Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope
David R. Weiss – May 3, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #23 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

If you were in church last Sunday you probably heard the familiar story (John 20:19-29) of “Doubting Thomas.” John places it exactly one week after the original Easter account, and most churches use it as the Gospel text on the first Sunday after Easter. It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar (it’s even given us “Doubting Thomas” as a idiom) that it becomes easy to think we know exactly what it means—until we realize we don’t.

Here’s the way it unfolds in John. On Easter evening the disciples are huddling in fear in an upper room. Suddenly Jesus appears to them. Except Thomas misses it. And when the disciples report it to him afterwards, he replies, “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” Sure enough, one week later Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present, and he invites Thomas to indeed place his fingers into the wounds. He tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” (Thereby sealing his nickname for history.[1]) And the scene ends with Jesus seeming to make Thomas an example of how NOT to be: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

It seems pretty straightforward. But consider a couple things.

Nobody in this account believes without seeing, so Thomas gets more than a bit of a bad rap. All the other disciples saw Jesus the first time, so it seems a little unfair to single out Thomas as though he was the only one who needed to see in order for his belief to take hold.

Second, Thomas reacts exactly like any of us would. By now some of us have been so conditioned to believe Jesus was raised from the dead we affirm that without even thinking about it. But how many of us would be as quick to accept a tale told (even by a good friend) about a man who died last week in a near by town, and three days later was seen walking about? How many?! I thought so.

Third, even Thomas, while seemingly scolded for his need to see, still gets to see. But none of us do. And that’s who this passage is really aimed at. John’s gospel was written, at the earliest, around 90 CE (others date it 10, even 20 years later). So John is writing for people living now sixty years after Jesus did. In other words, everybody in John’s audience from his first readers right on through us, is in the same “predicament”: we all have to choose whether to believe or not—without seeing. Which only heightens the tension. Does that mean all John offers us is a scolding of Thomas—who still gets to see—and a “blessing” for the rest of us if we can manage to do better? No.

Which brings us to climate change. It often feels as though the more you know about the dire straits we’re in, the harder it is to muster hope. To actually read the reports and study the science—even as a layperson—well, you begin to feel like those disciples huddled in that upper room. The world as you knew it has ended. And the world opening up in front of you is fringed round about with fear.

For Thomas—who, after all, is our example in this text—the crucial thing is not that he gets to see, but that he gets to touch. And not that he gets to touch the arms, the cheeks, etc.—but the wounds. His hope comes from touching the worst that the world dealt to Jesus and realizing that there is still life to be had.[2]

In a sense this episode in John’s gospel is an “Easter echo” of Jesus’ words in Matthew about “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46). In that passage Jesus suggests the place where faith is found is precisely in deeds that meet the needs of others: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Here, in John’s gospel it isn’t mere sight that makes resurrection real for Thomas, it’s the tender touch of Jesus’ wounds. And John’s subtle wisdom to us—who can neither see Jesus in our midst nor light at the end of this climate crisis—is that if we wish to believe, it is less an act of will than a deed of compassion that will bring it to pass. Hope lives in the habits we form … provided those habits hold compassion.

This intuition is at the heart of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope,[3] an offering of practical wisdom for meeting this perilous moment. They distinguish between two meanings for hope. The first is hope rooted in likelihood. There’s at least a reasonable chance it will be sunny tomorrow; I sure hope so. That type of hope was beyond the reach of the disciples huddled in the upper room after the crucifixion—and beyond the reach of anyone who wades very far into the current data on climate change. Reasonable likelihood is no longer on the table.

The second meaning has to do with desire, independent of likelihood. The disciples knew he was dead and buried, but even in their fear, they could have told you they wanted him with them once again. So, what do you hope for, for your children? Push “pause” on “now be realistic,” and just ask, “What do you hope for, for them?” Chances are, the answers aren’t buried very deep.

But there’s yet one more distinction to make. When it comes to hope as desire, it can be either passive or active. Passive hope waits for outside forces to bring something to pass. As a result, passive hope can easily feel hopeless. Active Hope is participatory. It’s a deed. Macy and Johnstone call it a practice—a habit of deeds, if you will. They liken it to tai chai: a set of movements that may seem to accomplish very little, but are nonetheless done with focus and intent … and become like water shaping rock. Far from a disposition you try to “have” as a ground your actions, Active Hope begins as an action-by-action habit that eventually grounds our disposition. Perhaps most significantly for us, Active Hope doesn’t presume optimism. It simply asks that you honor the desire of your heart and act with sincere humble focus.

It’s worth being clear: Macy and Johnstone don’t claim Active Hope will turn things around. They do believe it will turn you around—especially if embraced as a communal practice. That is, by choosing to actively align our energy, in even small ways, with a larger story (vision) that matches the desires of our heart, we invest ourselves (and, ideally, it is a WE doing this) in actions that “help us restore our sense of connection with the web of life and with one another.” Broadly speaking they describe this dynamism as the Work That Reconnects. I think John might describe it as the Work That Resurrects.

As Macy and Johnstone relate, this work “comes from gratitude” (begins with awe at what is) and “honors the pain of our world” (feels loss: let grief have its way with us). During Jesus’ ministry his disciples learned to come with gratitude; we hear that in the stories of wonder and surprise that swirl around Jesus. After his crucifixion they’re overwhelmed by the pain of their world. Initially they’re too overwhelmed even to hope. But when Thomas, in spite of his dis-belief, dares to touch the wounds, he chooses to honor the pain in the pain rather than turn away from it. And in that choice, resurrection occurs. John offers wisdom to the first Christian on how to fuel their movement: by touching the wounds of the world.

It’s essential that we honor the world’s pain and touch it with tenderness—which may include full on anguished lament. Honestly, it may or may not “save” the world. But I’m willing to bet my whole life it can “save” us and our children come what may. Which is to say, it has the ability to root our lives in Active Hope—no matter what. That’s resilience. And that’s good news, even to people huddled in fear.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] Actually … Thomas never doubts. The Greek word for doubt is distazo. Jesus uses apistos; it means, rather more bluntly “without belief.” But it came into English as “doubt,” and that word got paired with Thomas ever since.

[2] I don’t think this is about physical resurrection. Maybe it is, but I think John is making a much more nuanced assertion here, one intended to spark our belief in the value of compassion, love, life itself.

[3] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012). In this post I’m drawing primarily on the Introduction, pp. 1-7; I’ll return to this book again.

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