From the archives: April 3, 2016. Today we are faced with some of the more interesting Scripture in Eastertide. The story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas and the other Disciples has been endlessly reiterated over the centuries. And while we’re probably all familiar with the “doubting” aspect of Thomas’s witness, it seems as if concentrating on those aspects of the story rather get in the way of some other understandings of the situation.
By way of introduction to these ways of understanding, I want to suggest that we consider that much of what we understand about human growth and behavior, especially as it relates to intellectual, spiritual, and psychological issues tends to be stranded in the milieu of psychometrics which historian Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “The Mismeasure of Man”. This mismeasure, as Gould recounts it in his book of the same title, has led to generations of understandings based in a strangely juxtaposed mix of pseudo-science, philosophy, and religious beliefs; and this, in turn, has brought our contemporary culture to a place in which we, as a group, tend to see any number of issues in “either/or” terms… when, from a larger frame of reference, we might be much better served by a “both/and” understanding.
In this process, Gould presents a fascinating historical study of scientific racism, tracing it through monogyny and polygeny, phrenology, recapitulation, and hereditarian IQ theory. Thus, it is an account of the basically disastrous history of psychometrics. Gould’s unrelenting focus serves to shift the focus from a sterile contest between environmentalists and hereditarians, and turns it into an argument between those who are impressed with what our biology stops us from doing and those who are impressed with what it allows us to do.
It is the concepts in this last sentence that begin to bear on today’s Gospel. That is, if we think of things that may “start” or “stop” us on some given trajectory then we also understand that such “starting” and “stopping,” being active, implies the initiation or the cessation of some kind of movement; and, that this kind of activity is not limited to biology or physics, but may be applied to our intellectual, spiritual, and psychological growth as well.
Thinking in more strictly non-physical terms, and, remembering that we are dealing with a continuum that runs from fully stopped to fully engaged with change of some kind, it is possible to think of individual humans beings as being someplace between “dwelling” and “seeking”—that is, folks actively either “standing pat” (“dwelling,” happy with where things are) or folks actively moving in some direction or other (“seeking”).
It is important to remember that these kinds of things are not “either/or”… they are very much “both/and.” Furthermore, given the incredible variety of human existence and the numberless environments in which we live, it is entirely likely that many, if not most of us, are simultaneously both “dwellers” and “seekers.” That is, there are ways in which we very much like things to stay as they are (or, perhaps, as we think they were); and, other ways in which we very much want things to change…or, at least, to be more like we think that they “should” be.
This brings us around to Thomas, and his infamous doubting. Like the rest of the disciples, Thomas had his personal roots deep in the historical Hellenistic Judaism of the early First Century. Like the rest of them, he was, seemingly, mostly comfortable… he was dwelling. And yet, also like the rest of them (and, presumably, many of Jesus’ other followers), he wanted something more…something new…something different…something which he felt would lead to a better future… and, in that sense, he was very much a seeker. Through happenstance, he was not present when Jesus first appeared to the Disciples. So, what had been revealed to the others was not part of his personal experience before the situation described in today’s Gospel Lection. As a result, his reaction makes perfect sense. His inner conflict was around being torn between wanting to remain in his previous understanding; and his equally strong desire to move forward into the new relationship being offered.
When we manifest similarly odd reactions to those kinds of conflicting inner desires, we are demonstrating how very much like Thomas (and, countless others throughout history) we actually are. It seems to be universal among humans that we want things within ourselves and in our outside world to both remain the same; and, to simultaneously move in some direction or other. This dwelling-in-place, as it were, is so well-recognized that it even has a name: Homeostasis. Homeostasis may be defined as: “any self‑regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. The stability attained is actually a dynamic equilibrium, in which continuous change occurs yet relatively uniform conditions prevail.” So, there is change; but it is, at least to some degree, controlled.
What happens when change is either so rapid or so vast that the dynamic equilibrium is lost? This is a very serious, and, a very timely question. On the individual level, when that equilibrium is lost, the individual becomes psychotic, or, evidences some other form of mental, emotional, or spiritual breakdown. On a group level, some person or persons wind up getting somehow excluded from some portion of society…in extreme examples, they may become martyred to some cause or other.
But, what happens when an entire civilization, or a significant portion of a given civilization pushes the envelope too hard; and winds up either pushing this “dwelling” or seeking” too far, and goes off the rails? It is perhaps timely that we approach this particular Gospel Lection during a time when a certain portion of the Provinces in the Anglican Communion have taken preemptive actions against certain other portions; and, against all established rule and precedent, have been supported in those moves by the Archbishop of Canterbury. As we will see in a moment, the Church has been in schism since incredibly early in its history… so, this is absolutely nothing new.
Writing about the Middle Ages, another period of great political and social upheaval (particularly in the Church), in 1926, the great English Medieval historian Maurice Powicke wrote:
“Organized Christianity came into existence, and exists, to preserve a treasure, a command to be executed, a promise to be repeated, a mission to be fulfilled. This treasure belongs to the past, present, and future; it is potential, yet active; an object of contemplation, yet the inspiration of right conduct. An unfathomable mystery, it must be related to all knowledge. And in their endeavors to guard and transmit their trust, its guardians have raised the most perplexing issues. They have caused endless destruction of life in the name of universal peace. They have built up the most realistic of political systems in the effort to establish a kingdom not of this world. In the exploration of the recesses of the soul, they have developed the arts and sciences, and constructed theories of the universe. And, in their desire to satisfy the deepest needs of mankind, they have raised up against themselves the visions, prophecies, and extravagances of excitable and obstinate men, and the dislike of many sensible men.”
That is, while change is the only sure sign of growth, too much change or growth, too quickly may well result in what Powicke refers to as “endless destruction of life in the name of universal peace.” Looked at another way, this is cultural breakdown or psychotic break on a massive scale. Remembering that Hitler and Mussolini were both elected during times of intense cultural stress (and, that these are not the only such examples), we need to think and act with great caution during this year’s Presidential Election.
But… all of that is thinking on some grand, if not cosmic scale, is it not? What are we to do as individuals?
Ah… therein lies the rub. While Jesus does not articulate it in quite this way, it seems that there is sufficient Gospel evidence to suggest that he would be in agreement with Ghandi’s often quoted remark: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That is, live into what you believe. Another way to phrase that line of thought is to remember to think globally, but to act locally. There is nothing more locally-oriented than changing one’s self.
If we do not change, we probably stop growing. Not for nothing does the NRSV Bible that we use in study and worship use varying forms of the verb “to seek” 291 times, while using the verb “to dwell” only 147… and then in reference to God dwelling among the people. So, painting broadly, the continual Biblical emphasis on “seeking” may well have to do with our need, as a race, to be pushed into not becoming stagnant.
But, the Biblical usage, with a 1:2 ratio of use, also seem to imply that dwelling…remaining in place, or, more accurately in this case not changing too fast, is also important. It is important to remember the need for equilibrium between these forces… they will ebb and flow, as so accurately represented in the interflowing of the Yin and Yang of Buddhist symbology; but, on net, perhaps over multiple centuries, they tend to be in balance. The task for us is to work on the balance between them within our selves. In that way, we each make our own, microcosmic contribution to the macrocosm of the universe around us.
Now, as you’ve probably already realized, there’s a great deal more to this discussion. Perhaps we’ll be able to continue it in the future.
—Father Horace Greeley