Seeing the World through Resurrection Eyes
"Jesus thown everything off balance."
As some of you will recognize, those are the words of the Misfit, the murderous creation of the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor. At the end of her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor has the Misfit explain why he does what he does, and as is often the case in O'Connor's fiction, it centers around Christian practice and belief. The Misfit says, "If [Jesus] did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can."
In other words, the Misfit recognizes that the Resurrection represents the crucial problem of human life—either it's true or it isn't, and your belief about it will change everything.
It will throw everything off balance.
Only for most of us, it hasn't. In two primary ways of being Christian in America, we find Resurrection—that unsettling and hard to believe thing—decentered. While you will find the Resurrection in some evangelical songs ("Because He Lives," et. al.), the crux of evangelical belief is the Cross: Jesus died for my sins.
And while you will find some progressive pastors and theologians arguing that the Resurrection represents God's ultimate "no" to all the forces of darkness—violence, imperial power, death—progressive day-to-day belief and practice is often centered on the life of Jesus. Since Jesus taught, healed, and fed, that is what we should be doing.
So what do we do with the Resurrection?
The lectionary Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter is that section of John we have come to identify with the character we usually call Doubting Thomas. We've been awfully hard on him over the years, which I think is unfortunate because it allows us to look down on him, to distance ourselves from his situation, to think of ourselves as somehow different or even better than he is, which we most certainly are not.
The Gospel of John encourages us to see Thomas as a figure in contrast to the Beloved Disciple and Peter, who see and believe in the Risen Christ on much less evidence than Thomas is initially offered. But it also offers Thomas as the character who makes the climactic confession of faith in the gospel: "My Lord and My God!"—the highest Christological statement in any of the gospels, in fact, and John's clear bookend to the majestic Prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
The tradition gives us two ways of looking at Thomas. Matthew Henry's 18th-century commentary summarizes one: that Thomas's lack of belief is "not only a sin, but a scandal," and that Thomas is a fool not to believe on the testimony of others. In opposition to this, we find the classical interpretation of this episode made by Augustine and Aquinas: that seeing Jesus the man and yet believing him to be God, as Thomas confesses, is in itself, an act of tremendous faith. Augustine said of Thomas, "He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched."
These diametrically-opposed interpretations leave us in the either/or realm of typical discourse: "Did he believe or didn't he?" But I want to step away from the question of whether Thomas was a faithless cad or a saint-in-training, and instead to read him as many biblical scholars suggest we should, as a symbolic and altogether typical human being. Like the Misfit, most of us are Thomases. It's so much easier not to really believe that Jesus is the risen Lord, the Son of God. I like to imagine that there was a part of Thomas that thought, "No, it's easier if Jesus is dead. It's sad, sure. But if he's alive—if he really has come back to life—then that's going to change my life in ways I can't even begin to imagine."
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.