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Monday, April 20, 2015

Thomas, Emmaus and "Contact"

 Although you have not seen him you love him;

even though you do not see him now yet believe in him... 
(2nd reading, 2nd Sunday of Easter Year A)

Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 
(Gospel, 2nd Sunday of Easter Year A) 

Sorry, it’s been a while. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in this at all, I just haven’t felt like I had anything to say. As you we'll know, life gets busy, and triage of our interests is required! And there really are a lot of words out there, aren't there?! “And that’s…OK,” I can hear Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley saying in my ear, giving me a daily affirmation intended to keep me writing something, just to keep the pumps primed. And I believe this is true: sometimes, you just go through the motions, so you don’t forget how the motions go. Inspiration will catch up. Dum spiro, spero

The Easter gospels seems to be dealing with what the devil it means that someone, this someone, Jesus, is risen from the dead. What’s going on? Is it Jesus? Why don’t people recognize him? Is he a ghost? A gardener? Who saw what? Fifty years after the events described in the gospel today people are asking those questions, which is why we have gospels to begin with. What did the eyewitnesses see? Who is it for whom they were finally willing to go to the cross, sword, and lions? Two thousand and fifty years after those events, we ask the same questions. They are not questions of fact so much but of meaning. Good postmodernists that we are, we’re not taken in by the need to know exactly what happened on that day-after-Sabbath morning in about 30 CE when it was first reported that a man had risen, or been raised, from the dead, or at the very least that his tomb was empty. “What happened” is beyond the grasp of history or reason, at least as far as we know. What we might be able to come to appreciate is what it meant to those who were most immediately affected by the presence of Jesus before (and after) his death. It is, ultimately, not the fact of the resurrection, or the details of it, but the meaning of it that we have to grapple with. And not just the meaning of it to the Twelve, or the seventy-two, or whatever, but the meaning to us, today. 

Thomas, in the gospel of Easter 2 (John 20: 19-31) gets a bum rap, the epithet “doubting Thomas” has stuck with him for two millennia. And yet, unlike those hiding in the upper room “for fear of the Jews,” he appears to have been the only one who had the courage to go outside. The rest were huddled together for the cold comfort of their mutual fear, and Thomas “was not with them.” What was there about the report of the other ten that would have convinced him. They were afraid, they were still up in the room together. Why should he believe their wishful thinking? And when push comes to shove, and the vision of the Risen One is presented to him, he doesn’t follow through on his demand for proof; he trusts his experience, whatever it was, and doesn’t put his hand into Jesus’s side, or his finger into the nail marks. What I hear in this gospel is that on the third day, the day of resurrection, they were together. The ten had an experience of peace, of Christ risen, whatever that means. But Thomas wasn’t there. A week later, again on the day of resurrection  (let’s call it Sunday), Thomas was with them. They were together, and it was on Sunday. Now, the experience of presence, whatever it might have been, is complete. With the doors locked against the perceived hostility of the world, the disciples experienced peace, experienced the Lord, and they experienced it because they were together.

In Sunday's gospel, Luke tells the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now, the geographical center of Luke’s story is Jerusalem. From the 9th chapter of the gospel, the destination of Jesus is specifically told to be Jerusalem. As long as they are headed to Jerusalem for the final encounter there with the dominating powers, they are headed in the right direction. The key events of the passion, death, and resurrection will occur there. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus have left Jerusalem, as far as the story discloses, deciding that the death of Jesus was definitive, though they confess to being astounded by the women’s report of the empty tomb. They are leaving Jerusalem before being sent  out; they are headed in the  wrong direction. The stranger on the road hears their discussion, and sets fire to their religious imagination with his synthesis of the tradition with that of their own experience. Perhaps it makes sense, after all, that the Messiah should die, if he is the servant of God! Perhaps the women were right after all, they had found the right tomb, and it was empty because God had raised Jesus from the dead. 

This strange catechist who read their lives back to them is invited to dinner. As the story goes, when he breaks the bread (ritually, at the beginning of the meal), they recognize that it is Jesus, and he disappears. In the action of their own meal, an action they had seen Jesus perform at hundreds of meals, the paschal meaning of their lives was revealed. Jesus was present, and absent, all at the same time. He was there in the breaking of the bread, but he could no longer be seen. I guess the question is, what faith is required in the resurrection of a dead man if you’ve actually seen him? Where is the faith in that? That’s not faith, that’s science. Faith is trust in things that are not seen. Or, as John as Jesus say, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Those people, at least, are us.  

So I was thinking about the wonderful Jodie Foster movie  Contact. Contact is based on a novel by the late great Carl Sagan, an astronomer and popularizer of science and a noted agnostic. In my   Easter mood, Contact resonates with me much more than it did when I first watched it 15 years ago or so, especially since in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more books on science, religion, and atheism than I have through most of the rest of my life. And it really struck me what an imaginative and well-constructed exposition of the quest for truth the movie is (and I suspect that the book is even more so, because the movie is flawed by its length.) The main character in the movie, an astrophysicist played by Jodie Foster, is the quintessential scientist, a product of the enlightenment. She is in an intense but difficult relationship with a novelist who is a religious writer, an ex-seminarian who is a popularizer about the search for God. They can’t agree on the nature of truth. For him, a world without God is unimaginable, a place not worth living in. For her, since there is no empirical evidence that can be pointed to to prove God’s existence, one has to conclude that, at the  very least, one can’t say with certainty there is a god. His certainty is faith, hers is science. 

The  genius of the story, however, is the topsy-turvy way in which the plot develops. A message that  apparently originates from a higher civilization gives a detailed plan for the building of a vessel that will transport one person, only one, to...somewhere. The world is mobilized to build this vessel, but its final test is sabotaged by a religious zealot who sees the attention science is getting as threatening to the idea of God. A duplicate vessel has been built unknown to governments, however, and Jodie Foster’s character is chosen to pilot it. On her "return," her journey is observed to be a failure. After a spectacular launch, nothing seems to have happened. Her experience in the vessel, though, is quite extraordinary: she sees aspects of the universe, wormholes, and planetary systems that stun her with their beauty, so much so that her initial thought is, "They should have sent a poet." She makes contact with an ancient civilization that alerts her to civilizations and paths yet more ancient than theirs. Yet because this journey of some hours (for her) was unobservable to those at the site because of the enormous vagaries of lightspeed, she is unable to convince anyone, for lack of empirical evidence, of her experience of another civilization. Her lover’s experience of faith was unavailable to her for lack of proof; her experience of a scientific “miracle” was unavailable to anyone else for the same lack. 

The question that Contact leaves us with, then, is, what is the nature of truth? What is the role of experience and evidence and testimony in that search? What is the role of faith in the search for truth, whether religious or scientific? There is something for us Christians in that question, and in Contact. Faith is related to experience. It’s not just giving intellectual assent to things we can’t know or see; neither is experience always something that we can quantize or give empirical proof for. The Christians of the first century, the apostolic witnesses, passed on faith to us through these gospels, these stories of their faith in Jesus the Messiah, and the meaning that his life, work, and his death and rising brought to their lives. We don’t know, in any quantifiable way, what the resurrection was, what happened on Easter morning. What we can know, by sharing the stories of the witnesses and breaking bread together, is the meaning of the resurrection for them, and what made their experience of the resurrection something worth living and dying for. 

 Of course, meaning can be a slippery slope. The  meaning of the resurrection has engendered pogroms, crusades, anti-semitism, and as much schism as unity. But it has also generated compassion, solidarity with the victim and the poor, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking in ways that were not possible before the witness to the memory of Jesus recorded in the gospels and preserved in the breaking of the bread. Ultimately, the meaning necessary to discern is not the meaning to anyone other than us. What matters is whether, at the end of our time on earth, we will have found meaning in death, violence, threats of violence, and economic hegemony, or in life, peacemaking, and the sharing of resources. The good news is that, because of the gospel and the resurrection story of Jesus, even if we should opt for death, neither death, nor we, will have the last word.