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Ardent Thomas

Having become greedy for Tolstoy after a few appetising short stories, but not feeling quite hungry enough to stomach all 560,000 words of War and Peace, I settled on Anna Karenina as a middle course. I'm about halfway through, and there's this scene which nicely sets the, er, scene for my latest attempt at some calendar-specific reflection:

Country land-owner Levin is preparing for his long longed-for marriage to Kitty. He has cheerfully parried all of his bachelor friends' jibes about the hindrances and botherments of wives, and, left alone, muses peacefully on his future happiness, until...
  'But do I know her ideas, her wishes, her feelings?’ some voice suddenly whispered to him. The smile died away from his face, and he grew thoughtful. And suddenly a strange feeling came upon him. There came over him a dread and doubt—doubt of everything.
  ‘What if she does not love me? What if she’s marrying me simply to be married? What if she doesn’t see herself what she’s doing?’ he asked himself. ‘She may come to her senses, and only when she is being married realise that she does not and cannot love me.’ [...]
  He jumped up quickly. ‘No, this can’t go on!’ he said to himself in despair. ‘I’ll go to her; I’ll ask her; I’ll say for the last time: we are free, and hadn’t we better stay so? Anything’s better than endless misery, disgrace, unfaithfulness!’ With despair in his heart and bitter anger against all men, against himself, against her, he went out of the hotel and drove to her house. [...]
  ‘Kitty! I’m in torture. I can’t suffer alone,’ he said with despair in his voice, standing before her and looking imploringly into her eyes. He saw already from her loving, truthful face, that nothing could come of what he had meant to say, but yet he wanted her to reassure him herself. ‘I’ve come to say that there’s still time. This can all be stopped and set right.’
  ‘What? I don’t understand. What is the matter?’
  ‘What I have said a thousand times over, and can’t help thinking … that I’m not worthy of you. You couldn’t consent to marry me. Think a little. You’ve made a mistake. Think it over thoroughly. You can’t love me.… If … better say so,’ he said, not looking at her. ‘I shall be wretched. Let people say what they like; anything’s better than misery … Far better now while there’s still time.…’
  ‘I don’t understand,’ she answered, panic-stricken; ‘you mean you want to give it up … don’t want it?’
  ‘Yes, if you don’t love me.’ [...]
  When the princess came into the room five minutes later, she found them completely reconciled. [...] they were sitting side by side on the chest, sorting the dresses and disputing over Kitty’s wanting to give Dunyasha the brown dress she had been wearing when Levin proposed to her, while he insisted that that dress must never be given away, but Dunyasha must have the blue one. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Part V Chapter II)
His sudden rush of doubt is brought on by the sheer desirability of the contemplated prospect of marriage to the woman he adores. His is a "too good to be true" kind of reasoning, mixed up with a "once bitten, twice shy"-type reflection on his earlier hopes having been dashed. Of course, he longs for Kitty's love for him to be the real deal but, in that very longing, fears he's just being taken in by one big wish-fulfilling delusion. Caught up in the strength of his emotion, he ignores all of the evidence that has gone before: the natural connection between them, her agreement to marry him, the fact of the arrangements having come together with such mutual enthusiasm. The only thing that can convince him that things are, after all, as 'good' as he presently daren't believe is her presence -- but that is enough; he finds doesn't even really need the reassuring words that follow.

Today is Saint Thomas Sunday (in some church traditions, at least). It is the eighth day after Easter Sunday, marking the occasion when Thomas -- famously absent at the first appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples -- finally gets to see him, and his wounds, for himself...
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” 
Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:19-29)
The epithet 'Doubting' has been widely attached to the person of Thomas -- generally with a negative implication. But his story provokes a range of reactions; many (e.g., Richard Dawkins) applaud his refusal to embrace blind faith, and hold him up as an exemplar for sound scientific enquiry. Others answer that it wasn't blind faith he was rejecting, but the testimony of reliable witnesses -- an essential ingredient for scientific progress. To quote a nice blog post I found:
If Thomas does stand for the view that the true basis of knowledge is unaided individual sense perception, then his is indeed an unscientific world and a world of blindness -- a world where, in a phrase of Galileo's, "one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth." Galileo admired those who believed in the sun-centred system before the advent of the telescope: "They have by sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sense experience plainly showed them to be the case." Blessed, you might say, are those who have not seen and yet believe. (Thomas Dixon, "Science and Religion -- Doubting Thomas: A Patron Saint For Scientists?", Huffington Post Religion Blog, 06/18/2013)
Thomas' doubt has become a vehicle for many such conversations about the interplay between science, faith, reason, religion. But I can't help but feel that, in framing it thus, we are in danger of forcing his experience into a model which is convenient for analogy and debate but doesn't really fit what is actually going on for him -- personally, humanly -- in that specific situation. Perhaps I am just projecting my own mental workings onto the brief description given in John, but it seems to me that the starting point for his doubt is not skepticism (healthy or otherwise) so much as ardent longing. His is not (I imagine) a reasoned examination and rejection of the evidence (provided, after all, by his close and trusted and known-to-be reliable companions). The established fact that people do not normally rise from the dead may not even have featured in his thinking. The way I picture it, it is not that he refuses to believe but that he daren't believe. Like Levin, in his longing for marital union with Kitty, he wants it too much to hope that it can be so. The world is a harsh and cruel place, and the things that we want (we easily feel) do not normally come to us; it is safer to suppose that they won't -- to protect ourselves from future disappointment.

Thomas may have felt this especially acutely, having been so utterly crushed once already, so very very recently. I imagine him having passionately invested his hopes and affection and reverence in Jesus over the course of three years already...only to see him unjustly and horrifically violently killed, and all of those beautiful Kingdom plans he had spoken of brought to nothing. And now, this talk of Jesus being alive again, among them...with the implication that the Kingdom was something even bigger and more glorious than they had ever anticipated... Sure, he wanted it to be true -- how could he not? But that made it even more painful for him to hear, even harder for him to accept. And, a bit like Levin rushing to be with Kitty, Thomas feels that only the reassurance of Jesus' physical presence could possibly turn the longed-for ideal from a dream into a reality. It is when he finally finds himself confronted with that reality that the nature of his doubt and the ardency of his longing are (I suggest) confirmed: he does not (as his earlier skeptical statement implied that he might) take the opportunity to make a full, dispassionate examination of Jesus' wounds, nor to quiz Jesus for the facts of the matter in order to confirm the account and clarify the mystery; his reaction is not one of rational enquiry but of excitement and delight as he realises that all that he'd forbidden himself to hope for was in fact true, and blurts out with awe and reverence and recognition "My Lord and my God!"

Apparently (so Wikipedia informs me -- aargh, I'm running out of time to check my sources properly!) it is this -- his powerful confession of faith in Christ as human and divine -- for which Thomas is primarily remembered among Eastern Christians, rather than the doubt for which we typically remember him in the Western church. To me, this seems rather fitting.

How about the rest of us? That vast majority who have not had a special visitation from Jesus in his earthly resurrection body? "Blessed," Jesus says in verse 29, "are those who have not seen and yet have believed". But John is quick to remind us that this is not an invitation to unreasoned faith: we may not have the compelling experience of a physical encounter with Jesus but there are other types of evidence, including witness testimony, which we may make of what we will...
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

[Thumbnail cc by ErgsArt on flickr via Fotopedia; from Caravaggio's 'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas']