The First Quaker
Thomas’s insistence on experiencing the resurrected Jesus isn’t indicative of doubt. Just the opposite. It is an indication of his belief in the importance of personal experience. It is never wrong to want to touch the wounds yourself.
This week, I was trying to remember the first Quaker I ever met, and thought it was Tim Hadley, who I met in Mrs. Mann’s first-grade class. We sat in alphabetical order, so he sat just behind me. He lived on a farm two miles south of Danville and smelled a little like cows, which I found pleasant. His mother was a nurse for Doctor Kirtley and played the piano at the Danville Friends Meeting on Sunday mornings and his father was the janitor at the junior high school and raised cattle. Tim was a sweet, kind boy, who died in the spring of his 20th year. So I was thinking of him, as I often do this time of year, thinking he was the first Quaker I had ever known, until I read this week’s gospel reading about Thomas.
I had learned about Thomas from the nuns at the Catholic church, who didn’t have a high opinion of Thomas. They called him Doubting Thomas, and implied that doubt was not a good thing, that doubt was the opposite of faith, and therefore a sin. So I made sure never to doubt. I was, as they say, “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” Error and certainty are common fare in religious circles, and we Quakers are not exempt from that, though it has been my experience we are a bit more comfortable with doubt than others I have met. In fact, Thomas might have been the first Quaker. You might have heard it was George Fox, but I have my doubts about that. It was Thomas, who refused to believe without direct personal experience.
When my friend Tim died, his uncle, who was a Baptist minister, gave the eulogy, and urged everyone present to give their lives to Jesus. Jesus, he said, could be known in the Bible, which was the word of God, and therefore authoritative, the last word in matters of faith. When I was a Catholic, I was taught God could be known through the inerrant teaching of the Church. At times in my life, I have believed both of those authorities.
But not Thomas, who wasn’t inclined to believe something just because someone said he must. He had to see Jesus for himself, had to touch the wounds himself. John, the gospel writer, took exception to Thomas’s stubbornness, so added a postscript to Jesus’s dialogue. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Of the four gospels, John’s was the last written, addressed to an audience who had never seen Jesus, written long after the last eyewitnesses to Jesus had died. John’s audience were those who had not seen, and yet believed. I understand that.
But I’m with Thomas here. We are under no spiritual or moral obligation to believe in a Divine Presence we haven’t personally experienced. The Quaker witness is rooted in our conviction that the Living Christ can be experienced directly, and that experience is authoritative, and more than sufficient. It is more than enough.
Thomas’s insistence on experiencing the resurrected Jesus isn’t indicative of doubt. Just the opposite. It is an indication of his belief in the importance of personal experience. It is never wrong to want to touch the wounds yourself. After all, when we read the Bible, we realize it is one story after another of persons experiencing God personally, of faith born in the crucible of personal experience.
Adam walked with God in the garden, and believed.
Noah walked with God, and believed.
Abraham talked with God in the land of Canaan, and believed.
Moses heard God in a burning bush, and believed.
Mary met the Spirit in the house of Elizabeth, and believed.
So how can we disparage Thomas for wanting to experience the Divine Presence firsthand?
Thomas was not doubting. Thomas was seeking. In appearing to him, Jesus affirmed and honored Thomas’s deepest longings.
Some things we just have to see for ourselves. So when the other disciples went to Thomas saying, “We must tell others what we have seen, and you must go with us.”
Thomas said, “Hold on. I didn’t see anything. I wasn’t here. And until I see the nail wounds in his hands and touch them with my own fingers, I’m not going to tell anyone anything.”
Now is that doubt? Or is that integrity? Is Thomas a cynic? Or is Thomas an honest man who will not tell others they must believe something until he knows it for himself to be true?
I admire Thomas. I admire people who, in the midst of great pressure to conform, to play the game, to go along, refuse to affirm as truth something he or she isn’t sure is true.
Thomas wasn’t a doubter. Thomas was honest. Jesus honored his integrity by returning to his disciples once again, this time when Thomas was present, and letting Thomas touch his wounds. This is a lesson on spiritual integrity. God never requires us to violate our conscience. Jesus appeared to Thomas not to reprimand his for his faithlessness, but to honor his integrity by letting him see for himself what others had seen.
For our highest obligation to God is not to parrot what others have said about God, but to speak truthfully and share honestly what we ourselves have seen and known.
Share God. But share the God you know, not the God others insist you share.