Article: my take on the Emmaus story
On any reading, the story of the Road to Emmaus is a very strange story. The Risen Christ seems to have been mighty peculiar. Why did Cleopas and his companion not recognise him? Did he have a different face? When eventually they did recognise him, the account does not say, “And he bade them good night and continued on his way”: it says, “And he vanished from their sight.” Was this a spiritual body that vanished from their sight, as Paul would have it, or was it a physical body that vanished from their sight, as the Christian church later came to believe? Do physical bodies vanish? And if it was a physical body, how come that it stood in the midst of them again later in the same evening in Jerusalem? Are we to suppose that when Cleopas and his companion rose up the same hour and returned to Jerusalem, this physical body followed them down the road in an invisible form? By all accounts the Risen Christ was mighty peculiar.
I want to explain to you my own, very non‐standard, take on the Emmaus story. You may find it a strange take, but I want to explain it to you because throughout my life I have given an enormous amount of thought to the strange events recorded in the Gospels and what we are to make of them, and I have some tentative conclusions. These conclusions will not be wholly correct and indeed they may be largely wide of the mark, but I believe they contain some truth and I want to share them with you.
The Gospels are full of accounts of what I would call anomalous events. By anomalous events I mean things that happen otherwise than through physical laws of the type familiar to present‐day scientists. Under the umbrella of “anomalous events” I would include the miracles of Jesus and the apostles, the Transfiguration, and the Resurrection appearances.
Now, I regard myself as a scientist. I have never been a scientist by profession, but I am a scientist both by nature and by education. As a scientist, the easiest course for me would be to join with the scientific consensus and say that anomalous events don’t happen. Most scientists would deny altogether the miracles of Jesus and the apostles, the Transfiguration, and the Resurrection appearances, on the grounds that anomalous events just don’t happen. But, for better or worse, that course is not open to me. That is because, throughout my life, I have experienced anomalous events. Dozens of times. Some of these have been Christian experiences, such as answers to prayer, but not all of them. I have experienced telepathy, clairvoyance, many precognitive dreams, one poltergeist, table‐tipping, and contact with departed spirits. I know that these things happen. They are not figments of my imagination, unless I am mad, and there is no evidence that I am mad. I don’t even think that I am particularly suggestible.
It is tempting to see the Emmaus account, like all accounts of anomalous events, in terms of black and white. It is tempting to suppose that there are only two possibilities. That is, either Jesus physically rose from the dead, and physically walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his companion; or it didn’t happen at all, and this was nothing more than a hallucination in the minds of the disciples, or, worse still, a fictional story. But I don’t think we need to see it in terms of black and white. There is middle ground between the black and the white, and that middle ground is known as projectivism.
Projectivism is a buzzword in contemporary philosophy. Projectivism is the stance that reality is not purely objective: rather, reality is a complex matter from which the observer cannot be excluded. I was introduced to it in 2010 in a talk given to Edinburgh University PhilSoc by Robin Le Poidevin, Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds. The speaker’s topic was one particular class of anomalous events, and it needn’t concern us what that particular class was. Here is an extract from his talk that gives the flavour:
Moral judgements are projections from the mind of the observer. When you see a teenager helping an old person across the street, you will think, “nice”. When they reach the other side and the teenager mugs the old person, you will think, “not so good”. Do we say that the teenager’s actions genuinely have moral properties, or do we say that they induce in us certain moral feelings which we project back onto the actions? The answer is, we can say both. I can be a moral projectivist without claiming that moral judgements are invalid. The same goes for aesthetic judgements and for emotions as for moral judgements.
This can be extended also to so‐called secondary qualities such as colours and tastes. Do I say that this floor is truly green, or do I say that it induces a sensation of green in me? I can legitimately say both.
It can also be extended to the passage of time. Do we say that time really passes, or do we say that it seems that way to us? We can say both.
Can this be extended to our perception of the physical universe in general? The physical universe consists fundamentally, we believe, of elementary particles like electrons and quarks. What about a composite object such as a table, which is composed of many elementary particles? Does a table exist? The ultimate extension of projectivism is [compositional] nihilism, the view that composite objects exist not in any fundamental sense, but only in the sense that they are our projections.
The point about projectivism is that reality is a product of the way the world is structured and of the way that we, the observers, are structured. The world is not fundamentally as we observe it. But we are not saying that our experience is an illusion. Nothing has gone wrong with us. Understood in that way, we do not dismiss [the anomalous events that are the topic of this talk] as illusions. [They] may be projections, but they are none the worse for that.
…As the complexity of our universe becomes more apparent, philosophers are becoming increasingly used to occupying such halfway, projectivist, positions.
That’s the end of my quote from the talk, and these last few words that follow now are my own. Personally, I would take a projectivist view of the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his companion experienced the Risen Christ because of the way the world is structured and the way that they, the observers, were structured. What they experienced will not have been purely objective, but neither was it an illusion. They experienced the Risen Christ because of the way their minds were working, because of the way that Christ’s mind was working, and because of their great love for Christ and Christ’s even greater love for them. They were not mistaken. Nothing had gone wrong with them. On the contrary, everything had come right with them. They encountered the Risen Christ because he was there.
Eric P Smith
21 December 2021