Wittgenstein and Thomas - an Easter Meditation

Belief and Unbelief
Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Image of a neon question mark with dots
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

Putting two of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century together in a room in Kings College Cambridge, in the days when college rooms came equipped with coal fires and pokers, was a big mistake. For when Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper met in 1946 for a discussion in the presence, amongst others, of Bertrand Russell, an incident occurred which is the stuff of legend.

My interest in this isn’t because of an delight in philosophy (which isn’t one of my greatest strengths), but because of what went on in the meeting itself. It was a disaster. It lasted barely ten minutes. It was a loud and aggressive confrontation. Eventually, so people say, Wittgenstein picked up a poker and started brandishing it at Popper.

Well, they think that’s what happened. But some of the eminent philosophers who were there say one thing, some of them another – from he was just making a point with some theatricality to the more extreme view that he was threatening Popper. And, of course, nobody actually knows for certain what did happen – except that there was a poker, an argument and a dramatic exit by Wittgenstein.

But something did happen, of that there is no doubt - even though the accounts are at odds. And so it is with the resurrection – something did happen, but nobody knows exactly what. That’s partly because it’s outside our experience. And frankly, at one level I don’t care exactly what did happen. What I do know and care about is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus altered the whole dynamic of the relationship between God and humanity; and that we live in and with the reality of that altered dynamic.

Actually, Wittgenstein might be on my side (might he have been appalled to find himself so?) for he also famously wrote “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – a reticence for which theologians in particular, and Christians in general, have not always been noted!

But I doubt that Thomas would have wanted us to stay altogether silent. Doubting Thomas has had a bad press. Doubting Thomas is also faith-filled Thomas. And I think that in many ways doubting and faith-filled Thomas is you and me and everyone.

Wittgenstein is also known for his analogy of the dots. When we look at one of those dot pictures or puzzles we all see the same dots. But we each interpret them differently. Thomas saw the same dots in Jesus’ hands and side as the others had, but his interpretation was radically different: ‘My Lord and My God’. I doubt that his intellectual understanding was any better than ours – well, certainly than mine. His faith understanding, on the other hand, was totally transformed.

But lucky Thomas – he had the real dots; we only have them second hand. But no: we have something more. Thomas’s life was transformed by that encounter with Jesus, as it had undoubtedly been changed a time or two before in the course of his following Jesus on the way. And we have the witness of 2000 years of transformed lives, lives great and small, known and unknown. And our lives too, are transformed by our encounter with the Jesus dots, the resurrection puzzle. And that’s much more significant than the question of what actually happened. What matters is that we live, and live our lives, in the new resurrection dynamic.

Something else happened in the upper room when Thomas wasn’t there. Jesus gave the disciples authority to forgive or to retain sin. As a child, attending church on Easter morning, I used to be puzzled about why we were warned in the Book of Common Prayer Epistle, on this of all days, about the dangers of fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence and the wrath of God.  Well, I’m still not sure about the wrath of God. But one thing I have come to learn about Easter faith and resurrection life is that it gives us a realism about ourselves, a realism that, like Thomas we are both doubting and faith-filled, or that, like Peter for instance, we are both forgiven and yet continually prone to succumb to whatever form our denial or letting down of Jesus takes.

Doubting and faith-filled; forgiven and sinful still. Living on this side of the resurrection is no guarantee of sinlessness.

In fact, living on this side of the resurrection gives us a greater realism about sin and about forgiveness. “If we say we have no sin”, says St John, several decades later, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Belonging to Christ, living in the power of his resurrection, though ultimately it does deliver us from the power of death and sin, doesn’t mean we don’t sin any more now. Not, of course, that sinning should be sought for its own sake, indulged in so that grace may abound all the more. But nothing we do can do, not even our deliberate wilfulness, cuts us off from the love of the God who first loved us.

“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” For “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and his is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Familiar and comforting words, but words that can keep our eyes lingering too long on the cross, and that can prevent us from seeing the figure of the risen Jesus, calling us to new life in him – summoning us with hands that still bear the scars of the nails.

And for us, this new life means trying to become the people that in Christ God wants us to be, longs for us to be, equips us through many gifts in his church and his creation, to become. And it means not being discouraged when we fall short or can’t see what others see, can’t interpret what’s before our eyes or in our minds. For as Thomas discovered, recognising Christ involves us in a process of constant and continuous transformation.

Pokers; dots; transformation.

Let’s not be too worried if we’re not sure about what actually happened, but rather try with Thomas to understand God’s patterning of the dots for us.

And let’s welcome the transforming power of Christ giving new life to our lives, and rejoice in the gift of forgiveness that rescues our floundering transformation and transforms it again in every eucharistic meeting, at every recognition of imperfection, every time we gaze amazed at the cross and the empty tomb.

These things turned the world upside down, they started, continue and will always work at making our doubts explode into faith, our sinfulness become our new humanity and our lives become more Christlike.

All this is not just for us alone. Through all this we become part of the dots for other people. We have our side of the story to tell just like the Cambridge philosophers had theirs. And our faith and our doubt become part of the things not written in John’s book of what Jesus did but instead written in a living book for others to read.


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