Mike Aquilina

Making the Most of a Doubtful Moment

Tuesday December 05th 2006, 3:06 am

You regular visitors know that the Apostle Thomas is one of my obsessions. So I was pleased recently to see Harvard University bring out a new study, Doubting Thomas, by Glenn W. Most.

It’s an unusual and and fascinating book, an extended study of the figure of Thomas, unusual especially as he appears in chapter 20 of John’s gospel. A professor of Greek philology in Pisa and a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, Most subjects the scriptural texts to rhetorical, literary, and psychological analyses. He notes that John nowhere indicates that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds. Indeed, he argues that, according to John, Thomas did not take Jesus up on His invitation to “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side” (20:27).

Most recognizes from the start that he is swimming against the current of popular interpretation. Still, he goes on to analyze the various interpretations, taking readers through a variety of texts and visual artworks from down the millennia. He tours the apocrypha, the Gnostic gospels, patristic homilies, and the canvases of renaissance masters like Caravaggio. In each case, he considers what “touching” or “not touching” might mean, in religious and epistemological terms. Though Most never reveals whether he himself is a believer, he ends by proposing a singular role for Thomas in the modern world: he is a sort of patron saint for both the believer and the doubter. “Many of us,” he writes in his afterword, “cannot live without doubt any longer and cannot even imagine what a nonskeptical life would be like. Yet living with doubt is not easy … Our involvement with other people — above all in love … constantly requires that we adopt forms of trust that cannot be rationally justified and that a thoroughgoing skepticism would not only question but destroy.” It is Thomas who makes Christians face their own lingering doubts — and makes doubters confront their inevitable faith. Orthodox Christians will balk at the author’s “hypothesis” that John invented the doubting episode and attributed it to Thomas because of the etymology of Thomas’s name (“twin”). Nevertheless, we can certainly appreciate Most’s reverent and meditative treatment of a key text for our times.