Sunday, 11 April 2010

Doubting Thomas - trouble with surfaces

As Andrew Bethune noted in his Easter Sunday address last week, if you are attend (or minded to attend) this church you are highly likely - though there will be exceptions from time to time - you are highly likely to disbelieve in any literal reading of the Easter story. The most you will be able to do with it, and especially the various post-resurrection stories, is to interpret them metaphorically or symbolically and, perhaps, this is enough.

But I'm not so sure and, today, I'm minded to stick with the uncomfortable physicality of the story for another week. Primarily I do this because I really don't think that there is another world than this one. Or, better - and as I put it earlier this year - I do think there is another world but that it is this world seen differently.

One area of modern human endeavour that has helped us see the world differently - I think more clearly - is anthropology and one anthropologist whose work has contributed to my own thinking about the world is Tim Ingold from the University of Aberdeen. In a moment I'll introduce you to some of his thinking but firstly here is a very puzzling story from the Gospel of John (John 20:24-29 NRSV) that I want us to consider today:

. . . Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with [the other disciples] when Jesus came. So [they] told him, We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
    A week later [Jesus’] disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, 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. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 


These days the chief thing that strikes me about this piece of story-telling is that whilst it is affirmatory of what we might call the 'reality' and value of physical surfaces it simultaneously affirms what we might call their 'illusory' nature.

The 'real' physical surface foregrounded in the story - real in the way we commonly, and rather loosely, use this word - is, of course, that of Jesus’ body which Thomas believes he must, not only *look* at in order to believe, but also touch. For him only such an examinable 'thing' will stand up as legitimate knowledge. However, at the same time as the 'reality' of physical surfaces is being encountered by Thomas, that this 'real' physical Jesus has come into in the room whilst all its physical entrances are shut suggests we are also being asked in some way to see the world as one without such hard impenetrable absolute surfaces. Assuming that this isn't just an example of bad story-telling what on earth might the author be trying to say to us?

Now, in most churches, the address that follows such an observation would be an attempt to show that this 'proved' something about Jesus' divine status and what our relationship with him should be - as saviour, God incarnate or whatever. But to me, at least, this seems to be the least interesting and useful lesson we could draw from the text and here we can turn to Tim Ingold for help.

As I do this I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not claiming that what follows is the truth of the matter - I have never believed that there is one single truth to be drawn out of stories such as the one about doubting Thomas. Along with Philip Pullman (one of my story-telling heroes) I think it is perfectly legitimate to interpret such stories in all kinds of ways as long as the interpretation offered is done so "fairly and honestly, by reference to the text and not to any pretended secret key or private knowledge." I trust I shall not fail today in these respects.

One of the things Ingold and others have noticed about our Western European world-view is that for many complex, contingent reasons we have slowly come to think that legitimate knowledge of the world is only to be pursued by looking ever more closely at individual things. Consequently - especially in the natural sciences - we began to understand the world primarily in terms of 'objects of concern' - i.e. discreet individual things you were going to research - atoms, stars, starfish, hammers etc..

In a recent paper called "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) Ingold noted that in order to do this as observers, we had to place ourselves 'above and beyond' the very world we were claiming to understand. Ingold also observed that the 'conditions that enable scientists to know, at least according to official protocols, are such as to make it impossible for scientists to be in the very world of which they seek knowledge' (p.19). In a very real and tragic sense this way of encountering the world has increasingly made us homeless and feeling alienated. It may also be suggested that our profound disconnect with the natural world and our associated global ecological crisis could trace its roots to this view.

Although the new physics is encouraging us to reassess our world-view, by and large we - you and me - still silently and unquestioningly inherit the tendency to think of the world as only being made up of discreet independent 'objects of concern' all of which, and this is important, all of which have surfaces - boundaries which, in some way, definitively separate 'objects' from the 'environment' around them.

When you think about it you realise that the whole of planet earth itself is tacitly understood this way too - i.e. as a globe over whose surface we and all other things move, and upon which all things exist. Even our popular understanding of the sky is coloured by an obsession with surfaces. Ingold observes the following:

"Consider the definition [of the sky] offered by my Chambers dictionary. The sky, the dictionary informs us, is ‘the apparent canopy over our heads’. This is revealing in two respects. First the sky is imagined as a surface, just like the surface of the earth except, of course, a covering overhead rather than a platform underfoot. Secondly, however, unlike the earth’s surface, that of the sky is not real but only apparent. In reality there is no surface at all. Conceived of as such the sky is a phantasm. It is where angels tread. [. . .] the surface of the earth has become an interface between the concrete and the imaginary."

Ingold’s point is, I think, to alert us to the fact that such a world-view strongly encourages us to believe there exists definitive and absolute solid boundaries or surfaces between subjects and objects and so we Western-European moderns are sort of trapped in a bounded region - the self - surrounded by impenetrable surfaces, for ever disconnected from each other, ourselves and creation. This dilemma seems, to me at least, to be a modern version of hell and, I don't know about you, but I'd quite like to escape from this.

Ingold thinks there is such a way out and to begin this process he asks us to consider the world-view of peoples who hold animist viewpoints - that is to say peoples who attribute conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects. His work reveals that animists do not think of the earth or the sky as having surfaces, 'real or imaginary', but thought of them rather as a 'medium' *through* which all things move. Without necessarily becoming animists ourselves Ingold suggests that it might be helpful for us if *we* could find a way to "cease regarding the world as an inert substratum, over which living things propel themselves like counters on a board or actors on a stage, where artifacts and the landscape take the place, respectively, of properties and scenery."

It strikes me that in the light of the new physics this kind of language is beginning to sound to us radically less unlikely than it did when we were wholly under the spell of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment scientific world-views. Not only that but such a way of understanding being and being-in-the-world resonates strongly with those who think people like Heidegger and Wittgenstein were on the right track - which I do.

Given these factors it is clear (to me at least) that we need not become animists ourselves to reconnect with the insight that it might be a great deal healthier - and closer to the nature of being if we could think of ourselves as

1) moving *through* the world not *across* it;

2) not 'simply *occupying* the world' but '*inhabiting* it';

and lastly,

3) that it is as 'lines of movement' that we as beings 'are instantiated in the world' (p. 14).

Now, if you are minded to take these thoughts seriously then I hope that you can see why I think the most interesting aspect of our Biblical story doesn’t really concern Jesus’s status at all but rather the way the author uses the character of Jesus, who clearly moves *through* the world, not *across*, to articulate the insight that surfaces are *in* the world and not of it. I must make it clear here that this doesn't mean I now think the story actually occurred as the author presents it! I'm simply suggesting that the gospel writer simply gave us an approximation of his insight by giving it the 'semblance of objective reality' (cf. McGhee p. 119).

Interpreted thus we might be able to reclaim this story "fairly and honestly" for ourselves as, to be frank about it, certain kinds of disbelievers, and to do this without deception or "any pretended secret key or private knowledge." What the story might then open up for us is not some story about the possibility of there being a God/Man in whom we must believe to secure our individual salvation but, instead, a profound call to come home and dwell securely in THIS natural world; to re-inhabit and walk *through* it gently and lovingly, recognising that somehow it contains no absolute surfaces and boundaries that divide us one from another and ourselves from the world, that our world is a stunning, beautiful and complex living unity through which our lives can dance and describe graceful and, I hope, grateful lines of movement.

1 comment:

Yewtree said...

It's often been remarked that Doubting Thomas (or Thomas the Contender as he was known in the Gnostic tradition) would have made a good Unitarian.

I think animism is pretty close philosophically to pantheism, except that animism is more focussed on the particularity and personality of places, whereas pantheism emphasises the divine in or as the All.

I was interested by your talk about "in" and "through" - you might be interested in the concept of inclusionality, which makes some similar points.