Sunday, April 15, 2012

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
 24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
   But he 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.” 26 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!” 27 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.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Maybe doubt is a good thing.

I doubt this boat is really unsinkable.
I doubt there are enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew.
I doubt that 24 knots through iceberg infested waters is a good idea.
I doubt the we will ever trust technology in such an unquestioning way again.

In his landmark book “Listening to Prozac,” Peter Kramer takes on an entire brach of modern medicine that he labels “cosmetic pharmacology.” In a nutshell, he argues that while some were taking Prozac as an anti-depressant, others were using to achieve a sort of personality makeover, a way for the shy to become more outgoing and the timid to become more confident.

He then goes further, into the world of anthropology, to argue that within tribal culture there needs to be a balance within the tribe. You need both the timid and the bold. Otherwise, there will be no one to challenge the group when it is being too cautious or caution the group when it is being aggressive. Then Kramer points back to the corporate boardroom, the place where this misuse of Prozac become the most apparent. If everyone around the table is overly confident, either by nature or medication, bad decisions will surely follow.

Think of it as a modern version of the ancient near-eastern practice, at least among one tribe, to get really drunk on the eve of battle. By the end of the night it was usually ‘we don’t want to go to war with those guys, we love those guys.’ If they didn’t reach that insight, even after a really long night of drinking a fine Babylonian single malt, then maybe war was the best course after all.

Just now my new friends from Mount Dennis are starting to scratch their heads. “Does he always preach like this?” Time will tell.

Poor Thomas. Stuck forever with the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” Some clever person said that we never hear ‘Denying Peter’ so why Doubting Thomas? Add to that, he already had a perfectly acceptable nickname: “Didymus,” which means “the twin” in Greek. Maybe not as evocative as “Spike” or “Tiger,” but Didymus was a fine nickname, and certainly better than Doubting.

So Thomas is stuck with an iffy name, and seemingly forever. I say, why not make the most of it, and that brings us back to Prozac. Doubt, or at least the ability to question, or to be that discordant voice that expresses something outside what the crowd is saying, must be a good thing. If everyone is unquestioning, and expresses no doubts about an event or a course of action, then they are little more than sheep. Or worse, if everyone is harbouring the same doubt but no one is willing to say it, then they are guilty of the worse kind of ‘groupthink.’

Suddenly Thomas is looking like a hero in the story, willing to say what no one else thought to say, or saying the thing that no one else had the nerve to say. Thomas is suddenly the Ralph Nader of the group, questioning the status quo and accepting the risk that he might go down in history as someone truly outspoken, as outspoken as say...Ralph Nader.

Another landmark book, this one Nader’s 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” made a bold statement that said (in effect), “I doubt Detroit really cares automotive safety.” Chapter by chapter he cites examples of everything the automakers were doing to imperil drivers and pedestrians: chrome covers dash boards that reflected light into the eyes, confusing transmission patterns that allowed drivers to make terrible mistakes, and even vehicle profiles that seemed to direct pedestrians under the car. He systematically doubted all the counter-claims of all the car companies, and made history.

Speaking of doubt in corporate claims, there is, of course, the terrible case of the Titanic, sinking 100 years ago today. By the morning of the 15th, news had reached New York that the Titanic had struck an iceberg, though the result of the collision was still unknown. In what must be the most foolish press release in corporate history, the Vice President of the holding company that owned the White Star Line said this: “We can not state too strongly our belief that the ship is unsinkable and passengers perfectly safe.”

The Greeks have the best word for people who put too much stock in human achievement: hubris. Hubris is extreme arrogance or pride, the overconfident belief that you can do something like build an unsinkable ship or cover yourself in wax and feathers and fly toward the sun. Confidence allowed the Romans to defeat the Carthaginians, and hubris led them to salt the fields around Carthage, making their defeat permanent. Sailing through icebergs is risky, sailing through at 24 knots is hubris.

So if doubting makes Thomas a hero, the logical question might be ‘a hero of what?’ We all experience doubt from time to time, somethings appropriately and sometimes not so much. It is seldom worth celebrating though, so Thomas is different. Another comparison. In the same way that someone needed to betray Jesus to move the passion narrative forward, someone had to doubt the resurrection so the question could be out on the open.

You might even say that Mary Magdalene gives us the first hint of this question that will dog Christianity from the beginning:  “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” From the earliest days of the church there was a suggestion that his body was stolen, or worse, hidden by the disciples to create the impression that he was raised from the dead. Call it the first real conspiracy theory, since the stone was likely too heavy for one person to move, and therefore the work of a few.

But Mary speaks to the resurrected Jesus, and he them appears to the disciples, but that is just a handful. It falls to Thomas to speak for everyone else, missing from the first and second appearances, and willing to make the bold statement: “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.”

In many ways, Doubting Thomas is a placeholder, standing in for everyone who was not with Mary at the tomb or in that locked room with the disciples. Thomas stands in for us, saying the words we would say and expressing the same doubt that it is perfectly human to express. He says what we would say, he receives the proof that we need, and is even willing to take the slight rebuke that Jesus delivers (really a side comment to us): “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The other thing Thomas does is buy the church some time. For the first generation, the generation who knew Jesus, they were relieved to see that while Jesus died, he really didn’t die, and was able (for a time) to walk among them, give them some final advice, grill them a little fish, and encourage them for the times to come. This was critical as the church was set to be born and the message set to be proclaimed. But what about later, when the doubt began to creep in once more?

For that, we have St. Paul, and the time and space needed to develop some theory about the resurrection, and not just that early sense of relief. Paul, in his own sometimes convoluted way, puts in words the thinking that only comes with the luxury of distance and time. He wrote:

3 Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Romans 6 is really all about doubt. People began to doubt the promise of life eternal, the sense that they could somehow be united with lost loved ones, or with Jesus himself. They began to doubt that this new faith, with it’s stories of resurrection and post-resurrection appearances, was sincere. “How can we know?” they wondered, when there was no word from their loved ones, and no hint yet of Christ’s return.

Paul gave them a sign. Just as Thomas had a change to see the wounds, believers had a change to participate in the resurrection of Jesus too, through baptism. By taking a ritual and sign that already existed, and already bound them one to another, and putting in the context of Jesus death and resurrection, Paul had the answer they needed. When you went below the water you died to self, you died with Christ, and were united to him in his death. In the same way that Jesus was lifted up to new life, you too were lifted up, emerging from the water of baptism into newness of life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”