Resurrection and the Senses: In Defence of Thomas

Originally at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/03/25/4432029.htm

by Oliver O’Donovan

“Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although 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, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.'” (John 20:26-27)

“The upper room” we call it, supposing it the same as the “large upper room furnished” that was lent to Jesus for the Passover celebration. But St. John describes it simply by its locked doors.

We speak of the upper room as we speak of theresurrection, always with the definite article. As there is only the resurrection – the one and only, not an indefinite something you can mix in with any other experience at need – so there is only the upper room, where the resurrection of Jesus was made known. Not anywhere at any time, but at that place and that time.

The upper room is not our place nor our time. It is the time and place God chose for the manifestation of his Son’s resurrection.

Yet neither is the upper room precisely that place and time. That was a couple of kilometres or so off, and some twelve hours earlier. It was outside the city wall, in the place of the dead, that a hole was punched in the fabric of all reasonable expectation and regularity. Inside the city, hours later, the shock wave made landfall upon ordered human life and experience. The empty tomb was not like any other hole in the ground; it was more like a doorway into another world.

The upper room, on the other hand, was quite like any other room: a door, a lock, four walls, containing just so many people, not an indefinite number, who sought an identity together away from alarming currents of social turbulence outside. The walls excluded and included, as walls do; if they could not prevent Jesus himself from being present, they fulfilled their usual limiting function in other respects.

In the ages of religion, Christians loved to dwell in their imagination upon the empty tomb, an uncanny place, where you could peep over the very edge of the ordered world. You can hear the atmosphere in that fine piece of Easter music, John Taverner’s Dum transisset, which follows the three women in the darkness of the early dawn to the tomb with a soft tissue of high voices like a pre-echo of the angelic choir standing watch over the place where time and eternity intersected.

The upper room, on the other hand, speaks to the ages of demystification and rationality, used to geometric lines, measured equations and balanced weights of doubt and conviction. That enlightenment man, Sebastian Bach – who did not, to be honest, succeed very well at evoking the empty tomb – was very much in his element in the upper room, depicting, as he often did, the psychological drama of anxiety, astonishment and sudden calm.

“Peace be unto you!” said the risen Jesus to his disciples, a worldly greeting for a worldly place, but also the first-fruits of the miracle of the empty tomb. But peace cannot prevail without faith, or confidence, and faith is not gained without understanding borne out by experience.

The upper room is the scene where faith is given, and as such is as important to God’s victory as the empty tomb. It would not have been enough that the resurrection should simply have happened; that could have had no more meaning than the birth and death of galaxies. It was an event with meaning, a communicative event, and until the meaning is grasped, the communicative purpose was not accomplished. The resurrection changed the way God’s human creatures could grasp hold of their task of living.

The upper room is also the scene where understanding and experience is given. Enter Thomas the Twin. He has been much abused, in my opinion, by the thoughtless patronising of the pious who tell themselves they are wiser than he was.

Thomas was no dull rationalist or materialist. He understood that it was the high destiny of experience to know the presence of God, but precisely because the weights and measures of the senses shape our perceptions of reality, he claimed their full due. We can see him as an advocate of integrated intelligence, for which sense-experience and thought converge upon reality. Thought alone, undirected by the senses, cannot win us the knowledge of the presence of God.

The other disciples claimed the evidence of their senses, too, of course (“We have seen the Lord!”) but Thomas knew that deliveries of sense must be interrogated, tested and correlated, or else they can be imposed on by the over-stimulated excitement of the mind.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that the trouble Thomas had with the disciples’ report would never have been provoked by much of what is heard from churches at Eastertime. “There’s a rainbow after every storm!” we are told, and “when winter comes can spring be far behind?” – banal little messages of all-purpose comfort for an all-purpose angst, spun out of commonplace predictabilities, and christened “resurrection” without the definite article.

Had the disciples regaled him with these, Thomas would not have hesitated to agree. They make no demands on either empirical judgment or faith. They do not ask us to accept that the course of worldly events has undergone a transformation, that world-history has swung on its hinges and has opened up a wholly new set of perspectives.

But that, and no less, was what Thomas sought to know, and to know empirically, since what is not known empirically cannot be known at all. And within the four walls and locked door of the upper room, the risen Jesus offered himself empirically to an integrated intelligence. There is no need for Thomas to be unbelieving. Where faith is required of him, understanding is present.

I cannot find words adequate to admire the gift offered to Thomas there in the upper room, nor to emphasise how important it is to claim it. Faith cannot bypass the world’s realities. We are creatures of the world, constituted by our worldly senses and understanding. True faith can only be a faith in the world’s destiny, a faith that encounters the world’s horrors, its hatred, despair and cruelty, and sees beyond them to a risen life. God has entered this world, has owned it, has suffered it, and has reconciled it to himself.

And if it is always important that faith should repose on its evidences, it is all the more so for us in our day. Our lines are cast in a social world unique in human history for ruling out the transcendent, a world that conceives itself as unlocked in laboratories and described in statistics. This is the world that has taught us how to think, and if we think at all, we shall ask candidly of our Christian faith, “Can we square it with reality as we experience it?”

If we try to run away from the question, it will chase us. The only way of dealing with it is to confront it. But if we ask ourselves carefully and persistently what is given to experience – in history, tradition, culture, science, affection, responsibility, duty – we shall find that all that confirms it.

We do not have to be very clever to do that – the less so the better, probably, since clever people often lose the use of common sense. But however we pursue the question, we shall find that the risen Jesus does indeed offer us, as it were, his hands and his side to touch. The evidences of his resurrection are stamped upon the world we are familiar with, greeting us at every turn. They will say to us, “Do not disbelieve, but believe!”

But then we will not be able to avoid Jesus’s concluding remark: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It is not a rebuke, or only incidentally. After all, the other disciples, too, had seen and heard and touched. Does this blessing, then, apply to post-apostolic generations, who believed without the sight of Jesus’s risen form, on the basis of the apostles’ witness?

Certainly, it does. Yet, they, too, had their empirical confirmation; they had their witnesses, their sacraments and the wonder-provoking power of courageous martyrdom. A more profound distinction is being made here, one that applies to every believer. As we have called on the evidence of sight and hearing and touch to know the presence of God in our midst, so now we must go further than that evidence will take us.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”: here there is a mission, a task given. No task can be fully understood until it is accomplished, and especially not this task, since its scope is the whole world and its goal the world’s redemption. Mission needs just enough understanding to grasp the fact of being sent, by whom and for what. And then it must go where it cannot see.

Thomas the Twin became Thomas the Witness, and that required an integrated intelligence of what had happened, seeing and touching and hearing to establish faith. But Thomas the Witness became Thomas the Apostle and Martyr, and no one can be an apostle and martyr without venturing beyond what is understood through sight and touch and hearing. And so the blessing Jesus pronounces on those who believe without seeing, will apply later on to Thomas, too.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” What we are to do, what we are to suffer, is not shown to us in advance when we are sent out on our mission. If it were, it would not be a mission. There is none of us, however assured and convinced of the truth of the resurrection faith, who will not at some point have to live without knowing.

The blessing is for all of us, for we are all sent to engage with a world of which we have no foreknowledge. Neither the risks nor the possible achievements have been explained to us in advance.

Faith may look for a well-grounded confidence, but when it has won its confidence, it ventures upon it. That is why faith is active and potent, a force for the condemnation of sin and the liberation of bound souls. It is for that that the Holy Spirit is given.

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