends, and the testimony they brought him. The belief I have, though, is not in a physical resurrection. It’s a belief that the testifying friends are being truthful and giving expression to something that really happened and that profoundly affected them—a thing which they can only articulate as “things seem utterly hopeless but it turns out he’s still alive.” I don’t need to see the wounds, their testimony is enough for me. (Lucky me, Jesus was said to have “congratulated” one such as me! I’ve put myself in a privileged position. Imagine that!) And it also turns out I’m also a Thomas who says “Look, I don’t need to see the wounds, but really, I don’t really care whether his actual physical body resurrected or not, though I know that’s what you think. I’ll affirm the resurrection just like you, but just understand, I’m talking about what I see in you, not anything I need to see of him. Are you guys okay with that?”

Are you?

No comments:

Post a Comment