When we look at the same picture, do our brains assess the contents of the picture differently?
The short answer is yes. But how interesting is the short answer? Especially when the science had essentially been saying no.
Easter 2A | John 20:19-31
read, listen, or read while you listen!
Dr. Richard Nisbett, a psychologist from the University of Michigan has for years studied the connection between culture and cognition. He was looking to see if culture affected the way we perceive the world–not just in the form of bias or experience, but at a cognitive level.
In other words, the question isn’t whether or not we understand a picture differently, it is whether or not we see it differently with our eyes.
Nisbett’s most compelling work came back in the early 2000s when he compared the eye movements of North American students with East Asian students looking at a picture of a train. The two most significant differences between the students, and it was found among all of them, were:
- North American students looked straight at the train, while East Asian students looked at the surroundings first.
- North American students looked at the train longer, while East Asian students looked back and forth between the train and the surroundings.
The new hypothesis was that something in Western culture guides students to isolate the most prominent part of a picture and something in Eastern culture guides students to assess the relationship between the many parts of the picture.
The impacts of these differences are huge. And perhaps speaks to how different the church has been in the global West and East for centuries.
I bring up the work of Richard Nisbett because today’s gospel deals with the culture-cognition question. Of Jesus, the disciples, Thomas, and us.
Don’t stare at Thomas!
The Western tendency has been to see only Thomas in this gospel. We call him Doubting Thomas. We focus on what we perceive is happening and craft a simple meaning for it, which looks something like this:
Thomas is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead, so he needs proof. Then he makes a big fuss and comes off like kind of a jerk. When Jesus does show up, Thomas is humbled. He realizes what a fool he was, but only seconds later, Jesus is making a snide remark that amounts to “Unlike this joker, blessings go to true believers.”
Sound familiar? It’s actually a compelling assessment. All of that is there in the text, if we’re staring at Thomas as the main figure in the picture and all the rest is inconsequential background. If we’re going to create a standardized test with a singular answer for how to see this moment. So if we’re going to do that, then seeing Thomas as a stooge and skeptic is bound to happen.
This vision even determines how we see Jesus’s statement about belief. That it’s all about Thomas. Even when he’s saying “be this way” it is in light of the experience of seeing Thomas be the opposite.
But the story isn’t about Thomas. He isn’t the train in the picture. Jesus is. And more dangerously, the cultural bias toward singular answers and away from context prevents us from seeing what else is present in the story.
Including the other disciples who touch and experience the risen Jesus without Thomas.
Using Their Senses
The other disciples get the opportunity Thomas doesn’t. To sense Jesus. To feel his presence with them. And they tell him all about it.
They see him with their eyes and touch him with their hands. He is with them. And he is known to them in a real, human way. It is beyond miraculous. A miracle being an act of God so profound we cannot explain it with our rational minds (how Western!). This goes beyond a miracle. For Jesus isn’t there to prove anything to anyone’s intellect.
He comes to them so that they would experience his presence. With their eyes and hands. That they would know he is with them. And that God hasn’t forgotten them. This is the very revelation of the incarnation! And it’s revealed to be the constant truth through the crucifixion and resurrection! That God hasn’t forgotten them. God is with them in this human form and through the physical presence in their midst.
Thomas misses this experience and longs to have what his friends have. Perhaps as one of the twelve, he’s afraid he isn’t on the team any longer. That he won’t be believed if he hasn’t seen it with his own eyes. That he won’t be a trustworthy leader of the church if he doesn’t have a personal, physical experience of Jesus overturning his life in the resurrection. He needs his own call story.
Sight and Belief
I’ll take this brief opportunity to remind the astute hearer and reader that John’s gospel doesn’t deal with Judas, dispatching him to his death. He disappears from the text after he betrays Jesus. And his absence from the text should be noticed here. It doesn’t say what happens to him. Nor does it say he isn’t with them. We literally can’t see him.
But what we have in our text is “the twelve”. They are still twelve. The author of Luke makes this explicit, but in John, it’s far more subtle. We’re left to wonder if Judas is there with them or if their number is of little consequence beyond a name for the inner circle. Regardless, we are left to wonder.
This is the nature of a text like this: a vivid picture of the presence of Jesus in the resurrection, revealing the way God comes to us, not only in intellectually consistent theologies, but troubling, unexplainable experiences.
And we become more attuned to that statement of Jesus’s when it is no longer a dig at Thomas and becomes an invocation of blessing
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are all of us who have not literally seen Jesus with our own eyes and yet still believe in the resurrection.
That’s a blessing. A blessing that transcends time and space, independent of that moment none of us have seen. This is a blessing for us.
It’s a blessing for all those who haven’t had an earth-shattering personal revelation of Jesus knocking them upside the head with voices of angels saying “Believe!” and yet they do!
And it’s a blessing for all who know Jesus without knowing it’s Jesus. Who know the love of Christ because one of us has shown it to them. Or a total stranger has revealed the very love of God and they have no idea that this is really how God operates.
Of all the things which help me see Jesus alive in the world today, it’s the belief that I see him in you. After all, isn’t that the very picture of Jesus?