Thursday, April 20, 2006

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth

(More reflections on John 20.19-31)
The Bishop of Oxford wrote an article for one of the Sunday papers [1] in which he criticised non-believers for not taking religion seriously. He didn't mind them being doubtful, he said, but he did mind if people simply dismiss faith out of hand without thinking through the arguments in its favour.
For instance, he noted that when people want to attack religion they always focus on the worst examples – the Crusaders sacking the city of Jerusalem and murdering its inhabitants, the Spanish Inquisition torturing heretics, Muslim terrorists blowing themselves to pieces, or people who insist that the world was made in seven days because they think that's what the Bible tells them they must believe.
The Bishop cited the example of the scientist in Korea who falsified his results in order to claim that he had made amazing advances in the field of cloning. Just because there are a few rogue scientists, we are not expected to stop believing that science is a good thing, so why should we stop believing in religion because some people get it wrong? Shouldn't both science and religion be judged by their best endeavours, not by their worst examples?
The bishop also noted that non-believers are always accusing religion of being irrational when, again, nothing could be further from the truth. Religion does involve faith, but at its best it also involves reason and experience, and looks for beauty, truth and goodness.
Of course, non-believers make these assumptions because they don't want religion to be compatible with modern life and they don't want it to make sense – otherwise they might have to change their minds. As a result, they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists and fanatics. They make it seem as though we must all choose between blind faith and the evidence of the world around us, like the person who accused me the other day of using 'scholarship' to study the Bible, as though scholarship were the opposite of faith.
The example of Thomas shows us that this can't be true. He isn't prepared to live by faith alone. He wants to bring reason and experience into the picture too, and they help him to believe.
People have often said that Thomas was wrong to demand proof, but Jesus doesn't actually say so. He merely points out that most of us will have to come to faith in him without getting such strong evidence to convince us. However, that doesn't make it wrong to test our faith against evidence, or reason, or experience. It just reminds us that evidence and reason can only take us so far. They cannot prove the existence of God, or that love conquers death. They can only suggest that these things might be true. Faith has to take us the rest of the way.
On the ministers' email group which I belong to someone suggested that, just as some of us are better at maths, or English, or carpentry, or needlework, some people have a gift of discernment that makes it easier for them to be spiritually aware. Perhaps that was a problem for Thomas – he was just not as spiritually aware as some of the other people who had seen Jesus. If so, he was to learn something that non-believers could do with taking more seriously as well: that there are more things in heaven and earth than are sometimes dreamt of in our philosophy.[2]
[1] Richard Harries, The Observer, Sunday April 16, 2006
[2] Shakespeare's Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5

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