Friday, June 10, 2011

In denial

I began my last post by saying that I intended to write about music for a change. I'm going to begin this one with an extended quote from the Irish writer Peter Rollins that I encountered this week, and that has been haunting me ever since. My thoughts on what Rollins has to say are intended as a followup to my Easter post from back in April. It's now almost Pentecost, so here goes.

"Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

"I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

"However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed."

What I love about this quote is how it interrogates our understanding of what it means to believe in something. I believe all kinds of things, usually because I have direct evidence that they are true. I believe that the sky is blue, or at least looks that way to most people. In case I forget, there's pretty direct evidence that I'm not mistaken about this. I believe that the sun will come back up tomorrow morning; even though it hasn't happened yet, the evidence for it is pretty strong, so it seems like a safe bet.

I also believe, as I said on Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead. I also said then that I didn't intend to spend any time defending this belief, which is contrary to all logic and counter-intuitive in the extreme. I do not receive daily evidence for it; in fact, I have never really received any evidence at all. Nevertheless, I'm now going to take up the challenge of defending it. As I do so, I can hear the echo of many people in the past who have told me that they believe in me. Those people did not, of course, mean that they believe I exist. They know I exist. What they meant was that they believed me to be up to some particular challenge that I was facing. Almost always, they turned out to be right.

That's why I think it's worth taking some time to think about whether most American Christians really do believe in the resurrection of Christ. Many would say that it means they are completely, 100% convinced that on that first Easter Sunday, the tomb was empty because Jesus had come back to life. Being able to believe this is sometimes even held up as a test of orthodoxy. In terms of the analogies I gave earlier, though, this would be equivalent to my saying that I believe a dog can turn into a salamander, and that the reason for this is that some people writing 2000 years ago described having seen this happen. If I can only convince myself that they were right, then I get to join an exclusive club that offers me an ironclad promise that, at some future date, my dog will turn into a salamander as well. (Of course, I don't have a dog, so I'd have to get one first.)

I don't mean to be frivolous in making this comparison. What it exposes is exactly what is so extraordinary about believing in the resurrection of Christ. It is not simply an assent to the idea that, against all logic, somebody came back to life 2000 years ago and then mysteriously disappeared again, ascending into a "heaven" that we now know consists mainly of empty, oxygen-less space in which human life could not possibly survive. It is an assent to the idea that when Jesus said "the kingdom of God is at hand," he was saying something that was true, and still is true today. [Thanks, Hugh Hollowell,, accessed June 10 2011) for making this connection.]

So, for me to believe in the resurrection means the same as it would mean for somebody to believe in me. It means I believe what Jesus himself said he believed, and asked others to believe. It means I believe that the world's conflicts can be solved without war or violence. It means I believe that looking out for my own interest is a fool's errand, and that others need my help far more. It means I believe that trusting a system based on human nature - say, capitalism or free market economics - to solve the world's intractable problems betrays a huge lack of imagination and moral courage. It means I believe that acting decisively to save God's physical creation, on which our very life defends, is not only possible but morally imperative. It means I believe God is calling us to believe all these things and more.

It also means - and I'll have to say this bluntly - that those who do not believe all those things do not believe in the resurrection of Christ. They don't believe that when he said "the kingdom of God is at hand," he was talking about something real that was worth dying for, and hence worth living for as well.

This Sunday is Pentecost. May the spirit move our weak, unfaithful world toward belief in the central, decisive tenet of the Christian faith. We really don't have much more time to waste.


  1. Incidentally, one other thing I believe is that I will never, ever be able to do more than a small fraction of the things that the beliefs I outline above seem to call on me to do. I believe that grace calls us all to radical patience both with our own failings and with those of others. That's why only a broad community animated by the beliefs I outline here is capable of bringing about real change.

    I read an interesting article at Easter time which pointed out that in Eastern Orthodox depictions of the resurrection, Jesus is never depicted emerging from the tomb alone. Instead, he is always accompanied by a small community of people he encountered during his descent into the underworld. The meaning of this is quite clear; resurrection is a group event, not an individual one. It speaks to all of us, or it speaks to none at all.

  2. I'll just jump in and be controversial. :)

    While I like what people like Peter Rollins and others are trying to communicate about the belief and faith and the resurrection, I sometimes wonder why must there be so much side-stepping and dancing around on an important question that does affect one's religious life in important ways. Why not come out and say that the historical and supposedly resurrected Jesus is not the aim of faith, but the image of the INVISIBLE God, which is the meaningful Jesus that the Bible speaks of, is the real aim of our faith. To say that Jesus is this image is to say that God is expressed in this Jesus in a profound way. This faith has nothing to do with the historical reality of a resurrection event.

    So why not just say it plain and simple: denying or not denying the historical resurrection has nothing to do with true faith. The meaning is indeed what matters; but if that is the case, let's just say it and not leave it open as to the role of the historical reality of Jesus and the miraculous. What benefit is there in leaving it open if it doesn't matter? Or does it?

  3. Those are very good questions. I know Borg and Crossan would say that the resurrection is a historical event because of what people were inspired to do, whether there was a physical body involved or not. Walter Wink says that the resurrection and the ascension are psychological events, and are none the less real for being so. Bultmann dismissed the empty tomb entirely, and accused St. Paul of making up stuff he knew wasn't true in order to persuade people.

    In my Easter piece, I said that I find the arguments of N. T. Wright (see his book "The Resurrection of the Son of God") to be more convincing for the simple reason that he says outright that the idea that there was a physical resurrection of a physical body affirms that the physical world is God's creation and the place where salvation will take place. The problem with all of those other arguments (and I don't dismiss any of them, BTW) is that they allow us to be "iffy" about the question of whether God really is able to act here and now, in the physical world.

    Wright points out that it was exactly at the point in the 19th-century when metaphorical interpretations of the resurrection began to be widely accepted that Christianity began to lose its commitment to radical social change - e.g. opposition to slavery and support of women's rights. I think he has a point.

  4. PS - I'll also admit something that runs as a subtext through many of my posts on this blog. The irony of the fact that it is the most conservative, tradition-bound Christians today who seem to place the most emphasis on the physical resurrection and its significance is not lost on me (or on N. T. Wright either). Part of what I'm trying to do here involves reclaiming the "orthodox" way of viewing the faith for progressives and people with open minds.

  5. You hit on a key point when you said: "The problem with all of those other that they allow us to be "iffy" about the question of whether God really is able to act here and now, in the physical world."

    Bultmann, Borg, Crossan, and many others' understanding of the resurrection seems to presuppose a certain iffiness about a God who acts in the here and now of the physical world. They don't question the reality of the resurrection per se, but they question whether the reality of God involves literal action in the world by a supernatural, theistic God.

    I guess the question is whether their iffiness is justified. If it is, then N.T. Wright's argument stands or falls in part on his answer to the question of a supernatural, theistic God. And this would make his faith highly contingent and thereby, it would seem, an unfit aim for his ultimate concern. If the iffiness is not justified, then through faith we should expect God to act in some way in our world.

  6. "If the iffiness is not justified, then through faith we should expect God to act in some way in our world."

    But we don't - and that's Wright's point. Thousands or people will quit their jobs and sell everything to wait for "the Rapture," but most orthodox Christians don't believe God enables us to solve climate change; for the most part, they don't even acknowledge that the problem exists.

    I think I understand your broader point. Wright is indeed making his faith contingent on the idea that there is a "theistic" God. At the same time, though, he is deeply concerned with the way the New Testament redefines God as working through human action and as bound by the physical limitations of the world. He is not welcomed by people at either extreme of the theological debates, and that's exactly why I enjoy reading him so much.

  7. Many Christians expect that God's actions are shown primarily through either the inner "spiritual life" of individuals or miraculous and incredible events. For many, a God working merely "through human action and...bound by the physical limitations of the world" is no God at all. I don't think that Wright would say that God works ONLY in or through human action, but as you say, he seems to emphasize it. But many see this emphasis on human action in the world as giving up on God as God. Any God worth its salt must be able to work a miracle and make it all better. To place so much emphasis on human action is often seen as stepping away from trusting God.

  8. Maybe I didn't phrase that very well. You're correct; Wright would certainly not say that God works only through human action. If there was a physical resurrection, for example, that was certainly an extraordinarily miraculous event that completely alters our ideas of what is possible.

    Another point that Wright makes - and I'm just putting this out as something to think about - is that if Jesus did not rise *physically*, then the Christian religion can make no claim that death has been overcome: all we can say is that it has been redefined. Probably his most controversial claim (apart from just about everything he says about St. Paul) is his contention that Christians are wrong to believe that they will go to heaven after they die. The promised afterlife will be here, in a world in which death no longer has dominion.

    I don't know who you are, but I've enjoyed this conversation. Hope you'll feel like continuing to post here. :-)