In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes everything in heaven as “much solider than things in our country.”
That phrase came to mind with the juxtaposition of seeing many images of Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas” and an Easter Day interview in the New York Times with progressive theologian and president of Union Seminary, Serene Jones.
Among other things, Jones wanted to inform the world — on Easter, of course — that she does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. For Jones, “the empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified.” To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if Christianity presents only “symbols” then to hell with it.
A latitudinarian ghost in The Great Divorce says:
“When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon.”
The condescension of the progressive theologian is not new, and their critical faculties are never that critical. The sin of pride in theology — the self puffed up, and then projected onto God — always shows itself as something transparent and empty, like a balloon ready to pop. C.S. Lewis feels pity for the progressive ghost. So he writes hopefully, with an evangelical invitation: “Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?” The ghost finds a thousand reasons not to take the bus ride into the heavenly regions. But none of them are good.
I prefer “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” to “The Condescension of Reverend Jones.” Caravaggio’s physical realism is perfectly suited to the solidity of the bodily resurrection. The saint’s incredulity is more honest: “Unless I thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Faith seeks understanding about reality, not “symbols,” which we control like theurgical divinations.
The power of Christianity is not it’s usefulness for bespoke tailoring to personal or cultural wish-fulfillment. Christianity is not on the verge of “reaching something even bigger than Christianity.” Though liberals often fantasize that there is some Christian principle by which they might deny Christianity itself, Serene Jones shows us the balloon popping.
Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is not a detachable feature of Christianity. Saint Thomas did not plunge his hand into a symbol. He pressed, and pressed until he could touch and see this resurrection reality, this new physicality of the Risen Lord that is not less real, but more — like Lewis’ green grass in heaven, the very solidity of Christianity can be painful to the feet of the shadows. Easter is Christian realism that builds gothic cathedrals where God can be touched, or it is nothing at all.
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