Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Put Your Finger Here" Part 1 (Repost)

Rating: QGT

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. ...
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
(John 20:17-18, 27)1

Resurrection—the reversal of death—may be the ultimate act of queering. Belief in physical resurrection is so extreme that it borders on the truly mad. As one Episcopal priest put it, “Resurrection? In this body? That doesn’t sound like Good News to me!”

How can resurrection be “good news”? Why would a physically resurrected Christ say “do not hold on to me”? What kind of Messiah tells a disciple “Put your finger here”?

In his work treating the book of Jonah, Elie Wiesel observes, “The Zohar says explicitly that Jonah died of fear—but came back to life. It was Jonah’s most painful experience; he says so himself.”2 The idea that redemption is frightening and resurrection painful may be foreign to many Christians, but it is part of the Jewish understanding of resurrection in which Christian faith is rooted. Whatever our modern beliefs about resurrection, the Jesus of the Gospel accounts is a Jew. His human experience of resurrection is that of a Jew experiencing resurrection. It is reasonable—if anything connected to the serious discussion of resurrection can be so termed—to at least entertain the notion that Jesus’ human experience of resurrection was both frightening and painful.

Mainstream Christianity is accustomed to perceiving the crucifixion as the locus of any pain and/or fear that Jesus may have experienced, while assuming that the resurrection was unrelentingly joyous. Challenging these perceptions may well prove to be likewise full of both pain and fear; but let us not be deterred. Let us gird up our loins and venture forth into the Queer Minefield, utilizing some of the current theories about bodies, including theories of gender and sexuality, as a map to the resurrection story as told in John 20:17-27.

This paper has been accepted for publication in Theology and Sexuality and the final (edited, revised and typeset) version of this paper will be published in Theology and Sexuality, Volume 13 Issue 2, January 2007 by Sage Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Sage Publications Ltd, 2007.”

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John 18:38: ‘What is truth?’
In 1969—the year I turned five years old, long before Judith Butler was causing male-identified persons throughout academia to clutch their penises in sudden terror—Ursula K. LeGuin published a strange and dark and beautiful novel entitled The Left Hand of Darkness that starts out like this:
I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them is false, and it is all one story.

LeGuin—a self-avowed atheist4—provides, in these initial paragraphs of a fictitious narrative, the most useful perspective on reading the Bible that I have come across in three years of seminary. If we can begin to apprehend that “imagination” and “faith” are twins, that “making believe” and “believing” represent a single zygote divided so that each takes on its own life, then we can begin to grasp the implications for us of LeGuin’s apparently outrageous claim. Most of us have been taught that “truth” and “imagination” are mutually exclusive categories. Yet in order to place a fact or a story or a scientific principle in the “truth” category, we first have to believe it.

Belief starts by being made. “Make believe” is something we all know how to do, even if it has been decades since we engaged in its practice. Scientists do this all the time; they just do not call it “make believe.” Instead, they call “postulation,” which sounds much more impressive. Much of what we know about the physical universe started out as postulation, as imagining—making believe—and seeing where it led.

In similar fashion, we tend to construct an oppositional binary of the “corporeal” and the “mystical”; yet the most sensual reports we have of individuals’ encounters with Christ come from Christians whom our own tradition defines as mystics. If truth is a matter of the imagination, perhaps the corporeal is a manifestation of the mystical.

In her Preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes, “The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object.” Butler goes on to speak of “a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.”5

The idea that a belief can produce a reality, that some prophecies really are self-fulfilling, that the human psyche can actually create the preconditions that support its own perceptions, is a notion with a long and rich history in both Judaism and Christianity. Theurgy plays a significant role in Jewish mysticism tradition. In his Introduction to The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel Matt writes that to Moses, “God reveals the divine name, ‘I am that I am,’ intimating what eventually becomes a mystical refrain: God cannot be defined.”6 Furthermore, the divine name “I am that I am” intimates that God cannot be other than God is. Because God cannot be other than God is, theurgy—“forcing God’s hand”—is possible. Moshe Idel addresses the question this way, in his explication of an anonymous medieval Kabbalist: “Just as man will cleave to God in an intellectual manner, so will he cleave to man….[T]he reciprocity is regarded as automatic—no longer the response of a higher personality to the deeds of man, as in the Midrash, but a spiritual mechanism…”7

Working from the bottom up: B can only result from A; only God can emanate A; but by practicing B, Idel’s “spiritual mechanism” is activated, theurgically compelling A to have happened—meaning, by definition, that God has emanated A. The reciprocity to which Idel refers is explored by Michel Foucault when he writes that power, rather than being held, actually flows: power is a dynamic and a discourse.8 This turning around, upside down, inside out, reversal and reciprocity of power runs throughout the Gospel accounts, leading to the crucifixion and culminating in the resurrection.

yours in the struggle,

1. All scriptural quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised
Standard Version.
2. Elie Wiesel, Five Biblical Portraits. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1981,142.
3. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books (trade
paperback edition), 2000, 1.
4. LeGuin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, xv. “I talk about the gods; I
am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say.
I am telling the truth.”
5. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New
York: Routledge, 1999, xiv.
6. Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998, 3.
7. Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press,
1988, 174.
8. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York:
Vintage Books (Random House, Inc.), 1990, 92-95.


At 5:51 PM, Blogger Blue Wren said...

As an agnostic (yeah, I know, but who I am to say God doesn't exist?), but also a long, long ago lapsed Christian, I'd honestly never thought about the resurrection as painful or frightening, only the terrible death that preceded it. After all, the bible never really told the story of what happened after Christ's body was left in the tomb was never told, only what happened afterward, when it turned up missing. My vague understanding was that Christ reappeared to the disciples some time later as the Holy Spirit and, for the sake of Thomas (my man!), who needed more proof, made himself corporeal long enough for Thomas to add touch to what his eyes saw and his ears heard. I always thought that was a very generous and understanding gesture on Jesus's part, considering what he'd already gone through, but I supposed he did have some time to rest in between.

As for LeGuin, she's long been one of my favorite authors, a truly transcendent writer. I'm sure if I ever had the opportunity to meet her, I'd be completely tongue-tied, too overawed to do more than grunt. While I've enjoyed all of her books, the two I go back to over and over again are "Always Coming Home" and her simple and sometimes humorous version of the Tao, which comes closer than any "religion" to resonating for me. Its peaceful simplicity soothes my souland gives me something to strive for.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us and for doing it so very well. Good writing is such a pleasure!

At 7:24 PM, Anonymous max said...

BlueWren--wow. thanks. Coming from such a fine writer as yourself, this means a lot.
I'm a fan of Thomas too. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is what happens when we take something seriously enough to expend the energy to think critically about it.

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