Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Resurrection Misunderstanding

I'll give "The Questioning Christian" credit for being honest. He puts his cards on the table without bluffing:

... I think there are more plausible explanations for the fact that Jesus’ followers found ‘his’ tomb to be empty on the morning after the Sabbath, and that later on some of those followers decided that they had encountered him — as recorded in questionable stories written down decades later in a different language.

Okay, so he wants to be a Christian but he doesn't want to believe that anything "really happened" with respect to Jesus' tomb being found empty or that there's anything grounded in reality when it comes to the eyewitness accounts of seeing Jesus alive again as a flesh-and-bones person after his death by crucifixion.

So why, if someone thinks that the resurrection of Jesus is a "misunderstanding" rather than the central claim of the Christian faith on which everything hinges, should we call ourselves Christians and soldier on for this "misunderstanding" (bearing in mind that predecessors and contemporaries have given their lives for this "misunderstanding") with "ample reason to celebrate Easter." If it's a "misunderstanding," a "mistake" that can be cleared up by other, more sensible, rational and enlightened means, why participate in liturgies that say otherwise? And why would anyone be willing to suffer and die for this claim when, after all, it's a mistake? (If the martyrs had only known the truth, it would have saved them a lot of trouble!)

Here's the rationale for soldiering on offered by "The Questioning Christian":

The Resurrection misunderstanding catalyzed both a belief system and a social organization. For nearly two millennia, that belief system and that organization have provided inspiration and assistance to billions of people in helping with the continuing creation of the universe.
Not all of that assistance and inspiration have been positive by any means. But we do seem to do our best work in that area when we try to follow the Summary of the Law that was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The Summary’s simple rules of thumb seem to capture something fundamental about the universe. Their utility gives us plenty of reason to try to follow Jesus simply because of what he taught, and because of his extreme faithfulness to what he saw as his call from the Creator.

So the fact that "the Resurrection misunderstanding catalyzed both a belief system and a social organization" makes celebrating Easter worthwhile. And perhaps that also makes it worth dying for a misunderstanding (if one is pressed to such unfortunate lengths).

This begs an important question that a questioning Christian should surely ask: how in the world did a "misunderstanding" - and a "resurrection misunderstanding" at that - so successfully catalyze and establish a belief system and social organization that could withstand almost 2,000 years of history, much less get off the ground in the first place? There were other pretenders to the title "Messiah" in and around the time of Jesus. They were killed by the might of the Roman empire, just like Jesus was. And, just like Jesus' disciples, the followers of these false Messiahs faced a choice: carry on the cause of their now dead leader by finding someone to succeed him, or abandon the cause as a failure.

In contrast to other contemporary cases, Jesus' followers claimed that their leader had been raised bodily from the dead. They didn't try to find a new leader, nor did they abandon their cause. Instead, they proclaimed that their Lord was bodily alive again after bodily death. And they proclaimed this message even though doing so would be regarded as ridiculous by Greek and Roman philosophy and religion, and preposterous or even heretical by the theological norms of Judaism in Jesus' day.

But perhaps we don't have to face such questions of history (which are comprehensively addressed by N. T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God). Instead, we can circumscribe the significance of Jesus within the limits of (practical) reason alone. All we have to do is embrace the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus may be a "misunderstanding," but it's a worthy "misunderstanding," because, according to "The Questioning Christian," "the heart of Jesus' teaching" is what "capture[s] something fundamental about the universe."

It may be true that Jesus' teachings "capture something fundamental about the universe." But it's worth noting that hyper-intelligent atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche would find such a claim ludicrous at best. For atheists like Nietzsche, nothing about Jesus' death and the "misunderstanding" of his resurrection in any way vindicates his teachings. Instead, they serve as examples under the heading "Misguided" or even "Sick." And if "The Questioning Christian" is right, he's conceded the key point, for if the resurrection is a misunderstanding, then Jesus is dead. And so "The Questioning Christian" gives the Nietzscheans and atheists everywhere just the opening they need to say: "God is dead. And we make our way through life as our preferences - and our might - allow us."

There are other problems with this position for accepting the resurrection as a misunderstanding. Jesus wasn't the only good moral teacher of his day. Indeed, his moral teachings, taken by themselves, are hardly unique. So why not establish churches in honor of other rabbis and moralists of that era and worship in their names? Indeed, why not do so with figures closer to our own time whose life, witness, words, and example are religiously inspiring, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Surely, any claims that Dr. King has been raised from the dead constitute a misunderstanding, but we can overlook such a misunderstanding on account of the fact that his teaching and preaching are so inspiring and relevant for our lives.

C. S. Lewis' observation is appropriate : "If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference."

And it doesn't help to cite Jesus' "extreme faithfulness" if the reward for that faithfulness is that he's dead. It's hardly an inspiring moral example to say to people: "Look what happens when you're 'extremely faithful' to God like Jesus was: you get tortured and crucified for it. Now go out and live like Jesus!" If Jesus' "extreme faithfulness" was not vindicated by resurrection in a real, historical, and bodily sense, then being faithful to such a "god" would be sado-masochistic madness.

Luke Timothy Johnson is right: "The most important question concerning Jesus … is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?" If we say that the resurrection is a misunderstanding, we are saying that the central claim of the Christian proclamation from the days of the early Church to our own times is false. It's a lie because, in reality, Jesus is dead. And so we Christians worship a dead Christ.

If that's true, I have better things to do with my time, talents, and treasure.


plsdeacon said...

For a paper on the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah (the Suffering Servant), we were tasked with NOT giving the traditional Christian interpretation of this song. We were told to give a Jewish interpretation of the song. So I interviewed a local Rabbi to ask what his interpretation was.

After the interview, I thanked him very much and told him that if I ever lost my faith that Jesus rose from the dead - the first resurrection - then I would be back in his office to become a Jew.

Of the 11 Apostles left after the Crucifixion, 10 died in very nasty ways. One does not die for a "misunderstanding." One does not die to perpuate a lie. Peter died upside down on a cross. Andrew died on an "x" shapped cross. Barthelomew was whipped, flayed alive (is skin tore off from a slit at the back of the neck) and then crucified.

Millions of martyrs witness to the power of Jesus Christ to make us new. Hundreds (if not thousands) of Christians died in the first century of the Church because of their faith in the resurrection.

If Christ has not been raised, then we are liars and, as Paul said, "of all men, most to be pitied."

Phil Snyder

plsdeacon said...

Another point.

In our "counselling based" society, we no longer really care about fact or truth. We care about "our thruth" - what helps us get through the tragedy de jure. If it helps, then we should embrace it. If it doesn't help then we should let it go.

It seems the guiding question is no longer "Is it true?" or even "what is true?." Today, the guiding question for our society is "So, how's that working for you?"

So, if something is false, but it is working for me, then I don't care if it is false.

However, the claim of Christianity are not based on utilitarian "how's that working for you" but on "That which was from the beginning, which we ahve heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touchged with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we say it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ." (I John 1-3.)

I am a Christian, not because it works for me, but because I am convinced that Jesus is God Incarnate and that he defeated death and sin by his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

Phil Snyder
Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

I'm convinced that a lot of these people either cannot sleep late on Sunday mornings or they don't care about getting an early start on brunch, so they show up at your friendly neighborhood non-invasive mainline church.

Bryan Owen said...

Good comments all around, Phil and Joe.

Just to add my own two cents, part of what I find troubling about Episcopalians like "The Questioning Christian" is not that they are exercising their "right" to believe as they wish, but that they seem to think it's okay to expect (or even demand) the Episcopal Church to change in order to be more like their views (which, depending on the variety of "questioning Christian" we're talking about, can look like anything from Deism to "New Age" philosophy).

When, for example, a "questioning Christian" says that folks like her find the recitation of the Nicene Creed difficult or even offensive, and/or that folks like her have difficulties sticking with our worship because we don't yet have a Prayer Book that is "relevant," the proper (and, indeed, the pastoral) response is to say: "You may find a church home more congenial to your views in another denomination."

bls said...

Well, I'd just like to put my two cents in here by saying that the author of that blog is a very nice guy.

However, I do agree with Fr. Bryan about his suggestion of "Pastoral response," which I myself have made many times, in fact. D.C. responds that 1) The Episcopal Church is his family, and you don't split from your family over disagreements, and that 2) Unitarianism (which I suggest is a better fit for his beliefs) is really atheist, which he is not.

I've offered responses to both of the above objections, too, but they don't seem to be convincing to him. The best response, I think, actually, is that there is evidently no great demand for the kind of religion he's talking about, or else it would exist already and would be jammed to overflowing with people. It doesn't and it's not.

I think he wants to connect with other skeptics who believe in God but not in Trinitarian Christianity, basically - not a bad goal. But I do think he'd be happier in some other church, since this one is Trinitarian.

Christopher said...

I have another thought on this:

Anglicanism has generally made space for doubters and skeptics. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. If we didn't, we wouldn't have the likes of William Temple. Doubt and skepticism can be a part of the faith journey. But here is the caveat: The Church does not change her teaching on God to the doubt and skepticism of the doubters and skeptics. We continue to teach and preach and profess the Trinitarian faith. This provides a container for doubt and skepticism and for others to have faith for us when we cannot or do not.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your perspective on "The Questioning Christian," bls. I've read several of his other posts, and he does, indeed, seem like a sincere and nice guy. It's unfortunate that such good personal qualities are beside the point. The relevant point is when someone consistently throws the Church's baby out with her bathwater.

I agree with both bls and Christopher about making room for skeptics and doubters, but also agree with Christopher that the Church doesn't revise her teachings in order to satisfy doubters and skeptics. Indeed, it sometimes happens that when the Church stays true to her identity, doubters and skeptics end up in the same place as Thomas did when, after refusing to believe, encountered the risen Lord and responded by saying, "My Lord and my God!" At least that was my experience of conversion.

I think that bls makes an excellent point: there are other churches out there that don't embrace the Trinitarian, creedal faith that we do. I would be deeply unhappy worshiping in such a context, even if I loved the people and considered them my family. So part of the problem may be me: I just don't get why someone who rejects the core tenets of the Christian faith would want to worship in a Church tradition whose history and liturgy tend, on the whole, to uphold Nicene orthodoxy.