For the duration of the pandemic, I have decided to focus on the positive. Dialectic debate is good and necessary, but for the duration of the fight against the virus this blog is dedicated to helping teachers and students. As a result, some discussions are on hold as we get good cheer and resources out to students. Here is a series done by one of my favorite educators in the United States on Thomas Aquinas. This is Part I.
Jill Elizabeth Bergen is a writer and educator with over twenty years of experience in classical education. She is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute and holds an MA in Education with an emphasis in Philosophy of Education. She and her husband, Bradley, reside in Southern California.
Growing up, my well-meaning pastor often gave sermons in which Biblical characters served as cautionary figures—examples showing that lest we took care, we would end up denying Jesus or the Gospel in some way as these men did. This always struck me as a bit odd, given what I knew about the martyrdom of most of those mentioned, but the main narrative consisted of their sins and failures. The figure that took the greatest criticism in all this was the apostle Thomas, known forever as “Doubting Thomas.”
This appellation stems from just one incident, but to be fair, he is only mentioned eight times in the Bible. Five are passing mentions when he is named as one of a group of disciples, and one of the remaining three is the famous exchange where he earns his title. Another, at the Last Supper, tells us that Thomas, prior to his instance of doubt, clearly wants to follow Jesus: he asks Jesus how his disciples will know the way back to him after he leaves. The remaining mention, though, is remarkable. It’s in John 11:16 after Lazarus has died. The disciples fear that if Jesus returns to Judea he will be killed, and thus hesitate to go to Lazarus. Thomas, though? He responds: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas, not apparently needing reassurance of his faith here, expresses a willingness to die for Jesus when the other disciples remain silent.
Other details of Thomas’ life come to us through the historical ecumenical record. Thomas died a martyr’s death, after evangelizing, among other places, Ethiopia and India. A more reasonable telling of his life would focus more on his discipleship, ministry in the early church, and martyrdom. Focusing on the one story always told about him ignores the majority of what we know about his life.
What my pastor did was not unusual. We judge many people, living and dead, by their “worst” action or trait. Imagine being remembered as “Pete the Liar” or “Betty the Coward” when the majority of your life you attempted to be honest and brave. This may well be a lesson in character evaluation: judging someone by their worst or most infamous deed and not the totality of their character gives you a caricature and not a person. Dig deeper than a person’s evident flaws, and we sometimes find someone more worthy of praise than we would have believed. I would have much rather heard sermons on how to follow Jesus like Thomas did for the majority of his life, than a sermon on one way in which you could fail in your faith. If you have ever gone on a hike at night, you know the best way to keep moving forward is to keep your flashlight on the trail: you need to see the right places to put your feet. Shining your light on the drop-off on the side makes it difficult to stay on the path. So it is with focusing on failures instead of faith: telling me what to avoid doesn’t help me know how to live well. The moral life does not consist in “not being bad” but rather actually being good. Let’s let Thomas be a light of faith and not failure.