Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed?”
Today is the Feast of St. Thomas, often known as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas does not see the risen Jesus when he first appears to the disciples, and so he refuses to believe without the empirical evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” In the Johannine account, Jesus then reappears a week later, and this time Thomas is with the others. Jesus instructs Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving but believe.”
At least in the English translation that we have, Jesus tells Thomas to leave his “state” of unbelieving and to believe. Thomas then utters his deep proclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God!” What Thomas utters at that moment is not principally an act of what Kierkegaard calls “objective deliberation,” rather it is “a decision of truth in subjectivity.” To believe is at its core to act. It is to live one’s entire life on the basis of “the truth’s eternal decision” that arises out of one’s subjectivity. Faith is not primarily concerned with “what” but rather with “how.” As Kierkegaard writes: “To become objective, to become preoccupied with the ‘what’ of Christianity, instead of with the ‘how’ of being Christian, is nothing but a retrogression.”
It becomes more and more apparent over time, as I reflect on myself and on those with whom I live and work, that we human beings have a strong resistance to making decisions and to acting. There is something about a true moment of decision that has the capacity to paralyze us. As a result, we have developed multiple strategies to delay or avoid all together the act of decision making and far too often choose to let circumstances dictate our direction.
There are countless examples of this avoidance in both our personal and shared lives. Those of us who are aging are well aware of how we tend to avoid being proactive in terms of our changing physical, psychological, and spiritual needs. Instead of facing changing circumstances and making free decisions about them, we tend to deny our changing reality until we are forced by a crisis of one kind or another to react to our situation. This happens often in our culture concerning our ability to continue driving. I was fortunate, many years ago, to have an experience of the opposite. My mother had begun her long slow descent into the grip of Alzheimer’s Disease, and, among other things, I was beginning to worry about how to tell her that she could no longer drive. Much to my relief, however, one day she had been unable to find her own apartment after visiting her sister. Fortunately, she could find her way to where I lived, as it was a place she had come for so many years. When she arrived, she told me what had happened and then said, “I don’t think I can continue to drive any longer.” We have no control over the changes that life brings; yet, we always have the capacity to decide what to do in the face of those changes. It is faith to acknowledge reality and to act in response to the truth of things.
The difficulty we have in choosing “how” becomes even more pronounced in communal situations. For many years now our small religious congregation has been experiencing the inadequacies of our governance structure. Devised at a time of American hegemony in our group, it now has no adequate provision in its day to day operations for our changed reality as an international community. There remain more American brothers than elsewhere. Yet, while most American brothers are no longer engaged in active ministry at the same level as when they were younger and where our median age is in the late 70’s, there are over 60 brothers in the Congo, the vast majority of whom are in their 30’s and 40’s. There are also some 15 brothers in Kenya, all of whom are young, and who are at a stage of development that requires a significant amount of energy and attention. This “trend” has been developing now for decades, and yet as a group there has been no concerted effort to address this profound change. The reality of the congregation has markedly changed, but we, in our responses to those changes, have remained basically paralyzed by what appears to us to be the enormity of the task and the relinquishment of hegemony such change will require.
This is not due to lack of good will or desire to do the right thing. Rather, it is, and this is intended without judgment, a lack of faith. This is the lack of faith we all experience, and with which I am personally very familiar. We spend countless hours debating what is happening, and even why it is, but find it painfully difficult to choose how to act in the face of the truth. It is striking that Jesus calls on Thomas to do something, to put his finger in the holes of his hands and to put his hand in the hole in his side. It is as he does so that Thomas is led to proclaim his faith. What makes acting in faith so difficult for us?
Recently I’ve realized how often in life I “hedge my bets.” I want to leave escape hatches open in case what I’m doing is somehow mistaken. I don’t want to so commit to an action, to a way, that I might come to regret it, to discover that I was wrong. Thus, I accommodate to so many situations in life that, like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, I can feel as if “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” There is little passion in a life that does not act in faith. Theodore James Ryken is said to have lived by the maxim: “March on. God will provide.” At points in his life he did things that others saw as at least irresponsible and at worst insane. Perhaps there is something in faith that is essentially “mad” as the world measures it.
Kierkegaard says that faith, which is the passion of inwardness, and objective deliberation “are at complete odds with each other.” It is easier to engage in endless deliberation than to put ourselves, our passion of inwardness, on the line by acting out its demands. It is far easier to let life happen to us, to spend our lives in reacting to the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of every day” than by choosing how to live that flow. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live .” (Deut. 30:19) To declare in thought and word the “truth” of faith is meaningless unless we risk our life by acting out that passion of inwardness. To know and to have life, we must choose life, not merely react to it.
A hallmark of depression is an inability to act. When we fail to act and to choose, we lose contact with our own passion of inwardness. We cease to have faith in life, in our life, and so in God. Our hearts cease to burn with the desire and passion of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) Faith, in God and in Jesus, is faith in life; it is choosing life. it is not endless “objective deliberation.” It is living out in action, our own “passion of inwardness.” This is, of course, our greatest desire, but it is also terrifying to us. By acting with this passion we open ourselves to failure and disappointment. This is the lesson of the Cross. So, our resistance to life, to faith, is great. We can readily settle to live our lives in a low-grade depression, living by distraction and self-indulgence because to live in faith means the passion, in every sense of the term.
The passion of inwardness and objective deliberation are at complete odds with each other. There is no way of getting around it. To become objective, to become preoccupied with the “what” of Christianity, instead of with the “how” of being a Christian, is nothing but a retrogression.
Christianity is subjective; the inwardness of faith in the believer is the truth’s eternal decision. Objectively there is no truth “out there” for existing beings, but only approximations, whereas, subjectively truth lies in inwardness, because the decision of truth is in subjectivity. For how can decision be an approximation or only to a certain degree? What could it possibly mean to assert or to assume that decision is like approximation, is only to a certain degree? I will tell you what it means. It means to deny decision. The decision of faith, unlike speculation, is designed specifically to put an end to that perpetual prattle of “to a certain degree.”
For an “existing” individual, therefore, there is no objective truth “out there.” An objective knowledge about the truth or the truths of Christianity is precisely untruth. To know a creed by rote is, quite simply, paganism. This is because Christianity is inwardness. Christianity is paradox, and paradox requires but one thing: the passion of faith.
Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 203-230