Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 17, 2009
RESURRECTION APPEARANCE TO THOMAS:
TOWARD A “HIGHER IGNORANCE”
Texts: I Corinthians 13:8-13; John 20:24-29
Today on this 6th Sunday of Eastertide I want us to look at the Resurrection appearance to Thomas. He could be our patron saint. He is known in the popular imagination as “Doubting Thomas,” but that hardly seems an adequate description.
The text calls him “Thomas the Twin.” The twin? We never meet the other twin. Who was he, she? Was he, she still around? What did the twin think of Jesus? Later the “Thomas community” said that Thomas’ twin was Jesus, spiritually speaking. They were soul-mates, womb-mates in the spirit.
Thomas was not with the other disciples when the Risen Christ appeared to them on Easter evening in Jerusalem. They were huddled in fear behind locked doors. Jesus suddenly appeared. “Peace be with you,” he said, then “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The disciples went excitedly to tell Thomas the news: “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas replied:
We may single Thomas out for special obstinancy, but consider this: He reacted no differently than the rest of the disciples when in the other Gospel accounts Mary Magdalene and the women ran to tell them that they had seen the Risen Christ. As Luke records the men’s response: “But their words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” They only believed when Jesus appeared to them.
So now with Thomas. So let’s not single him out for special abjuration.
Of course, Thomas might have been strung differently than the others. Using the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory, we might guess he was an ISTJ: Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging. (These make good doctors, scientists and professors.) Thomas was realist, an empiricist. He counted the votes. Truth had to do with what you could see, touch and measure. It was the seen things not the unseen things that captured him. Feelings? Intuition? Might as well bring out the horoscopes and Ouija boards. Metaphor? Smetaphor!
Is this getting closer to who he was? Maybe. Perhaps we should look at a couple of other episodes with Thomas in John’s Gospel.
In the first scene, in John 11, Jesus had just heard that his close friend Lazarus had fallen ill and died. He told the disciples that he was headed to Judea, where Lazarus lived. Thomas said to the disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Here was a man who astutely read the social and political conditions, and he was ready to go to his death by Jesus’ side. Does this sounds like a “Doubting Thomas”?
Then there was the scene in John 14 when Jesus was speaking his last words to his bewildered and grief-stricken disciples:
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms.... I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am you may be also.
Then Jesus added: “And you know where I am going.” It was Thomas, honest and bold, who spoke up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas was a this-worldly, no-nonsense, make-a-difference-now kind of person! Talk of God’s house and a world to come baffled him, drove him nuts. So he asked, “No, I don’t know where you are going. What are you talking about?” He may have said what the other disciples were thinking but would not ask.
A woman in our orientation class said that she was sold on our church the first Sunday she came last summer and attended Talk-Back. She was amazed at the questions the congregation asked the preacher of the day. “They were asking the questions I had been wanting to ask all my life.” Call us St. Thomas the Questioner Baptist Church. “No, Jesus, I don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Words that suggest that the way, the truth, the life is bound up in personal relationship, personal connection, and the most personal kind of knowing. Martin Buber called it “I-Thou” knowing.
Which brings us back to today’s scene. The disciples say, “We’ve seen the Lord.” And Thomas says: “I have to see for myself.” More, I have to touch for myself.
Jesus did not begrudge Thomas’ need. The next Sunday, Jesus showed up again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus said to Thomas: “Bring your finger here and see my hands.” Interesting phrase: Let your finger “see my hands.” Touch as a form of seeing, touch as revelation, as a form of knowing. “Bring your hand here and put it in my side,” Jesus said. Then the words which have given Thomas his famous name: “Do not doubt but believe me.” How we would distort it if we saved just three words, “Do not doubt” and made them a commandment.
More literally it says, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus is not scolding Thomas for his doubts; he is imploring him to move from a place of unbelieving to a place of believing. And believing is deeper than beliefs, deeper than creed can reach. It is a believing in, a more personal act than believing that. Marcus Borg says “believing” is closer to “be-loving.”
As our staff talked about the text Fran Morrison said, “It sounds like an invitation to stay in personal relation, to stay connected to, and that in the constancy of the connection we learn and grow, and grow in knowing.” I think she captured it. “We are a people on a journey of faith,” we say in our church covenant, toward a deeper and deeper knowing.
Thomas then cried out his deepest expression of believing: “My Lord and my God.” For Thomas, Jesus had now in the Resurrection become one with God, part of the Divine Life of God. To be in the presence of Jesus was to be in the presence of God. “My Lord and my God,” he said, “be-loving” him.
Did Thomas ever touch Jesus’ hands, his side? Elusively, amazingly, the text never says. Whatever happened, it was enough.
Then, it is as if Jesus turns up the house lights and looks at us the audience and concludes:
Have you believed because you have seen me?
Happy, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
So here we are, a community of Thomases and Thomasinas (I like the latina feminism form of Thomas), born long after the Resurrection appearances who have not seen the Lord, and yet believe, or long to.
We’ve inherited as part of a modern, Western postEnlightenment secular world a cooler, more analytical faith than Christians in other places and times. It’s part of our make-up. Theologian Karl Rahner describes our kind of faith as “winter spirituality.” We analyze ourselves as believing or unbelieving persons. We live a step removed. There is sometimes a wistfulness. We know what we do not know. We bring our questions all the way to the altar.
We’ve even written our wintry spirituality into our church covenant: “We will sustain a critical examination of scripture, belief and ritual.” We must ask our questions for faith to be a living thing. We must ask our questions because the meaning of scripture, belief and ritual is not always apparent. We ask our questions because scripture, belief and ritual can be used in ways contrary to Christ and the Spirit of God. Wintry spirituality has its own integrity and necessity. But do we ever give ourselves over to God; “be-love” scripture, belief and ritual? Do we ever move from “Unless I see and touch” to “My Lord and my God”? It is a question to ponder.
So let’s explore the importance of Thomas / Thomasina Christianity. And for this I go to a book by James Carse entitled: The Religious Case Against Belief.1 In the book he argues for a form of being Christian and being religious which is life-giving and against a form of believing that turns deadly for self and for society. The good form is religion as an ongoing quest from not-knowing to knowing. The bad form is the creation of “belief systems” which explain everything and presume to possess a final knowing.
In the book he describes three kinds of ignorance. The first he calls “ordinary ignorance.” This is simple not-knowing. We do not know some things yet, and we don’t know that we don’t know. Picture a child who does not yet know that earth is traveling around that big sun in the sky.
The second kind of ignorance is “willful ignorance.” Here we know what we don’t know, but we choose to turn away from it. As a British woman was heard to say, “I do not care to know that.” Or as the bumper sticker says: “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up!” Liberal minds can be as closed as conservative ones. It is willful ignorance that drives an ideologically driven nation into war, choosing to ignore the evidence. And it is willful ignorance that blindly goes along hoping for the best.
When Galileo was declared a heretic by the Church for his scientific breakthroughs and all his books burned, the Church was practicing willful ignorance. And not just the Church. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter he invited skeptical colleagues on the faculty of the University of Padua to look through his telescope. Some refused to do so! They already knew all they wanted to know. Others looked through the telescope, but reported seeing no moons! Their “certain” minds would not let their eyes see. Willful ignorance. Thomas would have grabbed the telescope and seen.
But there’s a third kind of ignorance, and for James Carse it is the kind of ignorance that saves true religion and is an essential part of all true religion. He calls it “higher ignorance.” It knows what it does not know, and it is ever on the path to deeper knowing. It never expects to know perfectly or fully but always seeks to know more. It is what Paul was getting at when he said, “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then we will know fully even as we are now fully known [by God].”
True religion acknowledges that it knows within a deeper unknowing. Faith journeys through what the anonymous British mystic called “The Cloud of Unknowing,”2 which is itself “lofty and marvelous.” Wonder and Unknowing walk together.
Religion turns deadly when it is governed by “willful ignorance.” It is the path of fanaticism. It develops “belief systems” which pretend to answer everything and explain everything. We’ve seen secular religions too: Communism, Maoism, Fascism. The Nazi Third Reich. Any economic or political system can become a “belief system” which becomes totalitarian on its vision and reach.
But a “higher ignorance” is what gives life to religion as we move toward deeper and deeper knowing. Mystics have called this the “apophatic” way, the via negativa, when we are willing to journey in the dark, through clouds of unknowing toward God. John Keats said poets and writers need this quality. He called it “Negative Capability.” And he defined “Negative Capability” as when a person:
...is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.3
It is this path which lets us travel with God toward God. “Now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face,” Paul said. “Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known [by God].” Do you catch the personal dimension: knowledge as personal, as intimate as “being known”?
There’s a great Southern gospel song that captures this spirit of this path:
Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it all by and by.
The song is a way of smiling and living more easily with what we do not know; no irritable grasping after the unknowable.
Ours is a path toward knowing, traveling with God and with one another until we see face to face and make our own confession in our own words -- like Thomas, who surprised by faith, cried, “My Lord and my God.”
1James Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief, (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), pp. 9-22.
2The Cloud of Unknowing.
3John Keats, Letter to George and Thomas Keats