Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflecting on the Resurrection

Another Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the debate about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection continues to be pondered and debated, affirmed and denied.
One way to evade the issue is to generalize the resurrection, much as the President did last Saturday in his weekly radio address.
“Christ’s triumph over death holds special meaning for Christians,” the President said. “But all of us,” he continued, “no matter how or whether we believe, can identify with elements of His story. The triumph of hope over despair. Of faith over doubt.”
There is value in this approach, and I have often talked about “the Resurrection principle,” including on this blog (here). But that doesn’t really solve the problem about the factuality or actuality of Jesus’ resurrection.
Christians, past and present, have made two serious mistakes in explaining the Resurrection. On the one hand, many conservative/fundamentalist Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection too literally. That is, they have asserted the physical resurrection of Jesus.
But the resurrection of Jesus is quite certainly something different than—and far more important than—the resuscitation of a corpse.
On the other hand, many progressive/liberal Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection in a completely non-historical manner. That is, they assert that the resurrection of Jesus was an inner psychological, existential, or spiritual experience of the early Christian believers that had nothing to do with the crucified body of Jesus.
This is a matter I dealt with in my book The Limits of Liberalism. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, contends that the resurrection of Jesus occurred in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem. That is because there was nothing “objective” that happened in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and buried. The “resurrection” was only something subjective that happened in the hearts and minds of the apostles who had fled to Galilee.
Spong and other liberals talk about resurrection, to be sure, but it is a watered-down resurrection, one devoid of any factuality or any “taint” of the miraculous—except in the sense that the Apostles “miraculously” experienced the spiritual presence and ongoing influence of the crucified Christ in their hearts as they were imbued with new faith and courage to carry on the teachings of the Jesus movement (see The Limits, p. 137).
I find the ideas of the British scholar N. T. Wright in his new book How God Became King (March 2012) to be much more satisfactory. An excellent, and succinct, summary of that book can be found here.
Wright, whom I also mentioned in a post about the Resurrection last April (here), rejects what he calls the “reductionist project” of liberal scholars. And I think Wright is right. In order to affirm the liberal position, all that one has to do is accept the Enlightenment paradigm—and deny/reject the New Testament witness, the primary creeds of the Church, and the central affirmation of the Church from the beginning until the present (except for the liberal minority).
As someone wrote in an e-mail last week, there is “a whole lot of mystery involved” in the story of the Resurrection. I fully agree. Let’s not miss the power of that story by trying to explain the Resurrection as either a physical occurrence or as just an inner, psychological experience.


  1. I suspect, Leroy, that we--i.e., thinkers in general--can never get away from the problem of explaining and understanding such events as the resurrection or Muhammad's meetings with the Angel Gabriel or the various avatars of Krishna from a naturalistic perspective. If we are to have "scientific" history, sociology, etc., they must necessarily restrict their explanations to nature and what appears to be possible naturally. However, insofar as we are "believers"--i.e., people of faith trying to respond to the presence of the Holy, of God--we're in an altogether different space regarding such stories. You've defined well the two major alternatives within Christianity--the physical body walking around and then shooting up into the sky or the existential "resurrection" in a seeker's life. Whether we can actually appropriate a third way is a most challenging question. I haven't read Wright's book, but every more-or-less orthodox account of the resurrection I've ever read ends up simply asserting, at some point, that it happened. And many of them, the most offensive intellectually, will declare that there are things beyond our understanding, which is true, of course, but a fallacy if it's supposed to lead one to positively affirming some incredible event. It's a little like all the proofs of God provided by Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes. At some point, God gets snuck in through a back door to the logic. I don't know the answer for the third way. My guess is that even the most clever at this time will still be fairly provisional. The question for the third wayers would, I think, still be whether something cosmic occurred around the resurrection. And even for Christians who want to say that, they're still in the most difficult space of explaining how their event is the pivotal cosmic event and not Judaism's or Islam's or Hinduism's or even one yet to come.

    1. The practical question to me is, how does the resurrection story affect our ethics and politics and behavior. Does it help us justify holy wars, or does it persuade us that non-resistance to evil is the better choice? Does it inspire us to construct a "nanny" state, or does it commend rugged individualism? Does it make us restrain our appetites for the sake of future generations, or does it permit us to consume as much as we can without any limits? Should we endure injustices in this life because all will be well in the next life? Or should we seek the greatest good for the greatest number, even if that means sending drones to kill anyone threatening our national interests?

  2. Last year I taught a Sunday school lesson on "Seeing is Believing." The point was...those closest to Jesus didn't recognize him when he appeared to them after Easter morning...mostly until Jesus confronted them in some way. So I posed the question, why is it two thousand years later we are so accepting that it happened. It became clear that many in the class had a fear of even questioning it. Some were offended and hurried to defend Jesus and his resurrection act.

    My point was not to create doubt but to help people affirm why they believe what they believe. Thinker Rhoads is right. The point isn't so much whether he did or didn't, it's how does our view affect our actions.

    Thanks Leroy for another opportunity to think!

  3. Interesting post, Leroy. How we consider the resurrection of Jesus to be "true" is certainly a challenging question for Christians in the after-Enlightenment world. Two comments to add -

    First, which may not be news to some TFs, Stephen Jay Gould put forth an interesting theory that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), concerned with different questions, occupying different realms of inquiry. Others (including Francis Collins) have critiqued him, with some suggesting that science and religion are "partially-overlapping magisteria" (POMA). Gratefully, there's a wikipedia entry on non-overlapping magisteria if folks are interested to learn more about it.

    Second, who says Easter's over? Orthodox Christians will celebrate this coming weekend, and those of us who try to follow the liturgical calendar get seven more weeks to party! :-) (I always enjoy wearing my "Happy Easter" tie on the Second Sunday of Easter and getting questions from congregation members.)

  4. Allyn, thanks for your comments -- and my apologies to any Orthodox Christian readers. (I wish I had some Orthodox Thinking Friends.)

  5. An esteemed Thinking Friend made this brief comment by e-mail:

    "I like that conclusion, Leroy.You can't explain the Church without a genuine Resurrection."

  6. Michael Willett Newheart, my Thinking Friend (and former student) who teaches at Howard University Divinity School, shared comments (which he gave me permission to post here) that he first posted on FaceBook in response to someone who asserted that "belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection non-negotiable."

    Michael wrote,(in part):

    "I'm not much into making a historical judgment a non-negotiable of Christian faith, for me or for anyone else. I'm much more concerned about the state of 21st-century 'pre-death' bodies than I am the state of a certain 1st-century 'post-death' body. And I want to expand our conception of bodies to include the body of the earth. We're killing the earth and its inhabitants, friends! And you do not want folks to be Christians unless they use certain language about an event 2000 years ago!? Give me a break! Bodies are already being broken, flesh-and-blood bodies that live right now, in this country and around the world! These are the bodies whose state we ought to be concerned about. If in this Easter season, our compassion for them would be awakened, then it would be true resurrection!"

  7. A close relative of mine died just before dawn this Easter morning. What hope has she and family members for her without a resurrected savior? It is interesting that what we may or may not do believing in Christ's possible resurrection may seem more important than his actual resurrection. Perhaps you see an "idol"--belief in Christ's actual resurrection. But is not an idol substituted when one says that what I do as an individual is more significant than the promise of resurrection that overcomes evil? It promises potential for who I can become in both life (new birth)and death's--resurrection! What promise without it?

  8. In the comments above, Phil expresses well the concern of Anabaptists (Mennonites) and Michael the viewpoint of the Quakers. Together they make a good and important emphasis, which I much appreciate.

    But in my usual both/and way of looking at things, what they say in no way takes away from the importance (necessity?) of talking about the Risen Christ as factual. The Resurrection is both an historical event and a contemporary experience, and both should be affirmed.

    The early Anabaptists clearly accepted/believed in the Resurrection, although they did not spend much time or energy talking about the nature of resurrection "body" of Jesus.

    George Fox and the early Quakers proclaimed the risen Lord. According to Lewis Benson (1906-86), an expert on the writings of George Fox, "Jesus Christ, the resurrected one, whose living presence
    saves and heals and enlightens—he is the cornerstone of the primitive
    Christian church and the primitive Quaker fellowship. . . . He remains the core of the faith of the early Friends" ("None Were So Clear").

    But the primary emphasis of the Anabaptists and Quakers must not be overlooked: the Resurrection is important not just as a past event, but as a present power for good in the lives of Jesus' followers (disciples).

  9. This year's discussion of the resurrection lead me to check out the archives from last year. I recommend it, even though it almost stopped me from writing this year. However, I will add one angle to the discourse.

    The driving dynamic of theatre is something called "the willing suspension of disbelief." I personally believe that good theatre and good worship have a lot in common. However, religion, at least in my experience, does little with the willing suspension of disbelief. Religion does, however, use what I will call "the subliminal suspension of disbelief." At a performance of Macbeth we willingly enter a fiction to gain an experience, perhaps even insight and inspiration. During worship, our preparation is less direct, but accomplishes much the same thing, for much the same purpose.

    Now Macbeth is not the same as resurrection. We can put certain boundaries around Macbeth. Resurrection is all about destroying those kinds of boundaries. Yet it is something like Macbeth. We approach resurrection with faith, not knowledge. We experience its power, but then, we experience Macbeth's power, too. We come to resurrection with a swirl of questions, not too different from the ones surrounding Macbeth. After all, even whether Shakespeare wrote this or any other play is open to debate. And so we come to resurrection, rather like the despairing father in Mark 9:24, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" This I call "the subliminal suspension of disbelief." So we get ready for worship. We set aside worries about finances, health, family and projects. We open up to worship, that it might work its magic upon us. Maybe, even a resurrection.

    Theatre has another concept, called "breaking the fourth wall." This means directly addressing the audience, toying with the willing suspension of disbelief, usually in an ironic or humorous manner. When it works, it can be the high point of a performance. When it does not, well, it does not! Now, I bring this up, because I believe that focusing too narrowly on the historical question of the resurrection is much like breaking the fourth wall. It makes us very aware of the intellectual questions and compromises built into faith. And I tend to think that bringing such questions into worship is much like bringing the authorship question into a performance of Macbeth. Now, we are a step removed from worship, this is a blog, not a church, yet it still puts us in the awkward position of either digging deep into the scholarly questions around the resurrection, or else in the bad faith choice of pretending that substantial questions do not exist. When I witness Macbeth upon the stage, I engage it as an experience. I do not even want to be drawn off into wondering about the lights, sound or acting techniques. There is enough chance to speculate on those later. So it is with the resurrection. We must live in the experience. We cannot dismiss it in some liberal style as a mere metaphor. Yet neither can we bury it under the leaden weight of conservative literalism. Rather, we should respect its mystery, and its theatre!

  10. Thank you, Craig, for bringing the fullness of sacramental mystery to bear in the discussion. You address it well in lay terms.