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, http://www.redletterchristians.org/do-i-deny-the-resurrection/,
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.