Imagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)
People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence.
Seeing vs. Evidence
The main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview.
One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.
Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?
In some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.
Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Inference? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.
Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?
So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas.
Consider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more.
The Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)
Back to Thomas
So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.
(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.
(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.