Sunday, July 12, 2009

believing Thomas

I have a soft spot for the apostle Thomas. In case you need a reminder, this is his most famous appearance in the gospels:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though 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; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"

Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
John 20:24-29
I find this one of the more moving and amazing post-Resurrection stories. And I identify with him. I feel like someone who has been not reluctant to believe but innately skeptical, yet Jesus has overwhelmed all that and I have thrown myself at his feet, pronouncing him my Lord and my God. Moving from intellectual assent to a personal faith.

Now, this is why I sort of resent the fact that Thomas is henceforth referred to as "Doubting Thomas" by most Christians. "Don't be a doubting Thomas!"

Actually, I see Thomas as a model to emulate, much like any of the other apostles. Were any of them especially admirable around the time of Jesus' death? Did ANY exhibit great faith in Jesus' plan? Peter, especially - does anyone call him Denying Peter? No, because the resurrection came, and his life turned completely around. He became a man on fire who shared the gospel with thousands and thousands of people, stopped only by a torturous martyr's death. It is utterly inappropriate to call him Denying Peter, because he was forgiven, and he changed.

Judas, on the other hand, is still called the Betrayer, because he never recovered himself from that act.

Thomas, then - the Thomas who went off into the world, into India according to church tradition, and who died a martyr's death much like almost all the apostles - deserves a break. Thomas' 'flaw', like Peter's, was overcome by Christ, and Thomas became a warrior for the early Christian church. He should be remembered for his belief, not for the doubt which was a crucial part of his personal journey to belief.

Friday, July 03, 2009

learning a practical internet-based lesson

You know those blogs like this one, Debunking Christianity, or forums for religious debate on the internet? You know how it's really tempting to join in the mud-throwing or to defend yourself from the mud-throwing?

Do. Not. Bother. Just don't. That's my Lesson From The Week.

First of all, it's embarrassing, when you see people whose side you are on just behaving foolishly. Either making arguments that are stupid or that completely miss the point, or being MEAN. I hope I'm not being too biased when I say that in my experience, name-calling is a fundamental part of the anti-Christian approach. This can be as obvious as something like "idiot", or it can be more subtle - on "Debunking Christianity" this week, it was "nitpicker". No need to explain why exactly someone shouldn't pick nits in his argument, just the name itself is enough to pull forward a negative image. Anyway, we can take it. We are told to expect persecution; a few names thrown at us is not exactly being fed to lions. Just get over it and respond in a mature and respectful way, which is so much more persuasive an argument for Christianity than any logical rabbits we can pull out of our hats. Unfortunately, while Christians generally aren't the first people to do this, the temptation is just too strong once the mud starts flying, and we retaliate in kind all too often.

Secondly, people on these forums don't get that there is more to an argument than logic or cleverness. And it is impossible to convey that over the internet. I've seen some people respond to Christians on this forum: 'Go away and learn some elementary philosophy and theory of ethics, and then I'll listen to you.' Okay, so academic knowledge can help someone's argument skills. But do we really have to be so pretentious as to believe that unless you've got a DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY you can't hold religious or anti-religious beliefs? Surely there are better ways to spend our time.

Thirdly, the people whose opinions you are questioning do NOT want to have a reasonable debate. They haven't entered forums or blogs like this in order to hear both sides of the story, just as we probably haven't. And if you disagree with someone they approve of, they're not going to listen to you. They will either ignore you, or completely misinterpret your points (which happened to me), twisting your words to make it sound like you are arguing something completely different. Then when you clarify your position, they won't give an inch, instead diverting the argument down some road which is irrelevant to the topic at hand (while not necessarily a bad argument in itself).

Fourthly, this gets really frustrating, and polite, respectful argument becomes nearly impossible. Just the act of disagreeing is quickly interpreted as an aggressive act, not merely an observation. No matter how hard you try to remain dignified, your words can be interpreted differently. This is because you have chosen an internet forum for this debate. Subtext is impossible, irony flies over heads, and people who are used to fighting everything will read everything you write in that light. Unless you fill your comments with emoticons or explain in parentheses every time you say something that you don't mean it in a negative light, you just can't convey meaning like you can in spoken language.

Fifthly, in little comment wars on blogs - well, you can pretend the other person is just some text on a computer. They don't have a background, or a family, or wisdom, or experience. You can't see them or look them in the eyes when you tell them that you think they are wrong, and as hurtful as it can seem, they don't realise the effect on you when they insult you or call you names. In effect, unless you have had a lot to do with someone over the internet, you don't know them, and you don't care. Result: snarky, painful, rude, horrible debates.

So. I've learnt my lesson. Instead of listening to people argue about why God allows suffering, why don't we go out and actually do something about suffering? Instead of wasting our time trying to convince or de-convince people who have already made up their minds, who live thousands of miles away from us and don't want to talk to us, why not talk to the people who are actually around us?