Easter 2 (March 30, 2008)
Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Binghamton, NY
Let us pray.
Lord God, we are seeking you while you can be found. We are calling upon you while you are near. We are turning to you, so that you will have mercy on us and pardon us. May the word that goes out from your mouth not return to you empty, but may it accomplish that which you purpose, and succeed in the thing for which you sent it, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
When St. Thomas replied to his fellow-disciples, “Unless I see,… I will not believe,” he was just being a typical human. We have a saying in English, “Seeing is believing”, that pretty well sums up the way we humans are oriented in the world. From a psychological point of view, sight is by far the most important of our senses for getting information about the world. In this we differ from other species. A dog, for example, might say, “Smelling is believing.” A bat would say, “Hearing is believing.” But we humans are very dependent on our eyes. We tend to believe our eyes more readily than our other senses.
The bias towards sight is not something peculiar to our culture or civilization. You can’t get too much different from Americans than the Supyire people of Mali, where Joyce and I worked for many years and where Anne grew up. The Supyire say:
Saying what has been seen is better than saying what has been heard.
We all have a bias toward believing an eye-witness more than any other type of witness.
John in his gospel is very concerned with the connection between seeing and believing. A careful reading of the whole book shows that the connection between seeing and believing is not just straightforward and simple. In fact, we might turn our proverb upside down and be nearer the truth: it’s not so much that seeing is believing, as that believing is seeing.
Neuropsychologists used to think that visual information was processed in just one place in the brain. Now however it is known that visual information is processed in more than 2 dozen different brain areas. What appears to us as a straightforward rendition of the visual world is actually the result of incredibly complex computation. One brain area does edges and lines, another does surfaces and textures, yet another does motion, and so forth.
Moreover, our eyes and brains are physically designed to see some things and not others. For example, we see some wavelengths of light and not others. We often don’t see things in our visual field that we are not paying attention to. A few years ago a psychologist carried out an interesting experiment in which people were shown a video of a basketball game and told to pay attention to the ball because they would later have to say how many times the ball had been passed. In the video, a man in a gorilla suit comes onto the court and performs a little dance and then goes off again, in a different part of the court from where the ball is. Most of the people who watched the video did not even see the man in the gorilla suit. Although the retinas of their eyes must have registered the image, their brains simply didn’t process the information.
What we see is also partly a matter of what our society trains us to pay attention to. There is a Supyire proverb which says,
A stranger’s eyes are wide open, but he doesn’t see.
In a foreign country, you might be staring at a scene but miss significant things about it. For example, if I give someone something like this [with left hand], you might think nothing of it, but a Supyire person would be shocked. It is insulting to give something with one’s left hand. Most Americans wouldn’t even notice what hand something is given with.
We can say that a very general principle is that what you see is at least partly a matter of what is already in your head. When we open our eyes, it seems to us like we effortlessly see what is out there in front of us. In fact, though, there is a huge amount of mental processing going on “behind the scenes” that delivers the apparently effortless view of the world. And much of what we see we have had to learn how to see.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I can believe that”? Or: “I just can’t believe that” ? What do we mean when we say things like that? Could it be that believability is not just an objective property of some statement “out there”, but also depends on something inside us, just like sight does?
You may or may not be surprised to know that a lot of biblical scholars these days do not believe the Bible is true. In some universities and seminaries, skepticism is pretty much the default position. There is a disposition to not believe rather than to believe. The argument hiding behind a lot of the overt argumentation is just, “I can’t believe Jesus would say that”.
This reminds me of Alice’s conversation with the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass. The Queen said, “‘Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’
‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”
It’s not just Alice and modern scholars who find they can’t believe. There were actually many people who heard and saw Jesus during his earthly ministry who couldn’t believe. In fact, that is one of the central problems that John addresses in his gospel. How could it be that when God sent the long-awaited Messiah, people didn’t recognize who he was? The problem is stated quite clearly right in chapter one: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
All through the gospel, in almost every story John tells, of the people who are around Jesus, some believe and others don’t, although they see and hear the same things. In chapter 12, John remarks, “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.” Not everyone was able to say, “My Lord and my God!”
Probably most of us have friends or family members who can’t believe, yet they may have heard and seen the same things we have. My older brother and I grew up together. We both had the same teaching at home and attended the same boarding school—yet he doesn’t believe any of the Christian teaching we received as children, while I do. How can we explain this?
Believing is not just a matter of reacting to what is “out there”, objectively in the world. In order to believe, there has to be something inside us.
John is very clear on this. Listen to what he says in chapter 6: “Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.’”
Some of those there that day were able to believe that Jesus was the bread of heaven. Others were not able to believe. And the difference was not a difference about the fact to be believed—it was a difference made by God within the minds of those who were there.
The reason you can believe is because God has graciously done something inside you that makes it possible for you to see what you otherwise would not be able to see. It was by God’s grace that Thomas, when he saw Jesus, was able to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” And note what Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That’s us. We are “blessed”. That means that our believing is a gift from God.
There are several lessons we should draw from this.
The first is gratitude. If we can believe, it is because God enables us to believe—because the Father draws us.
Second, humility. We can believe, not because we are better or more clever than those who do not believe, but purely because of God’s grace.
Third, hope. Since the ability to believe comes from God, we must not stop praying for our friends and family members who do not yet believe. Nothing is hopeless when God is involved. God is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Fourth, action. God does not fiddle with our heads to turn us into robots that have no choice but to believe. Believing is something that we do in response to God’s drawing us. Believing is cooperating with God. Believing is dynamic. There is another Supyire proverb that goes like this:
If the donkey hasn’t thrown you down, you don’t see his ears.
The donkey’s ears, which you could have grabbed onto in order to keep your seat, don’t become “visible” until it is too late and you have been thrown to the ground. Next time you get on that cantankerous donkey, though, you will clearly see his ears.
Today you can see things that you couldn’t see yesterday. Thomas went from not believing to believing. And so can we. If your trust in Jesus is alive, it will grow. The White Queen was right: believing takes practice. I won’t say that believing impossible things before breakfast is the way to go, but I will say that if you stick close to the risen Lord, you will find yourself believing more and more.
Let us pray.
Lord God, we believe that Jesus is our Lord and our God. Thank you for drawing us to him, although we didn’t deserve it. Increase in us the faith and trust that please you, and help us to believe more and more. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.