It’s almost impossible to speak of St. Thomas in the Western Christian tradition without attaching to him the somewhat ignominious epithet of “Doubting,” one which earns him both our sympathies but also costs him perhaps some of the respect that is given to other apostles. Perhaps some of us wonder how, after hearing of the resurrection and then seeing Christ in person, St. Thomas could still have doubts.
But the St. Thomas Christians of India—an apostolic church that traces its founding to the vigorous mission activity of the so-called doubting apostle—say he’s been misunderstood. Here is how he is seen in that tradition, according to a recent National Geographic article that quotes the director of a manuscript library in Kerala, India:
In India, Thomas is revered as a bold missionary. In the West, he represents the believer who wrestles with uncertainty. “The classic portrayal of Thomas,” [Columba] Stewart said, “is the doubting Thomas. That’s a little inaccurate, because it’s not so much that he doubted the resurrection but that he needed a personal encounter with Jesus to make the resurrection real. So you might think of him as the pragmatic Thomas or the forensic Thomas. The guy who’s so experiential that he said, ‘I need to put my finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side.’ And this experience gave him the fuel he needed to do amazing things.”
Thomas’s moment of incredulity has proved a two-edged sword in the history of Christian thought. On the one hand, some theologians are quick to point out that his doubt is only natural, echoing the uncertainty, if not the deep skepticism, felt by millions in regard to metaphysical matters. How can we know? That Thomas challenged the risen Christ, probed the wounds, and then believed, some say, lends deeper significance to his subsequent faith.
Another way of putting what I think Ms. Stewart is trying to say is that St. Thomas had a lively balance between faith and reason. Reason would suggest that if the man before him had truly risen—and was the same person that had truly been crucified—that he should be able to put his fingers in the wounds (or at least be able to see evidence of the wounds). It’s a re-interpretation that’s certainly worth pondering, especially in a Catholic Christian tradition which places so much emphasis on the interplay of faith and reason.