Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

Posted: April 12, 2023 in Uncategorized

Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

“In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted. While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers, he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter” (Webb 1995: 15).

There are many quotations over time that have confirmed the value of questioning and of the importance of doubt.

Richard Tarnas: “Our world view is not simply the way we look at the world … world views create worlds”.

Henry Thoreau; “The question is not what you look at, but what you see”.

William Blake; “As a man is, so he sees”.

And too, perhaps Iain McGilchrist, when he writes that; “Who we are, then, determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. Given that the hemispheres ‘see’ differently, how reliable is each hemisphere in its disclosing of the world?”

The story about Thomas is a very familiar story.  Too familiar, perhaps, and therein is one of its problems. We hear it every year at this time, the first Sunday after Easter, that is, if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary. And because we tend to hear it every year it is a difficult story to tell or preach on, because everyone, preacher and listener, reckons they know the ending, so jump ahead to ‘their’ endings and miss the story itself.

There are a couple of strange things about this Thomas story, both remembered and read,
about the many interpretations of this story. The first is that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, yet we are told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! It is as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and evidence of faithlessness!

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism right out of the water for many of us. In his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take faith seriously.

Others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Australian Val Webb in her book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt.  An Invitation to Adventure. And the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions’.

One of the things this understanding offers is to hear anew the storyteller we call John as he sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on
mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. We might ask how else can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement? This is an unexpected realisation.

Second, our storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

  • This says that it is in the place where we can practice belonging practice hospitality practice respect practice humility practice conversation and disagreement.  (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)
  • In a safe place such as this place, in the company of others, that we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

A good argument for the gathering together oof followers of The Way in order to wrestle with the hard questions of faith and to engage in what is sacred conversation or formative conversation, or creative critique.

Greg Jenks from FaithFutures Foundation, puts it this way: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

This is an approach that is not readily explored as we have heard that story before. And then  we might also hear the claim that it is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories being: that we experience the creative, transforming power of the divine routinely, quietly moving through life, our lives. A moving that is often subtle.  Unpredictable.  Evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

Again I suggest these are images that are more readily available in a weak theology than and almighty interventionist one.

Rex Hunt quotes a story told by Brazilian Rubem Alves, of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside village.

There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried.

In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses. His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body.

The women laughed “and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again”.  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have. And they thought about the dreams they had never had… Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.

Easter Friday and the execution of Jesus invites us to look again at the two parades on Palm Sunday and to see the dichotomy of the two parades as alternative approached to life. To know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Not as a doctrinal atonement doctrine, a death for the removal of our sin. Nor on an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories. Why? Well! As this story says; We all experience it “by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.  (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

Einstein said: “At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason … Imagination is more important than knowledge … It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

He also said a number of other things that reflect on the process of scientific or mathematical discovery: the mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap – call it intuition or what you will – and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap. This discontinuity, the necessity for a leap or sudden shift of thinking, is often mentioned by creative problem-solvers:

I would suggest that this is where the importance of doubt comes in. Without is we as products of the last 350 years of study could remain with our negative limited view of doubt as the Thomas story has been interpreted.

There is no mistaking the passion Einstein had, but what was he referring to? He told the violinist Shinichi Suzuki that ‘the theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.’ Indeed, he said to the poet George Viereck “I often think in music”, and his sister Maja reported that when working on a problem he would play the piano, and then get up saying ‘there, now I’ve got it’. He is said to have told the psychologist Max Wertheimer that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and musical architecture. He called mathematics ‘the poetry of logical ideas’, an ‘effort toward logical beauty’ in which ‘spiritual formulas are discovered necessary for the deeper penetration into the laws of nature.’

According to McGilchrist, Einstein is making several points here. That for him scientific and mathematical discovery involves intuition is clear; that the intuition uses shapes (‘musical’ or ‘architectural’) as metaphors for ideas; and is led on by a deep attraction towards beauty. The beauty was, certainly, bound up with logic – but not just with logic: it also involved feeling, and a sense of something spiritual.

The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after.’ Easter is rather ‘the beginning of an open-ended future. A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again. Keep asking the questions because doubt is required for the journey of the Way.

Alves, R. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004
Webb, V. In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press, 1995 (Expanded Edition 2012). McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 1158). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition


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