The mystery of resurrection

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Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones instigated a minor online theo-kerfuffle last week when she seemed to dismiss the importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, along with other major Christian doctrines, in an interview with New York Times columnist Nick Kristof.

One interesting thing about this latest round of the theological culture wars is that it wasn’t just the usual conservative suspects who were up in arms about Dr. Jones’s comments. There were also a number of younger progressive-leaning Christians who took issue with her views on the Resurrection.

Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament, noted this phenomenon in a short piece for Commonweal. He suggests it may represent a kind of “turn to orthodoxy” among younger mainline Christians. Hill contends that this younger cohort of mainline Protestants (many of them clergy or clergy in training) don’t have the same epistemological hangups as their elders (as supposedly exemplified by Serene Jones’s theological liberalism), and affirm a more robust version of Christian faith. Moreover, not only do these folks not see a contradiction between theological orthodoxy and progressive or leftist politics, they see them as naturally fitting together. As Dr. Hill puts it, “In short, if my online friends represent any bellwether, the future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection.”

On this view, the liberal theology represented by Serene Jones represents the old guard, while the future lies with a recovery of “orthodoxy” aligned with leftist politics. Leaving aside whether Professor Hill’s “online friends” do represent the future of mainline Protestantism, I’d caution against drawing the boundaries of “orthodoxy” too narrowly. “Bodily resurrection” can become something of a shibboleth and an excuse to “un-church” people who don’t share a very specific understanding of what it entails.

The New Testament is a bit more cryptic about the nature of the resurrection than people sometimes think.  Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we’re presented with a Jesus who is “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. And then there’s the rather anomalous case of St. Paul, who clearly considered himself a witness of the risen Christ, but does not describe the kind of tangible encounter portrayed in the gospels. The only thing that comes through clearly is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).

A related issue is how to conceive of our own resurrection. Theologians of the early church spent a lot of time worrying about how our bodies would be re-assembled at the Last Judgment once they had been subject to decay and dissolution (even cannibalism!). The idea that we will rise in the very same bodies (as Jesus supposedly did) is hard to square with the observed facts about what happens to corpses. Since the particles of our bodies are recycled into other parts of the natural environment, there’s no non-arbitrary way to identify which bits of matter belong to who. Even during the course of our present life we’re not made of the same particles over time. So, whatever the continuity of our bodies consists in, it can’t require that we be composed of the same matter. Thus it’s not even clear what it means to say that the bodies we have now will be raised.

Some modern theologians, recognizing this problem, have proposed that God will provide us with new bodies after death (which they identify with the “spiritual body” mentioned by St. Paul in 1st Corinthians).  These bodies, it’s supposed, will be suited to whatever postmortem environment we’ll exist in. But if this is the case, then our resurrection differs from Jesus’s (at least according to the view that his selfsame body was raised and transformed). Also, once you start talking about a “spiritual body” it becomes less clear what the difference is between the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, though much has been made of this distinction.

As you can see, trying to think this through gets complicated pretty quickly, and in my view a certain degree of agnosticism about the details is more than warranted. Personally, I think Jesus’ tomb was empty, partly because producing his body would’ve been a good way for the Romans or the Jewish religious authorities to refute the claims being made by the disciples after the first Easter. But it also seems clear that it was the appearances of the risen Lord (and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) that energized the despondent disciples to preach the good news. The core of Christian faith is that Jesus is alive now, not just a figure of the historical past, and that we can participate in the divine life through union with him. This is the basis of a transformed life now and the hope for life beyond death.

Christianity isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) about demanding that people subscribe to a laundry list of very specific doctrines. (The Apostle’s Creed is quite pithy and leaves a lot of details unspecified.) It’s an invitation to participate in the divine life through union with the risen Lord and his church. While the church should joyfully proclaim the Resurrection, it’s also wise–and charitable–to leave room for mystery.

 

 

 

 

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