Monday, April 13, 2009

Proof of the Resurrection: Lived, not Argued

The 2009 Easter Sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Douglas Williams, is now posted on-line. It’s entitled “Proof of the resurrection has to be lived, not argued.” Here’s an excerpt:

Do you know that God exists? the interviewers ask; or, How do you know Christian faith is true? There are two tempting ways of responding, both wrong. There is the apologetic shuffle of saying, ‘Of course, I don’t really know; this is just the truth as it appears to me and I may be wrong’. And there is the confident offer to prove it all to the hearer’s satisfaction; here are the philosophical arguments, here is the historical evidence, now what’s the problem?

Two kinds of mistake: the first because it reduces faith to opinion and shrinks the scale of what you’re trying to talk about to the dimensions of your own mind and preferences; the second because it keeps you at arms’ length from the whole business by making it impersonal: here are the proofs and it doesn’t much matter what I or anyone may be doing about it. It’s just true in much the same way as it’s true that Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. You may say, ‘Well, there you go’ but are unlikely to fall to your knees.

St Paul in today’s epistle makes it clear that to speak of Jesus’ resurrection is also to say something crucial about who and where we are, not just to make a claim about the past.. Now we should not doubt for a moment that Paul means what he says and that he takes for granted that the resurrection of Jesus is not a piece of fantasy or wishful thinking but the actual emptying of a grave. However, the point of Paul’s entire teaching on the resurrection is to take us much further than that. This event, the emptying of the grave, has done something and has brought the Christians of Colossae – like all Christians – into a new universe. They are living in a new climate, with new ‘thoughts’ – a climate in which the various ways in which we’ve put up barriers between ourselves and God have been shattered and our old selves are dead. We may still go on trying to put those barriers back up again, but something has happened that opens up a new kind of future. Our selfish and destructive acts and reactions can be dealt with, overwhelmed again and again by the love shown in the cross of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ death and rising from the dead, our resurrection has started, and our citizenship in heaven has begun. There is a hidden seed of glory within us, gradually coming to its fullness.

Resurrection has started. How do we know? Not by working it out and adopting it as well-founded opinion, not by deciding that this idea suits us, not by getting all the arguments straight, but because we are dimly aware of something having changed around us. For Paul’s converts in Colossae, Corinth, or wherever, it’s about the impact on them of his early visits: here was someone who although he wasn’t a good speaker or a charismatic teacher (so he himself tells us) was so intensely aware that the world had changed that he changed the world for those around him. They trusted him; they were prepared to risk all the mockery and harassment and worse that Christians had to put up with because they were able to say, ‘It’s so real for him that we can sense the sort of imperative urgency in what he says and what he sees; whatever he believes, this is life at a new level’.

That’s why the two sorts of defence of faith I mentioned earlier aren’t good enough. It’s not that this is an attractive theory that I’ve decided to try out – but I may be wrong. Nor is it that I now have a knock-down argument that will convince everyone. There is something compelling here. I can’t help being drawn to this promise of life and freedom, it isn’t about my opinions only; yet I know that I can’t put this into neat words that will make everyone say, ‘Oh yes, it’s obvious really’.

For a great many people, the burning question about faith is not just, ‘Can anyone believe this?’ but ‘Can anyone live like this?’ Is it possible to live ‘in heaven’, in such a way that our selfishness is eroded? To live on the basic assumption that people can be healed of their miserable compulsions to fear and resent each other and to cling to their grievances and injuries? …

It’s no use talking endlessly – preaching endlessly – about reconciliation and forgiveness and liberation. No argument can persuade anyone about this, only the lived reality.

Read it all.

I think that Rowan Williams is right to note that how we Christians live is an integral part of our witness to the reality of our faith in the resurrection. Even if we have airtight arguments that silence every skeptic, that’s not necessarily the same thing as converting them to the faith. I note, for example, N. T. Wright saying that one of his former philosophy tutors from Oxford - an atheist - read his book The Resurrection of the Son of God and responded: “Great book. You really make the argument. I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation even though I don’t know what it was.” What else is needed to make the difference here?

New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays makes a point in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics that supports the basic gist of Rowan’s Easter sermon. It surfaces in his discussion of Luke-Acts, and of how the way in which the early Christians lived - the example of their way of life - was the most compelling evidence for the reality of the risen Lord and the presence of the Spirit:

The book of Acts gives no evidence of the apostles seeking to reform political structures outside the church, either through protest or by seizing power. Instead, Luke tells the story of the formation of a new human community - the church - in which goods are shared and wrongs are put right. In this way the apostolic testimony to the resurrection is made effectual. The question that Luke-Acts puts to the church - then and now - is not “Are you reforming society?” but rather “Is the power of the resurrection at work among you?” The community’s sharing of its material resources so that there is no needy person among them is the most powerful sign of the Spirit’s liberating work [The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), p. 135].

I see it as a both/and: we need to give compelling reasons for the faith and hope we hold, and we need to live compelling reasons for the faith and hope we hold. That’s a fitting Easter charge for the Church.

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