“How can we be certain, after all these centuries, that we have encountered the ‘real Jesus’?”
“O.K., Dad,” I began as I brandished a newly purchased digital voice recorder, “I’m going to capture evidence of Santa Claus.” His smile at his fourth-grade son conveyed both amusement and fatherly pride at the scheme.
For years, my parents told tales of Santa Claus to my siblings and me. I was trusting, and always believed them, but in the days before the Christmas of 2003 I was ready to see for myself.
To see for myself. To my young mind, that was the gold standard of human knowledge: personal, independent verification was the only way I would know whether St. Nicolaus brought me presents. Adults who proposed Santa without audio or picture proof only impeded my quest for knowledge.
St. Nick wasn’t the only object on which I imposed such scrutiny. Whether children’s stories, driving safety, or asking a girl out, I favored personal experience over and against the testimony of others.
This perspective finds an obvious parallel in the Gospel of John.
St. Thomas, absent during the Risen Lord’s first appearance to the Apostles, doesn’t believe his brothers and wants to see for himself. Thomas’ honest expression of doubt is rewarded (his alone is the privilege to put his hand in Christ’s side), but also earns a rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn. 20:29).
The implication of Christ’s words is immense. In one sentence, he asserts an epistemology decidedly different from the see for myself mentality. Personal experience is important, but it is the witness of others upon which saving knowledge rests.
Pope Francis articulates this truth in Lumen Fidei, asking baldly: “How can we be certain, after all these centuries, that we have encountered the ‘real Jesus’?” That quest would be folly “were we merely isolated individuals.” Our hope lies instead in relationship. Knowledge, he notes, is essentially relational: “Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. [Even] self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory.” Opting out of a greater, collective memory — the see for myself mentality — paves a lonely, misdirected road.
I never captured evidence of Santa. Nor have I caught a voice recording of Christ. But I thank God that I don’t have to see for myself, because my memory is not my own. It is shared and expanded by my parents, friends, the martyrs, and the Fathers.
This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.