Our belief is written on the tapestry of our lives.
If you went to church on April 24, 2022, you might have encountered this passage from John 20:19-31:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then 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.” 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, 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 the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt 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 come to believe.”
Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602)
For such an intimate story we got some whoppers of spiritual inquiry! "How do we experience God's presence?" "How does knowing differ from faith?" However, I'd like to take a step back to examine some more foundational questions that are vital to how we approach these weighty questions:
"How do I believe?"
"What inspired how I see and understand?"
"How do I relate to my beliefs?"
We did not come into the world from nothing, nor did our beliefs. What a person tells you about The Bible says as much about them as it does about The Bible. Conveniently, there is a form of biblical interpretation all about this called Hermeneutics, it states your understanding of scripture and God comes from all the elements of your life: how much money your family had, your ethnicity, where you grew up, were you able-bodied, etc…
If we read ourselves as closely as we read sacred texts, we will find treasures of wisdom we never thought possible.
I’m someone who thinks that The Bible was a form of “divine inspiration,” and I don’t believe anything “supernatural” happened. This perspective was partially informed by a childhood where I attended a Reform Jewish Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where my conception of God was left up to me to figure out. The Rabbis shared ideas, but no one insisted I had to believe in anything. (Keep in mind that I am speaking just for me, not for the congregation.) If you are not that familiar with Judaism and want to know why my Synagogue worked this way, let’s kick off some brief Comparative Theology 101.
Warning: the following is a short introduction to some really big complex concepts, this ain't the whole shebang.
One of the major differences between how Judaism and Christianity work as religions is that Judaism is generally more focused on the importance of practice (like keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath, etc.) than it is with nailing down a conception of God or believing in specific understandings of the Torah. In theological terms, that emphasis is called orthopraxy (right action). When Christianity cleaved from Judaism, it dropped the focus on biblical law and became more focused on belief and creeds (like the virgin birth, resurrection, etc). The theological term for this emphasis is called orthodoxy (right belief). Jewish denominations are mostly separated by their relationship to ritual (largely by how strictly you stick to it), while Christian denominations are mostly separated by their theology and their understanding of Jesus. Again, this is a gross simplification, both are present in all faiths. For Jews, belief in a singular God is a pretty big deal, while Christians disagree a lot on how baptisms should be performed.
All good so far?
As I mentioned, my synagogue was Reform, and the Reform Movement says that you don’t have to follow Jewish law to be Jewish. Reform Jews don’t have to keep kosher, observe Sabbath restrictions, etc. All of us were encouraged to come to our faith as we chose. In terms of practice, my family stuck with a weekly Shabbat dinner, pretty regular synagogue attendance, and holiday observances. So I was at the low-orthopraxy end of an orthopraxic faith.
I should also mention how Jewish Bible study works. One of the most sacred things a Jew can do is endlessly study, debate, and argue about scripture. Generally, it works by asking a Rabbi “Hey Rabbi, what does this passage mean?” and the Rabbi replies “Well, here are some of what Judaism’s greatest sages thought about it… Now, tell me what you think!” This is followed by a lot of disagreement among the participants, it should be mentioned that disagreeing with God is welcomed.
Judaism is incredibly diverse, there are Jews who keep kosher, go to synagogue weekly, and are atheists. There are also Jews who believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mt. Saini.
There are as many Judaisms as there as Jews, just as there are as many Christianities as there are Christians.
So, while I believe in God (and there was a long stretch where I was agnostic-ish), the idea that one faith is more correct than another never felt right. I currently think that all faiths point to the same thing, what I like to call The Divine, which I once summed up in a tweet when asked Who/What is[n't] God?
I like the definition of faith given in Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This speaks to my youth reading anatomy, astronomy, and science fiction. Science always leaves room for the unknowable, and how you could be wrong. It’s a practice of humility that is subject to a way of thinking greater than oneself — it’s downright spiritual. As much as my faith grounds me, I like accepting that I could be wrong. Never really knowing who was involved in writing the Torah or the Gospels warms my spirit. There is a giant mystery in the beating heart of these faiths that endlessly inspires. My doubt strengthens my faith.
What is beautiful about this gospel passage is that Jesus re-appears just to confirm Thomas’s concerns, which is a fantastic bit of humility. To be honest, if a bunch of your friends said that your recently-executed spiritual leader suddenly appeared in a locked room and commissioned them to heal the world’s sins, would you believe them? However, The Resurrected Jesus honors Thomas’ need to understand through touch and sight. Thomas’ way of knowing does not leave him behind, but Jesus also ribs Thomas a bit, challenging him to believe in more than just his senses. Thomas is both comforted and challenged by God — which sounds like your typical God encounter.
God finds each of us as we are, for who we are. Jesus is not telling Thomas he is lesser in his doubting, but he is asking him to find new ways to experience the sacred. While our pasts inform what and how we believe, we can bring ourselves to explore new ways to see and to know. Faith lets a seed of inspiration blossom into a forest of being. We can be stewards of that forest, tending to it and shaping it, as we honor what it needs.
In the end, we are what we worship. Choose wisely.
What were your major influences in how you came to God?
What changes have you made?
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