Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Challenge of the Resurrection

Last year, beginning during Lent and continuing through the Great 50 Days of Easter, I read N. T. Wright's comprehensive study and defense of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God. One reviewer for the Associated Press describes the 817-page book as "The most monumental defense of the Easter heritage in decades" that "marches through a clearly organized case that confronts every major doubt about Easter, ancient and modern." It is an impressive display of the breadth and depth of Wright's historical and biblical knowledge, as well as his ability to mount a cumulative argument for the central conviction of the Christian faith. No wonder Wright won the prestigious Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing in 2005 for this book.

I've been re-reading parts of it again recently. Coming across the following passage, I was struck by the ways in which Wright makes the case for how the resurrection of Jesus - if it really happened and is not a mere metaphor - poses fundamental epistemological, social, cultural and political challenges to our deeply taken-for-granted beliefs about how the world works.

I encourage you to acquire a copy of the book and read it all.

The challenge, for any historian, when faced with the question of the rise of Christianity, is much more sharply focused than is often supposed. It is not simply a matter of whether one believes in ‘miracles’, or in the supernatural, in general, in which case (it is supposed) the resurrection will be no problem. If anyone ever reaches the stage where the resurrection is in that sense no problem, we can be sure that they have made a mistake somewhere, that they have constructed a world in which this most explosive and subversive of events – supposing it to have occurred – can be domesticated and put on show, like a circus elephant or clever typing monkey, as a key exhibit in the church’s collection of supernatural trophies. The resurrection of Jesus then becomes either a ‘trip to a garden and a lovely surprise’, a happy ending to a fairy story, or a way of legitimating different types of Christianity or different leaders within it. No: the challenge comes down to a much narrower point, not simply to do with worldviews in general, or with ‘the supernatural’ in particular, but with the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter and its relation to whatever being there may be for whom the word ‘god’, or even ‘God’, might be appropriate. Here there is, of course, no neutrality. Any who pretend to it are merely showing that they have not understood the question.

In particular, any who insist on being post-Enlightenment historians must look in the mirror and ask some hard methodological questions. The underlying rationale of the Enlightenment was, after all, that the grandiose dogmatic claims of the church (and a good deal else besides, but the church was always a key target) needed to be challenged by the fearless, unfettered examination of historical evidence. It will not do, after two hundred years of this, for historians in that tradition to turn round and rule out, a priori, certain types of answer to questions that remain naggingly insistent. The large dreams of the Enlightenment have, in recent years, been challenged on all kinds of levels. In some cases (colonialism, the global triumph of western capitalism, and so on) they have been shown to be politically, economically, and culturally self-serving on a massive scale. What if the moratorium on speaking of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which has been kept in place until recently more by the critics’ tone of voice than by sustained historical argument (‘surely,’ they imply on the edge of every discussion of the subject, ‘you cannot be so impossibly naive as to think that something actually happened?’), should itself turn out to be part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react? What if the resurrection, instead of (as is often imagined) legitimating a cosy, comfortable, socially and culturally conservative form of Christianity, should turn out to be, the twenty-first century as in the first, the most socially, culturally and politically explosive force imaginable, blasting its way through the sealed tombs and locked doors of modernist epistemology and the (now) deeply conservative social and political culture which it sustains? When I said there was no neutral ground at this point, I was not only referring to patterns of thought and belief. Indeed, the holding apart of the mental and spiritual on the one hand from the social, cultural and political on the other, one of the most important planks of the Enlightenment platform, is itself challenged by the question of Jesus’ resurrection.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God
(Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 712-713


plsdeacon said...

The Resurrection cannot be a "spiritual experience" alone. Peter was arrested for proclaiming the Resurrection, not for saying that Jesus was alive in a spiritual sense.

I have two favorite quotes from former Rectors of mine.

"The Resurrection of Jesus is not a doctrine of the Church - it IS the Church." - David Veal+

"If you ever ask a priest 'What happened on Easter?' and that priests responds 'Well, that's complicated....' Run. Do not walk. Run away from that priest as quickly as you can." Doug Travis+

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Nice quotes from former rectors, Phil!

And you're quite right about the Resurrection not being a merely "spiritual experience." N. T. Wright's insistence that resurrection means bodies is an important corrective. Regardless of whatever else one may mean, if it doesn't include bodies, it's not about resurrection.