Monday 21 December 2015

Doubting Thomas

A long while back I suggested, in an ironic outburst against Irish bureaucracy, that my middle name might be Thomas. Later I explained that I was given the middle name as a tribute to a collateral relative who died a hero at the head of his regiment in 1813. I've never really associated myself with "Bob", except in the context of writing The Blob, and in a different world might have happily finished up as Tom Scientist.  I'm definitely a scientist, however: I put that down under "Occupation" whenever there isn't room for "Evolutionary Biologist".

Today is the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, aka Thomas Didymus [the twin] or Doubting Thomas.  The word Thomas, in this context, is derived from the Syriac Toma and Hebrew Teom which mean 'twin' so Didymus is a redundancy, a gloss for folks who aren't fluent in 5 languages. The official patron saints of scientists are Albertus Magnus, Dominic and Isidore of Seville.  I've no idea how Dominic gets the accolade, except insofar as his monastic order the Dominicans became leaders in intellectual activity and the first rumblings of scientific method in the middle ages. Indeed Albertus Magnus (<1200 - 1280) was an early Dominican and he deserves the cognomen Magnus for his comprehensive researches in an ignorant world. We shouldn't slag him for using his intellectual talents for dead-end pursuits like alchemy and astrology. We only know now that these are dead-ends: partly because of Albert and others who tried to make sense of the natural world through observation and experiment. The Franciscan Roger Bacon, Albert's English contemporary was also a giant thinker and explorer of the natural world through experiment. Isidore of Seville was much earlier writer, thinker and encyclopedist, whose Etymologiae aspired to be quecunque fere sciri debentur, "practically everything that it is necessary to know".

For me Thomas has a much better claim to be honoured by scientists because of one of only two things we only know about him: his skepticism at being told about the resurrection of Christ:
But he [Thomas] said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:25-29.  Even though it's his birthday this week, I have to disagree with Jesus on this one: everyone should require "show us yer evidence" before accepting something as true.

The other thing we 'know' about St Thomas is that when the Apostles scattered across the known world to spread The Word, he went East and finished up preaching and converting in Kerala in Southern India.  There are nearly 1 million St Thomas Christians, or Nasranis, according to recent Indian Census data. They seem to embracing an almost Shaker attitude to marriage and procreation and have one of the lowest rates of natural increase in the region.  They should not be confused with Catholic Christians from places like Goa further up the coast. Those lads have a much more recent coming to the faith. The survival of the Nasranis and their attendant quirks of culture surely cannot be enhanced by schizmatic fragmentation into: The Malabar Independent Syrian Church who are barely speaking to the Malabar Orthodox Syrian Church; then there's the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church; St Thomas Evangelical Church; Jacobite Syrian Christian Church; Syro-Malankara Catholic Church which is absolutely not to be confused with the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church or its cousin the Assyrian Church of the East aka the Chaldean Syrian Church. Splitters!

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