15 September 2005

Bookmark Theology

My boss in Missouri gave me a going-away present of two bookmarks. One of them reads:

"Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible, and receives the impossible."

I feel that in coming here (to seminary) I have been branded by my secular community as the seer of the invisible and believer of the impossible.
At the next table in the coffee shop today, two men shared with one another various factoids about the Christian-ness of this country's inhabitants and the immoral behavoir of its leaders. "Only 18% of Israel declares itself Jewish!" one blurts, "and 85% of America claims Christianity!" They lamented that for as "Christian" as this country is, we are quite "unChristian" in our conduct domestically and internationally. I sensed that to these men also I would be the seer of the invisible; I predict that to them I would represent the deceived masses of Christians, accepting war and oppression from our leaders because it is couched in terms of naming the other the "evildoer", branding the poor the immoral, understanding the oppressed in some fabricated system of well-distributed justice.
I don't want to get into politics, but I do want to dig deeper into this bookmark theology that we Christians are branded the seers of the invisible.
When Jesus talks to Thomas in that tense post-resurrection encounter, the words (I've heard them all this time as admonition) ring in my ears: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
What does John want me to hear in Jesus' words? What was Jesus telling Thomas?

WARNING: annoying side thoughts -- not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart --
[Someone suggested to me that it was because of Thomas' persistance that he was awarded the singular experience to finger the wounds. I see it as a teachable moment that Jesus chose to use to demonstrate something to us -- not a lesson in demanding material proof as virtue -- and then I wonder if the whole thing is a lesson in not forgetting what you already know. Thomas had been warned, after all, that Jesus would return. That feels incredibly harsh to me, though. Imagine the paranoia that has likely ensued among the apostles at this time. They are getting it from all sides, probably including "inside" at this point. And something like an appearance of Jesus would be a very convenient thing to invent to deflect some of the pain of being just dead wrong on the whole Messiah thing. Maybe Thomas misses his teacher and 3-year companion so much that he resents that he had to miss out on the event. But maybe the paranoia has gotten to him. The upper room huddling is probably wearing them all down. I don't even want to mention what Elaine Pagels' take on the story is.]

Somehow in this story Jesus calls Thomas and the rest of us to "see the invisible, believe the incredible and receive the impossible" just like in my bookmark. What are the implications of this expectation for us as Christians? We are expected from the inside (Jesus) and outside (bookmark) of our communities to have the hope of all hopes, the belief of all beliefs...to trust in something that isn't "there" in the way other things are "there." In a place and time valuing proof above faith, where does that leave us? (A second question is more narrow: Where does it leave the seminary student who, in the name of this faith expectation, studies everything around the invisible and the invisible itself, in the academic environment otherwise conditioned to function on the proof level with the rest of the world.)

The reality is that some Christians are intensely rational, some are intensely irrational, and some of us are caught somewhere in the middle, affirming things like Biblical criticism and evolution but not altogether confident that we have the faith of a mustard seed at the end of the day. I see many of us vascillating between trying to prove to ourselves we're the most rational of the Modern Englightenment bunch and on the other hand trying to prove we see more than meets the eye in case any Englightenment-ers out there are looking for a little dose of mysticism. Whether we "see the invisible" or not remains largely in the eye of the beholder. Leave it to a bookmark to throw me into a tailspin.

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