Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”John 20: 29
At the age of 77, and long before the advent of the computer, Thomas Jefferson set out to cut and paste his way to a new version of the life and teachings of Jesus, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. In one sense, I have always found myself greatly in sympathy with Jefferson’s efforts to pare down the gospels to the biographical and philosophical dimensions of the Jesus story. Jefferson’s goal was to distill the words of the gospel down to what he saw as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Much later Albert Schweitzer will undertake his “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” These and countless other efforts through the ages are attempts to “see” Jesus as the historical figure that he most certainly was.
Yet the purpose and style of the gospels is not a duplicitous attempt to shroud Jesus in mystery. Rather, they spring from the truth that, at least for the believer, Jesus is not merely a teacher and moralist but is revelation of the very nature of God and humanity. In Jesus’ encounter with Thomas in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus proclaim that they are truly blessed who believe without seeing, in the way that Thomas has demanded. Often in Christian preaching this is interpreted as a bit of self-congratulation to us who have not seen the historical Jesus but have believed based on the word and teaching of the church. But even in Thomas’ time there were those who believed before seeing the Risen Jesus. No less than St. Paul himself comes to believe without ever having seen Jesus in the flesh — Risen or otherwise.
No less than Thomas we are always struggling with faith. Not merely in an abstract or cognitive way but in the choices of everyday life, I find myself vacillating between walking by faith or by sight. It is easy to identify with the descriptions of John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly, Light.
Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene--one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years.
It is far preferable, at least to my own insecurities and pride, to “believe” through my own “seeing.” Almost every anxiety I experience is due to my inability to see the potential outcomes of my actions in the present. We want to know the endpoint so we can figure out exactly how to get there. So, faith has often come to mean adherence to teachings and doctrines. Even be they difficult, and sometimes precisely because they are difficult, we can attain a certain sense of intellectual and emotional coherence in our fidelity to them. This is why some can feel the need to maintain the fiction that the teachings of the church never change. For, if they do change we fear that our faith is an illusion. Jefferson’s goal was to offer an intellectually coherent and compelling vision of a universal morality in which all could put their faith. If people could only see that these constituted “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” these teachings could then begin to have their transformative effect on society and the world.
There is much to be said for the kind of integrity that seeks such coherence in life and belief. It sees in the teachings of Jesus, or whatever code we seek to follow with integrity, a light by which to live our lives and to walk our paths. This, however, is not yet “the true light that has come into the world.” As the prologue of John’s gospel tells us, this light is a person and those who believe in Jesus’ name have become “children of God.” John Henry Newman speaks of a light that guides us while we cannot see our path. Such a faith takes only one step at a time, unable to see “the distant scene,” the goal or end of one’s actions. It is a faith that believes without seeing.
The revelation that is Jesus is not, first of all, a revelation of morals and teachings. It is a revelation of who God is and who we are in relationship to God and to all that is as “children of God.” This is not a goal we are to reach by conformity to teachings; it is our present but hidden reality. To come to realize this life in God that we are, however, we must die to the life we think we are. This is why Jesus says that we are more blessed when we believe in our not seeing. Faith is trusting what God is doing with us, even as it seems to us that we are dying.
The speaker of Newman’s poem has discovered a different kind of faith, one that leads him or her to ask God to forget the past when “Pride ruled my will.” To live in faith is to cease living by self-rule. To create a self-identity by our conformity to the rules we adopt is a perversion of faith. To replace our faith in the Mystery of life in which we exist with a faith in a certain way, or tradition, or a set of social or ecclesial norms is to live by pride. Lately, and I ashamedly say I apply this in reference to others, I have taken to speak of a person’s failure “not to know what he or she does not know.” The truth of this, however, is best seen in myself. So often I act as if “I know” what is right for others or for a situation. This is based on faith in myself. The conditions Thomas sets for belief all point to his lack of faith. Similarly, my arrogant presumption of knowledge or rectitude is, at its heart, a lack of the faith that is born of not seeing.
The great revelation of the Incarnation of Jesus is that, as Jesus, we are all God’s children. Our true life, as St. Paul tells the Colossians, “is hidden with Christ in God.” There is a kindly, but to us very subtle, light that guides us in the way of truth and life. To follow that light, however, requires us to move from ordinary sight to faith. In such faith one step is enough for us, so we don’t demand to see “the distant scene.” When we take various vows as human persons, whether the vows of marriage or of religious life, or any other, we are making a promise in faith. The promise is not to any project of our own understanding or creation but to a person. It is to give form to our life, from moment to moment, in accord with our relationship to that person — and to every person in God. The truth is, for all the ways we deceive ourselves, we cannot see the future. All we have is the present moment. All we can do is take “one step” and, only in faith, comprehend that the “one step” is enough for us.
Newman clearly understood that most of the time “one step” is not enough for us. We speak and act almost always with our own end in view, with a view to the enhancement of our self-created identity. Note that for Thomas the “I” comes first: ““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.” (John 20: 25) Thomas wants to believe on his own terms. So too do I most of the time. This is belief in what can be seen and what can be proven to us. It is “faith” as support of our own life project. Those are blessed, says Jesus, who abandon their own project, even their own lives in faith. To live contemplatively is to live out of the heart of faith in the Mystery. It is to know that one step at a time is enough for us. We, all others, our world belong to God. To live is to take one step at a time in God’s light, which is always darkness to us. It is to live not “with faith in this or that” but rather by faith in the One we love and in whom we live but cannot see.
But there is a higher light still, not the light by which humanity “gives names” and forms concepts, with the aid of the active intelligence, but the dark light in which no names are given, in which God confronts humanity not through the medium of things, but in God’s own simplicity. The union of the simple light of God with the simple light of a person’s spirit, in love, is contemplation. The two simplicities are one. They form, as it were, an emptiness in which there is no addition but rather the taking away of names, of forms, of content, of subject matter, of identities. In this meeting there is not so much a fusion of identities as a disappearance of identities. The Bible speaks of this very simply: “In the breeze after noon God came to walk with Adam in paradise.” It is after noon, in the declining light of created day. In the free emptiness of the breeze that blows from where it pleases and goes where no one can estimate, God and humanity are together, not speaking in words, or syllables or forms. And that was the meaning of creation and of Paradise.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 291-2