Monday, April 22, 2019

Real Resurrection is Essential to Christian Faith

The story might have ended there, except that three days after he had died and been buried, he came back to his disciples, resurrected—fully and physically alive.
(The Story of Jesus, in Brief, The Episcopal Church Website)

Wood burning in the sanctuary of St. James, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Every year around Holy Week and Easter some clergy person gets published questioning the Church’s historic teaching on the resurrection. This year it was Serene Jones, Dean of Union Seminary in New York. In an interview with the New York Times, Jones is quoted as saying, “What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

My basic response is three-fold:

1. That just goes to show that we are really talking about something other than Christian faiththen. Of course, if someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb it would not affect the faith of a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist either.

2. What are the underlying certainties and beliefs to which this person subscribes that make resurrection untenable or unnecessary? It might be a naive attachment to naturalism. But it is often something more theological. An example of this can be found in Marcus Borg. In a footnote in The Meaning of Jesus, Borg admitted there were three theological reasons why he rejects the historical factuality of the empty tomb none of which has anything to do with “objective”  history:

There are also theological reasons why I do not like an emphasis upon the historical factuality of the empty tomb. (1) It can have a distorting effect on the meaning of Easter faith: Easter faith easily becomes believing in the factuality of past events, rather than living within a present relationship, and the truth of Christianity becomes grounded in the “happenedness” of this past event rather than in the continuing experience of the risen Christ. (2) In conservative Christian apologetics, the factuality of the empty tomb is often used to prove the truth of Christianity and even its superiority to all other religious traditions. But I do not believe that the truth of Christianity can be proved in this fashion, and I do not believe that God is known primarily or only in our tradition. The claim conflicts with what I know of other religions, and it is difficult to reconcile with Christian notion of grace. (3) Finally, this emphasis virtually requires an interventionist notion of God, which I do not accept." 
(p. 268)

I appreciate his honesty. It's more than one often gets from those who claim their scholarship is free from dogmatic constraints. But, I don't see how his preconceived assumptions, as assumptions, are any different from those who say, The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. If one starts by assuming that God cant intervene in time and space and that any claims to the uniqueness and primacy of Jesus Christ are ruled out on principle, one will reject the idea of resurrection to conform with those prior theological constraints. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote,

The assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead remains a matter of dispute in a special degree because it cuts so deeply into fundamental questions of understanding reality."
(The Apostle's Creed in Light of Today's Questions, p. 114)

Or, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote,

The simple truth is that resurrection cannot be accommodated to any way of understanding the world except one in which it is the starting point."


The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross.
(Proper Confidence)

The resurrection of Jesus summons us to enter into a particular way of seeing and being in the world. In short, it requires conversion. And it won't do to try to redefine resurrection to mean something conformable to other dogmatic convictions in order to avoid that conversion. It won’t do to reduce it to a metaphor for the enduring power of love or whatever. To talk about Jesus’ post-Easter existence as something other than his being “resurrected—fully and physically alive,” empty tomb and all, is to talk about something other than resurrection and is in itself quite empty. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams insists:

In short I want to claim that that the story of the empty tomb is not in fact incidental or secondary to the exposition of what the resurrection means theologically . . . But, it will be asked, does this mean that I think belief in the empty tomb as an historical fact to be essential to belief in the resurrection? Actually, yes.
(On Christian Theology, p. 194)

I suggest that the witness of the Church to the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus –fully and physically – has never been tied to biblical literalism and neither should it be beholden to the criteria of modernist skeptical criticism. If it happened, there is nothing more true or grounded by which to measure its reality. One can only live into and bear witness to that reality. It is the fundamental assumption of Christian faith which grounds and anticipates the fundamental Christian hope.

3. I guess my faith is not “stronger than that”. The truth is I often find it hard to believe in God. Much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy. Talk of god in a baby’s smile or the beauty of nature doesn’t quite cut it. Generic talk of “the Holy” or “the Sacred”? I don’t know what that means.

Even talk of God as love, by itself, seems to me to too easily slip into sentimentality. All such talk falls flat in the face of the horror story that is much of human history and the extravagant brutality that exists in with and under the extravagant beauty of creation.

The only way I can believe in any God is if it is the God who in Jesus Christ poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross. And then blew the doors of death off their hinges in the very real, very historical resurrection of the one who took all death and sin and suffering into the grave.

The promise of Easter is not merely that “love is stronger than life or death”. It is the promise of new creation in which all the very real, historical physical and spiritual suffering and death we endure and inflict are overcome and will in the end be healed.

That still might not always be easy to believe. But, it is the only thing I know of that, if indeed true, is solid enough and beautiful enough to bet my life on. Which, in the end, is what believing is about. 

And that is what enables me to hang onto the belief and hope that love is in fact stronger than life and death.

See also: