24 May 2010

Physical Resurrection: Linchpin of Christianity?

Andrew Sullivan, well know blogger and Catholic, reflects upon his faith.
Christianity is in crisis - and in a deeper crisis, in my view, than many Christians are allowing themselves to believe. I start from a simple premise. There can be no conflict between faith and truth. If what we believe in is not true, it is worth nothing. The idea that one should insincerely support religious faith because it is good for others or for society is, for me, a profound blasphemy if you do not share the faith yourself. I respect atheists and agnostics who reject faith; I find it harder to respect fundamentalists - of total papal or Biblical authority - because of the blindness of their sincerity; but I have no respect for those who cynically praise religion for its social uses, while believing in none of it themselves. Sadly, a critical faction of the Straussian right has been engaged in exactly that kind of cynicism for a while now.
But if religion and truth cannot be in conflict, Christians who believe in a God of logos have an obligation to make sense of those moments when modern learning disproves certain religious preconceptions. No modern Christian, it seems to me, can claim the literal inerrancy of the Bible without abandoning logos.

No educated Christian today can deny that the scriptures we have - copies of translations of copies of copies of oral histories - are internally and collectively inconsistent, written by many authors, constructed in specific historical contexts, reflecting human biases, and supplemented by several other gospels that at the time claimed just as much authority as those gospels eventually selected by flawed men centuries later. Anyone who believes that the Holy Spirit automatically guides every church leader to the perfect truth at all times need only look at the current hierarchy to be disabused of such childish wish-fulfillment; or cast an eye on church history for more than a few minutes.
So the solid architecture of the faith we inherited has been exposed more thoroughly in the last few decades than ever before. There is no single authoritative text, written by one God, word for word true. There is a much more complicated series of writings designed by many men, doubtless under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that help us see some form of the figure Jesus through languages and texts and memories. I think the character and message of Jesus are searingly clear and distinctive even taking into account that daunting veil through which we are asked to see. But we can only begin to see this once we have understood the veil that both obstructs and made possible our view.
The same, I think, is true of the papacy as an alternative to Biblical literalism. This is in some ways a more durable defense against logos than Biblical literalism, but it is just another form of fundamentalism, deploying total obedience to total authority as an alternative to a living faith that can both doubt and yet also practice the love of God and one's enemies, Jesus's core instructions. I do not see how the limits and flaws of such total authoritarianism could have been more thoroughly illuminated than in the recent sex abuse scandal. When the man whose authority rests on being the vicar of Christ on earth consigns children to rape rather than tarnish the image of the church, he simply has no moral authority left. Yes, his position deserves respect. But its claims to absolute authority have fallen prey to the human arc of what Lord Acton called "absolute corruption". 
So we are left in search of this Jesus with a fast-burning candle in a constantly receding cave where we know that at some point, the darkness will envelop us entirely. We will catch Him at times; He will elude us at others. We will have to listen to many words he may have spoken before we can each discern the words he may have meant; we will have to keep our eyes and ears open for science's revelations about the world, while understanding that science is just one way of understanding the world and that poetry, history, and practical perspectives have things to tell us as well. The cathedral at Chartres; the long story of Christian debate and theology; the rituals and daily practices that help us stay trained to intuit the divine we cannot understand and the divine we do not always see in every face around us: these too tell us things that go beyond fact, archeology and hermeneutics. 
Yes, this intellectual sifting is hard and troubling to faith; yes, it may end with more mystery than clarity. But if our faith is to be true, it must rest on something more than denial of reality. It must rest on being the greatest experience of reality.
The Christianity he seems to describe is one of humility and constructive doubt in the face of scholarship and science. It is not a statement of despair, but one of hope that these tests will ultimately reveal the true face of Christ. Later in the day he follows up this post with a readers response, who puts the challenge for Christianity in starker terms, resting on the validity of Christ's physical resurrection.
I am a Christian because I follow Christ before anyone else (not to say I don't believe that we have a lot to learn from the other faiths!), and there must be a reason for that, in my opinion. 
If Jesus was little more than a uniquely-adept Jewish mystic with a profound experience of the Divine (God-as-"Daddy," a pretty great idea), then while that is profound, it's no reason for me to follow him uniquely as opposed to the path of the Buddha, the Hindu mystics, or the Kabbalah. I could follow him as one sage among many, but not as something unique. This is fine, mind you, but let's not kid ourselves by saying that we (or anyone else of any other faith, for that matter) could keep our special spiritual identity in this way. We fall into an amorphous blob of "Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, and the Gita are all saying the same thing!" philosophy, and while that may be good for the Kumbayah campfire, it's not good for serious scholarship in comparative religion (Protherto is making the rounds with this point, thank God). This is where
Resurrection comes in, I think. I don't believe the early Christians viewed this as a purely spiritual phenomenon (see research into the Semitic Totality Concept for just one reason why), but something real and physical (one of the earliest Christian creeds that we have on record is a bit crude about it, in fact, saying that, in regards to the Resurrection, "the corpse stood up").
It was the thing that separated Jesus from all the other miracle-working Torah commentators of his day (as stated previously, if one just takes Jesus at face value, he's pretty unremarkable).  The Resurrection divinizes Jesus and humanizes God (the most amazing part, I think), and as such, makes Christianity unique. To say that there was a first-century Jew wandering the highways with whores and fisherman and breaking the bureaucracy of his religion and drinking like a fiend and bringing God to the masses is one thing. To say that it was God that was doing all that is quite another.
          Therein lies Christianity's real trump card.
It's not that we have a unique experience of God, it's not that we have a monopoly on God, it's not that our ceremonies and rituals are better (they're pretty terrible sometimes).  It's that God knows what it's like to be a human being. God eats, drinks, sleeps, cries, gets angry, bleeds, dies, and then shows us that death is not the end. If we're to believe the whole "We are the Body of Christ" bit, too, then that means this mystery is continuing. Our eating, our drinking, our joys, our sufferings, and our deaths are all our participation in the life of God, and God's participation in ours.
If Jesus did not rise, if he really was just chewed up by dogs after the crucifixion, then let's be honest about it, see Christianity for the bankrupt system that it is, and move onward into other faiths of our choosing (I'll probably be bathing in the Ganges.)  I can't do this yet, however, because I believe the scholarship doesn't allow it.
I remember having an animated discussion some years ago with a Christian campus minister, and he asked me what I thought the single proof of Baha'u'llah's revelation was. I responded with some exasperation, claiming that there were too many proofs to recount. "Just look at the history, or the teachings, or the fruits, or the prophesies", I said. He waited calmly for me to finish, and then asked again, "but what is the one thing that proves the validity of your faith, without which the whole religion would crumble?". It was clear that I didn't know what his point was, so he told me that the one thing that he was sure of was that Christ's physical body resurrected and therefore salvation is real and the church is alive. Anything else could be disproved or reinterpreted, but that is the linchpin. Otherwise, Christianity is dead.

I thought about his argument for quite a while, and it gave me great insight into why many Christians insist on the historical Jesus being the only path to salvation. With so many religions available, with so many uplifting and complementary teachings, how does one not get lost in the "amorphous blob" that the reader refers to? To believe that "The Resurrection divinizes Jesus and humanizes God" is to have a solid foundation (not unlike Peter's rock)  in a relativistic world. On the whole, I believe that the New Testament scripture supports the idea that Christ resurrected spiritually, not physically, an argument I have made in another post. On the other hand, I also acknowledge that persuasive arguments can be made either way, which leaves most of us inclined to follow our predisposed intuition. Unless and until the body is found, or the body is proven missing, we are left with interpretation and speculation. 

But does the belief in many manifestations leave us in the "amorphous blob". I think the Baha'i conceptualization of progressive revelation is very attractive. Baha'u'llah exhorts us to
Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine Unity, if ye be of them that apprehend and believe this truth. Be ye assured, moreover, that the works and acts of each of each and every one of these Manifestations of God, nay whatever pertaineth unto them, and whatsoever they may manifest in the future, are all ordained by God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. - Gleanings XXIV
And later he says
Contemplate with thine inward eye the chain of successive Revelations that hath linked the manifestation of Adam with that of the Ba'b. I testify before God that each one of these Manifestations hath been sent down through the operation of the Divine Will and Purpose, that each hath been the bearer of a specific Message, that each hath been entrusted with a divinely -revealed Book and been commissioned to unravel the mysteries of a mighty Tablet. - Gleanings XXXI 
On the contrary to the "amorphous blob", by recognizing the evolution and coherence of progressive revelation, I believe it is much easier to have a living faith that is in harmony with science and the emergence of a global consciousness. It is much harder, in my view, to credibly tie salvation to a particular point in history, for a particular group of people, using claims that rely on the faith in a single supernatural event. But that is my belief, I could be wrong. I suspect that the majority of Christian's will resist joining the Baha'i Faith until this issue is put to rest. 

(Painting: Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954, by Salvador Dalí.)


  1. The Resurrection has always been the core of Christian belief. Just read the letters of Paul for some good examples of this. However in modern times, it seems the Resurrection is getting chopped down to one miracle among others. It's not the first fruit of the Resurrection at the end of time or the event that renders the curse of the law inoperative. It becomes the stubborn pride that Muhammad rotted in the ground and Jesus didn't.

    As for all this talk about a physical resurrection, I'm always amazed that nobody seems to notice that the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John present a consistent picture of the Resurrection in which his closest friends only recognize him after coming to a spiritual realization. It seems then that his spirit was resurrected, but that he was inhabiting different bodies. You'd think that if "the corpse stood up" his apostles would have realized it was him they conversed with at length about the crucifixion on the road to Emmaeus, or that the grieving Mary Magdalene would recognize his voice and not assume she was talking to the gardener. Few dig into the details of these accounts, and question the assumption we pass down in our discourse and our art.

    Anyhoo, theological griping aside, Andrew Sullivan's post gives a very intimate peek into the way we Christians think about our scripture and the long tradition of the Church. Divine inspiration and human error are wound tightly together. Separating the one from the other is an arduous seemingly impossible task, but one that is absolutely necessary and makes up the very life of faith. Forgiveness is what holds us together, not exacting rigor.

  2. While tempting to look for a single "proof" of Baha'u'llahs revelation, I think your first instinct was the right one. But the many proofs for his revelation also apply equally to the other Manifestations, including Jesus.

    But perhaps we should also be wary of looking at "miracles" as proofs of divinity or truth of the teachings of a Manifestation of God. I think Abdu'l Baha' puts it well in "Some Answered Questions":

    "But in the Holy Books an especial terminology is employed, and for the Manifestations these miracles and wonderful signs have no importance. They do not even wish to mention them. For if we consider miracles a great proof, they are still only proofs and arguments for those who are present when they are performed, and not for those who are absent.

    For example, if we relate to a seeker, a stranger to Moses and Christ, marvelous signs, he will deny them and will say: “Wonderful signs are also continually related of false gods by the testimony of many people, and they are affirmed in the Books. The Brahmans have written a book about wonderful prodigies from Brahma.” He will also say: “How can we know that the Jews and the Christians speak the truth, and that the Brahmans tell a lie? For both are generally admitted traditions, which are collected in books, and may be supposed to be true or false.” The same may be said of other religions: if one is true, all are true; if one is accepted, all must be accepted. Therefore, miracles are not a proof. For if they are proofs for those who are present, they fail as proofs to those who are absent. "

    Anyway, that's my opinion anyway. Keep up the great posting.


  3. You need to distinguish between the historical first century Jewish leader Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) (ben Yoseiph) and the conunterfeit Jzus of the Christian Church, which is a false prophet according to Devarim 13:1-6 in Hebrew.

    Le-havdil, A logical analysis (found in www.netzarim.co.il (Netzarim.co.il is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) of all extant source documents and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

    If you want to follow the historical Ribi Yehoshua, described in Messianic prophecies, you need to start learning at www.netzarim.co.il ; which provides his authentic teachings and the ONLY way of how to follow him.

    The historical Ribi Yehoshua was enlivened after three days and nights, not resurrected.

    I also recommend the logical reasons based on scientific premises on the website of http://bloganders.blogspot.com (right menu) for the existence of a Creator and that the Creators purpose of humankind is of them to do their utmost to observe His mitzwot (directives or military-style orders) in Torah.

    Anders Branderud

  4. "If Jesus did not rise... then let's be honest about it, see Christianity for the bankrupt system that it is, and move onward into other faiths of our choosing"

    My first thought, "yes?"

    I talk with a coworker who approaches the Baha'i Faith by taking the following as a starting point, "Humans have sin, God cannot be with sin, humans need a blood sacrifice to remove sin and be with God." With that view, every other religious doctrine is wiped out and ignored. I explained to him that the premise of the Baha'i Faith is very different, it's that God periodically manifests Himself in human form and establishes a religion. Our duty is to recognize the most recent of these Messengers and apply the teachings to ourselves and society.

  5. Yet the Apostle who insisted that without Jesus' resurrection Christianity was nothing, probably had the least physical conception of the resurrection of all. Paul insisted that flesh and blood would not inherit the kingdom and that what was sown a physical body would be raised a spiritual one.