Sight and insight

Alfred Nobel was reading the obituary section of the newspaper one morning when he read that he had died. What he read he didn't like. Photo: rook76 /
Published April 16, 2012

When the British philosopher and atheist, Bertrand Russell, was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him, he responded, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

That was the cry of Thomas when he was told by the other apostles that they had seen the Lord. The very assertion must have seemed nonsense to him. Dead people don’t come back to life; he knew that. And so, he makes a statement that could be made by any skeptic today: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” In other words, “Unless I see it, I won’t believe it.” What can’t be seen or touched or verified physically through the senses is not real to Thomas. He demands sight, but what he really needs is insight.

To appreciate the difference between sight and insight, let’s focus on a hypothetical. What if a camera had been placed in the tomb where Jesus was buried? The camera runs from the time Jesus is laid in the tomb on Good Friday night until Easter Sunday morning when the women arrive. About the resurrection – what do you think we would see on the film? Would we see a corpse come back to life, like Lazarus who was called from the tomb? I don’t think so. Lazarus was brought back to life, only to die again. His was the resuscitation of a corpse, not the resurrection of the body.

And here is the point: the resurrection of Jesus is not a corpse come back to life. In the resurrection, St. Paul tells us, we take on a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). A spiritual body is not an earthly body, but an embodied personality in a state of glory. It is full of splendor beyond any earthly limitations, imperishable and immortal.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he had a spiritual body. Here is the resurrection of an embodied personality-life in all its fullness without end. If the gospels have difficulty in describing the resurrection, the explanation is simple enough: how do we describe the indescribable except in broken words and partial images? To see a spiritual body one needs more than sight; one needs insight.

The Jesuit theologian Gus Weigel used to remark to his students that if the risen Christ had appeared to Pilate or Herod, they probably would not have recognized him. To see the risen Christ as he really is, one must see him by faith, or not at all. We need more than sight. We need insight.

John Newton knew this when he wrote that much beloved hymn Amazing Grace! “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Blind, but now I see: not the sight of our eyes, but the sight of our soul which only comes by faith.

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote some of the most majestic eucharistic hymns, teaching that the bread and wine of Holy Communion are really and truly the body and blood of Christ to those who have faith – “faith, our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear.” (1)

Anyone who wears glasses knows what a difference they make in how we perceive the world. Without glasses the world is blurred; people and things are only shapes and sizes. When we wear our glasses, the world comes into focus. We see things clearly, as they really are. Faith is like wearing a pair of glasses. Without faith, we see, but only dimly. Without faith, the risen Christ could have appeared to his enemies, and they would not have recognized him. Without faith, the disciples would not have seen the Lord.

That is why intellectual acumen is no substitute for faith. Knowing Christ is not a matter of the mind. It’s a matter of the heart, a matter of experiencing God through personal relationship.

Relationship precedes knowledge. That is how people come to know each other, and it is the way we come to know Jesus. Developing a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to know him, not objectively off the top of our mind but personally from the depths of our heart.

The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury St. Anselm declared famously, “I believe that I may understand.” Only where there is faith or trust in God is there real knowledge about God. Faith transforms sight into insight. Faith allows us to believe when we do not see. It provides us with the certainty that evades the senses.

So let’s go back to Bertram Russell’s objection to Christianity: “Not enough evidence!” If by “evidence” he means unmistakable, irrefutable proof, then such evidence God refuses to give us. If God wanted to compel us to believe by force of evidence, then Jesus would have come down from the cross when challenged by the crowd: “Come down from the cross that we may see and believe.” To this, the risen Jesus responds in our gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Faith gives us the spiritual sight to see God when the senses prove inadequate and logic takes us only so far.

The key is to keep in mind that Christianity is not an academic system, a philosophy of life or even a religion. It is, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “to be caught up in the way of Jesus Christ,” knowing Jesus, loving Jesus, serving Jesus, becoming more Jesus-centered and living more Jesus-like. If we try to know Jesus off the top of our head rather than from the depths of our heart, we will miss him and our faith will remain shallow and superficial.

In 1835, a young man wrote an essay for his university application in Germany. The essay was titled, “A Young Man’s Choice of His Career.” In it, he warned that a young man is not to leave his career to chance but should listen to the inner voice, the guidance of God. The essay was thoroughly pious in its presentation. It declared that everyone has a need for religious comfort. It affirmed that everyone has a fallen nature, a fallible mind, and a spoiled heart, but that still, we can exult in our redeemer.

It is recorded that the examiners were highly impressed by this essay, written by a 17-year-old. They received him into the university, happy for the moral tone of such writing.

But it needs to be said that the young man’s name was Karl Marx, and time proved that the seed had fallen on very shallow soil indeed. One cannot help wondering what would have happened if parents and church had focused Karl Marx more on a personal relationship with Jesus and less on the church rules, doctrines and morals.

About 30 years after Marx wrote his essay for university, and shortly after the American Civil War ended, two former Union army officers met by chance on a train. They were Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a lawyer from Illinois, and General Lewis Wallace, a lawyer from Indiana. Both were agnostics, Ingersoll a very militant one.

In their conversation Wallace mentioned Jesus and suggested, “I think an interesting romance could be written about that man.” Ingersoll agreed and thought that Wallace was just the man to do it, but he also urged him to demolish the prevailing view of Jesus as the Son of God and paint him as he actually was-a man among men.

Wallace began collecting research on Jesus. He read the gospels and reread them. His preparation was intense and thorough, but the more he focused on Jesus, the more he came to the firm conviction that Jesus was not merely a man among other men, but he was indeed what Thomas and the Christian Church had confessed him to be: the Son of God.

Lew Wallace’s finished product was the novel Ben Hur, which has had a lasting appeal even to our own generation. By focusing on Jesus, Wallace came to believe in Jesus, and in believing in Jesus he came to understand Jesus as no ordinary human being but as the Son of God.

On this Doubting Thomas Sunday, if you have not already done so, begin to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus. Focus on Jesus. Enter into the life of Jesus. Follow in the way of Jesus. Move from sight to insight, so that even if you have not seen you may yet believe and confess with Thomas and the saints of every age: Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont.


John 20:19-31

1. Thomas Aquinas, “Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling” in Common Praise (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2000) Hymn 50


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