Grappling With the Resurrection

A friend of mine just sent me an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the difficulty that Christians – both parishioners and pastors – can have reconciling the event of the Resurrection with their rational minds.  Hardly a surprise, given the amount of time that passed not only between Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels, but the centuries that have gone by since both series of events.

Today, from scholarly aeries to local pulpits and pews, Christians continue to struggle with the truth of the Resurrection. Ask around, and it becomes plain there is no single understanding of the mystery at the heart of the faith.

“I’m still astonished by the claim that Jesus was raised,” said the Rev. Cindy Jarvis, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. “I’ve always wrestled with what that means.”

Some Bible scholars surmise the empty-tomb story – with its intriguing variations – emerged a few decades after the Crucifixion.

Well, let’s cover the empty tomb story in approximate order.  There’s …

  1. The Gospel of Mark (~70AD), which described two women going to Jesus’ tomb,.  There they found the stone moved away and a man in a white robe sitting there, saying he had left for Galilee.  The interesting part of  this story is this line:  “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
  2. The Gospel of Matthew (~85-100AD), replacing the man in white robes with an angel who opens the tomb, adds a few guards, and a personal appearance by Jesus himself.  This time they went and told everyone.
  3. The Gospel of Luke (~85-100AD, roughly concurrent with Matthew), involves two men in shining garments instead of one.  No Jesus or firsthand opening of the tomb in front of the Traveling Marys.
  4. The Gospel of John (~90-110AD), which incorporates the involvement of the disciples investigating the burial linens, the appearance of two angels AND Jesus.  Except they didn’t recognize Jesus at first because he was wearing Groucho glasses.

I find it understandable that this story difficult to believe, for a number of reasons.  First, the extraordinary claims made by the authors were probably acceptable back in a time when magic and demons dominated the belief systems of society.  Now, in an age where demonic possession is revealed as mental illness, physical illness is treated or cured by medicine, and we have a reliable – albeit imperfect – method for establishing the veracity of any claim, both natural and supernatural … stories like these are, on the whole, difficult to take seriously without the appropriate amount of evidence to back them up.  Second, the chronological order of the gospels – with Mark first, the stories of Matthew and Luke roughly parallel to each other, and John last – makes sense when you notice the story being increasingly embellished with supernatural elements as time goes on.  It’s a natural, human thing to do when telling a story intended to convince people of the authority of your claims.

One of the interesting points of the article is that first century writers never intended the concept of the resurrection to mean anything physical, but spiritual.

Ancient philosophers, religious leaders, and the general populace “thought spirit was a substance, but just a thinner, lighter substance than ordinary substance,” he said. “So if you talked about a ‘spiritual body’ rather than material one, they would understand and make that distinction readily.”

The gospel stories of a risen Jesus who appears to the disciples as a stranger, passing through doors and disappearing once they recognize him, suggest to Taussig that their authors’ understanding was “way more sophisticated” than that of modernists “who pretend this is a scientific question” and fundamentalists “who propose it literally.”

I certainly would be a little more willing to buy into the idea of the resurrection if the body to which they were referring were a spiritual one.  It would allow for a great deal more flexibility than having to deal with the fact that every other body before and since any supposed physical resurrection decays pretty quickly when it dies.  In the end, though, I would still need to be presented with evidence of a spirit that can somehow interact with the physical world like Jesus did in order to support that point of view too.  My logic is that if God does exist and Jesus is his son, then I should be allowed the same courtesy as Thomas and witness it firsthand.  He was saved in the end, no?

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the rest of the article slips a bit into either special pleading or arguments from incredulity:

“We’re not talking about the resuscitation of a body. We are talking about the transformation of reality into a new creation,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to talk about it scientifically, because we don’t know what it is.”

One of the reasons for this blog is to criticize people who use religion to legislate their morality on others or call it all science for no good reason.  If you believe, and are generally a good person and you don’t beat anyone over the head with your faith, then that’s fine.  That’s why I feel kind of bad for picking this article apart … but I can’t help but wonder if Rivera ever considered the possibility that the basis for his faith is simply a myth.  Believe what you like, but it’s hard to talk about the resurrection in scientific terms because it’s not scientific at all.  It’s a supernatural claim that has nothing to back it up.

The Rev. Kermit Newkirk, senior pastor of Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church in Logan, has never seen a need to reconcile Easter with Einstein.  “The Bible is clear,” he said, “that for God, nothing is impossible.”

I wish my name were Kermit.

Here, we see the same lapse in logic as before:  nothing is impossible when you invoke God.  That’s a logical fallacy called “special pleading”.  Everything has to follow a set of rules; when we read of stories about how they’re broken by the God I believe in, it’s called a miracle and is the basis for my faith.

Because the self-reflective consciousness of human beings “can’t be explained in purely biological terms,” reason and Christian dogma both point to “a mind, a spiritual thing, responsible for the thoughts in the brain,” he said. “So when the body dies, it does not kill the soul. And if God is the creator of both, he can raise them up together again.”

Here, the case for God is made because science can’t explain everything yet.  I’ve spoken to a few friends of mine about the nature of subjective experiences and how they fall outside the real of what is considered objectively “observable”.  While our ability to explain consciousness and the depth of our capacity for introspection is fairly limited in the context of modern science, that doesn’t mean we can come up with any explanation that sounds good to us and go with that because it’s consistent with our belief system.  The only real answer we have right now is “we don’t know yet”.

I was told that the last two lines are the best:

Likewise, he does not know how the Resurrection happened, “so I just say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Bodine said.

” ‘I don’t know’ is not the same as doubt. It just means I don’t have the answer.”

That’s a more honest answer than I’m used to, considering the people I write about are almost always fundamentalist yahoos.  It also touches on the important distinction between (a)theism and (a)gnosticism.  Not knowing something says nothing about one’s belief one way or the other.  There are a number of aspects of Bodine’s faith for which he doesn’t have an explanation, but it doesn’t change the depth of his belief.

I, on the other hand, am the opposite. I was born and raised Catholic, taught about the Resurrection, received Communion went to confession, and all that.  It never took.  I read this article and wrote a response not to make fun of these people for believing – I save that for chowderheads like the Phelpses and Jack Chick – but because being able to reconcile the acceptance of miracles and divinity along with the scientific method and the methodological naturalism upon which it is based is, to me, a completely foreign concept.  I can’t do it; they’re mutually exclusive.

That’s not to say that the supernatural is impossible … but if it interacts with the natural world in any way, then I contend that it’s in fact natural and thus inevitably explainable.  If it doesn’t interact with the natural world, then there’s no basis for claiming it exists at all.

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6 Responses to Grappling With the Resurrection

  1. Dan Adler says:

    I knew you were gonna like this article. That’s why I gave it to you yesterday. It’s a good read largely because it’s not about fundamentalists or bashing of other faiths or groups. It’s rather (in places) frank about the whole idea of “I don’t know, but I believe anyway” which is the basis of faith (as a concept).

    • It’s a welcome change from some of the other things I’ve written about, since this is probably the mindset most “mainstream” Christians have one way or the other. They’re strong on “what” .. and maybe “why”, but pretty weak on “how” so it’s just relegated to being a matter of belief.

      • Dan Adler says:

        I’d suspect this is probably the mindset of most mainstream “religious”, not just Christian. And, honestly, I’m okay with it. OF course, being religious (not Christian) myself, obviously I’d be okay with it. Yes, I take some things purely on faith. But also (as you know) I’m firmly rooted in science and the need for empirical data when possible. The two things don’t necessarily conflict.

        • To be fair, there are quite a few prominent scientists of all types who are strong believers in (Christianity, Judaisn, Islam, etc.). To them, there isn’t necessarily any conflict between faith and reason because they’ve been compartmentalized. They think critically and rationally about matters of science and the observable world but still have this one almost “sacred” space that is purely based on belief. I don’t necessarily see any conflict between having ideas or thoughts about the unseen aspects of the universe – whether there is a divine force or an afterlife or what have you – but to accept as fact something based on faith is something I can’t do.

          • Dan Adler says:

            *shrug* If they’re not pushing their faith-based “facts” on me, then it’s not an issue. As for science, I’m a firm believer in things like the big-bang, and evolution. And I have no problem accepting them as part of faith, as tools used to do whatever. (we still don’t know what caused the big bang (or why it happened, or how, or anything else) so why not 🙂

            One nice (nice?) thing about my particular religion is that most of us in Hellenismos (not all, but a number larger than 50%, thus “Most”) don’t regard the Gods as omnipotent. There’s nothing that says a God MUST be all powerful. That’s a monotheistic conceit that may or may not have anythign to do with reality (if I might be permitted to use that word in this context). Thus a non-omnipotent deity would, perhaps, need to use a tool such as evolution to accomplish certain aims. In Hellenismos, we even say that there’s a God of Evolution: Ares. Evolution being all about the “survival of the fittest” (and, necessarily, the death/failure of those less fit), it fits the viewpoint of a conflict/war/battle.

  2. C.diff says:

    “Here, we see the same lapse in logic as before: nothing is impossible when you invoke God.”

    This kind of also sums up why my grandma (hardcore Methodist, if that’s a thing) ditched Harry Potter. Since they had infinite magic at their disposal, it ruined the suspense…HP would get into some impossible bind, and an enchanted owl would turn up to save the day…zzzzz. I’ve never read HP but I can see where the whole magic bit getting pretty handy for when you can’t handle/can’t be bothered to write in some real problem-solving.

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