In this week’s Gospel story, Thomas confronts the claims of the other disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) It is a bold statement, one that raises the obvious question of the reliability of these witnesses to the Resurrection, and the less obvious question of how we know anything at all (what philosophers call “epistemology”). Do we trust, as Thomas claims to, the evidence of our senses? The evidence of eyewitnesses? The results of carefully-constructed experiments? What do we do if these means of knowledge tell us something we do not want to believe, something that would make a claim on our lives, something that would compel us to change?
That is the question that our culture is wrestling with now, as we push back and forth against one another about the reliability of science. To me, this debate derives from a fundamental unclarity in our thought.
In her book The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers distinguishes the law of nature from the law of opinion. She writes, “The word ‘law’ is currently used in two quite distinct meanings. It may describe an arbitrary regulation made by human consent in particular circumstances for a particular purpose, and capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered, or rescinded without interference from the general scheme of the universe.” Such laws might include a speed limit for drivers, the age at which a citizen is allowed to vote in an election, the rules of a game. However, she notes that “law” is also used to describe a pattern of invariable observed facts, such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Entropy. “Such ‘laws’ as these cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended, or broken at will; they are not ‘laws’ at all , in the sense that the laws of cricket or the laws of the realm are ‘laws’; they are statements of observed facts inherent in the nature of the universe.” In the first meaning, “law” really refers to a humanly-determined reality. For instance, if you kick a soccer ball into the goal across the end zone, you will score, unless Those in Authority change the rules. In the second case, however, causation is built into the fabric of the universe. if you knock a cup off a table, it will fall; and if Congress legislates that from now on, all cups will rise instead, the cups will not comply.
There seems to widespread confusion about these two sets of ideas in our culture right now, with people acting as if the laws of nature can be ignored or repealed at will, while the fact is that they are inexorable. The real trouble, I think, comes from a confused epistemology. Science relies upon the idea that the evidence of our senses (or, at least, of our sensors) gives us real knowledge about this world in which we live. (I’m leaving out the complexities of quantum science and uncertainty here.) But pulling against this, there is another strand of thought, one which teaches that the world as we can perceive it is not the world as it is, and, perhaps, that the world we can perceive is not the world that matters. This kind of dualist thinking, which comes from the Classical world, pervades a certain kind of theology: theology which teaches that we should focus our attention on ultimate things (God, the afterlife, the state of our soul), not on the things that pass away. To some extent every faith tradition must embody this idea, if these traditions are to free us from the tyranny of the urgent and the distorted imperatives of our nature, and find us a space from freedom and self-determination.
But with all due respect, we live in penultimate world. Everything in this world is passing away, and is no less worthy of our attention for that. The lily that blooms but a day, the child who will not live to turn forty, the dogs who press their wet noses into our palms — these are some of the most beautiful gifts that God can give us, even though they will not last forever. To ignore them is base ingratitude; to injure them, a spiritual failing.
Too often, we speak as if “faith” and “science” are opposed, but I do not believe that dichotomy exists. For a believer, it is God who created this world, with all the mechanisms and laws by which it works. God, in other words, is the author of the reality which science enables us to understand. Jesus even teaches that nature can show us the mind of its maker, urging us to consider the birds, the lilies, the growth of a vine.
Monty Python once did a wonderful skit imagining a dialogue between a pope and Leonardo over a painting of the Last Supper. Rather than the usual, somewhat stark portrayal, the painter has populated his picture with dogs running at the disciples’ feet, servant-girls waiting the table, a jester, an exotic animal or two. The Pope is not pleased. He raises objection after objection in a tone of utter outrage, until finally Leonardo exclaims in exasperation, “Then call it the Ante-Penultimate Supper!”
I do not believe we are living in the End Times, but we are clearly in the Ante-
Penultimate ones. The damage we are doing to this world is piling up and will soon be both unmanageable and irreversible, a whole series of wounds into which we can thrust our fingers and which we can touch with our hands. There are the copper mines which have become lakes of hydrochloric acid. The mountains whose tops have been removed for coal. The lands devastated by over-grazing. The aquifers emptied to provide for human need and human waste. The tides which are routinely flooding streets in Florida and in Virginia. The drought-induced famines that are displacing millions of people around the world. These are not the stuff of fiction; they are our life, and if we can look at these wounds and fail to weep, we are hardened indeed.
At the end of the Thomas story, Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time when Thomas is there. He greets Thomas and invites him to see the marks of the nails, to touch the wound in His side. And Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”
Usually, we hear those words as a profession of faith: Thomas becomes the first of the disciples to acknowledge the divinity of Christ. But what if that’s not it, at all? What if
Thomas cried out, not in faith, but in horror; what if he was the only one of the Twelve who could look upon the maimed and degraded body of Christ, that body which retained its scars even in the Resurrection, and acknowledge the full pity and cruelty of what we had done? Perhaps the path to salvation involves more than faith in a God who transcends what is physically possible in this world. Perhaps it lies in accepting full moral responsibility for this earth, not as we desire it to be, but as we have made it. Only then, perhaps, will be be able to cry out to God and be heard.
Interestingly, the painting from the Monty Python skit actually exists. It’s a Veronese image that the painter had to defend before the Inquisition, and which was eventually re-titled “The Wedding at Cana.”
The photographs of environmental devastation are by Edward Burtynsky, a powerful photographer whose work rewards study.