DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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To Rise Again
Richard DeRemee

The Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." It would seem that by this statement, the entire validity of the Christian Faith hinges on the validity of the bodily resurrection of Christ. In this post modern era when there is a general disdain for supernatural ideation, the Christian Church is under attack from many quarters questioning its relevance in contemporary society. Given the progress of science in defining material reality, understanding issues such as the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth and other miraculous stories causes strains that frequently undermine religious faith. Movements advocating radical change in Christianity seem to be gaining momentum. It is asserted that reciting a creed is alien to modern thinking people. How can a rational person assent to such ideas as the resurrection and the virgin birth? In the light of Paul's assertion it would follow that if Christ's resurrection is fictitious then Christianity is a fiction. There can be no reformation of Christianity unless Paul is not considered an authority. The would-be reformers are in a real sense advocating the creation of a whole new religion based on a non scriptural re-interpretation of the life of Christ. By doing so they are turning a religion into a personality cult. They are shifting Christ to a niche perhaps no more meaningful than the veneration of other prominent persons such as Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. Certainly such veneration can give inspiration and guidance for daily living to many but can the reduction of Christ to a mere mortal worthy of respect serve the spiritual needs of people seeking underpinning of their lives?

Much of the controversy arises out of different conceptions of the function and importance of religion in human life and how the human psyche is equipped to deal with non-materialistic thinking. That many "thinking" people daily confess their religious convictions cannot be disputed. They recite creeds without the slightest sense of hypocrisy. Some might argue they are not really thinking but simply engaged in some sort of mystical delusional exercise to assuage feelings of personal inadequacy. They may be right but they may be missing the point. Their reductionist view detracts from the mystery so essential to religious sentiment. How can we have hope of something better if we are entirely under the control of relentless physical realities? Where can we seek and find solace for the cruelties visited upon us by life if there is no ultimate author of consolation?

No matter how much scientific materialism may claim to explain reality there is still a constitutional psychic compartment that exists and requires symbols and myths for sustenance. For purposes of discussion let us refer to this compartment as spiritual/aesthetic. This compartment may be informed by the materialistic compartment but cannot be excluded by it. Let me explain. A case in point is that of the Galileo affair wherein he posed a threat to the church by his contention that the world was not the center of the universe. The materialist compartment informed the spiritual/aesthetic compartment and changed the church's view but did not destroy the religion. Some might argue that is exactly what should be done; to reform and not destroy. As will be seen later, I will contend that myths are essential to be maintained although they may be explained. It should also be said that the spiritual/aesthetic compartment can, as well, influence the materialistic compartment so that there are continuous currents between the two. I contend the two compartments co-exist and are not mutually exclusive. Pure scientists would have us believe that ultimately the spiritual/aesthetic compartment must yield to the realities of the physical universe. Some scientists would have us believe that their way of thinking is the only way. They suggest that all who hold religious beliefs lead lives of delusion and fantasy at odds with the truths of the cosmos. No doubt the scientific community would be pleased if someday all religious sentiment were supplanted by scientific materialism. If that should happen I wonder if human life would be better.

Much of human activity and thought lies in the subjective domain entirely unverifiable in materialistic terms. Putting the question of God aside, humans hold intimations of beauty and other qualities that science hopes to explain in entirely materialistic terms. Do we love someone because of the beauty of his or her soul or is it just a biochemical imperative? Does the appreciation of a work of art rest on transcendent principles or only on complex neural excitation that gives the illusion of other worldliness? Do our moral impulses stem from a prime giver of the law or are they simply the expression of practical accommodations to current realities? We live, we die and are no more says the scientific materialist. The faces of friends and loved ones are no more than traces in the sand blown away by the winds of time. The scientist might also say, "What difference does it make?" The difference has to do with the idea there are two compartments in the human psyche, as previously asserted.

Thus, an individual lives with two separate but interconnected mind compartments, the materialistic and the spiritual/aesthetic. The spiritual/aesthetic compartment deals in myths and symbols reaching beyond concrete life into the mysterious world of God. I said earlier that the materialistic compartment can inform the spiritual/aesthetic compartment such as was done by Galileo and the geocentric dogma of the universe. Here we see this dogma had really nothing to do with essential precepts of Christ but rather with the faulty perceptions of the physical universe by church hierarchy. However, belief in the geocentric dogma was considered by the clergy to be essential to belief in the church in general and represented the arbitrary assertion of power by the clergy over the masses. Denial of the theory injured only the clergy and not the essential precepts of Christianity. I doubt any members of the clergy today would say that Galileo was wrong in his assertions or that the church was ultimately damaged by them. This is an example of how the materialistic compartment can inform the spiritual/aesthetic compartment and still not exclude it.

What then should we say concerning the miracles associated with Christ and in particular about the resurrection? Should this be considered another arbitrary fable concocted by the clerical hierarchy? Would the Christian Church be harmed by demythologizing the resurrection or would that be similar to debunking the geocentric theory? I think there is a vast difference in the consequences of the two issues. As I intimated at the outset, resurrection is a key principle of the Christian Church whereas geocentricity was not essential to the foundations of the Church. I think Paul was right about the resurrection and its meaning. If Christ had simply died like any person and remained dead it is doubtful the Church would have survived almost 2000 years. He would have been just another mesmerizing cult personality with a limited following. There is a need of the spiritual/aesthetic compartment to incorporate symbols and myths to approach God. It cannot be done with ordinary language.

In this context Paul Tillich has something pertinent to say. He writes: "A myth which is understood as a myth, but not removed or replaced, can be called a "broken myth"." He felt it was essential to retain broken myths because they are the language of faith. I think this is different from the thinking of those who would demythologize and discard. Tillich in effect, tacitly recognizes the apparent ambiguity of holding belief and disbelief on the same question but finds the paradox essential. The symbolism is essential for the spiritual/aesthetic compartment to maintain its religious sentiment. Religious sentiment I define as the sense held by a conscious individual standing before God. Understanding the myth as myth allows the "thinking person" to bridge the differences between the current understanding of physical reality afforded by science and the transcendental importance and values of religious sentiment. Although I may not believe in the physical reality of resurrection or the virgin birth in one compartment of my mind I can confess them from the other compartment without reservation. It is not dissimilar to viewing an allegorical painting. The physical appearance of the subjects and themes of the action may seem exaggerated and overdrawn to the point of comedy but the totality of the picture imparts important meaning. The elements of the painting taken individually and out of context may seem trite and without value. Considered as a whole all elements conspire to create a powerful myth.

What I have said thus far concerning the implied importance of religious sentiment is directed to those who are struggling to maintain their faith in the face of post modern criticism. In other words, it is directed to those who are still open to the possibility of God. To those materialists who discount the need or possibility of God, I bid you farewell from this discussion.  

In approaching the question of Christ's resurrection I will take a path close to that of Paul Tillich who espouses the "broken myth." I am unable to take the fideistic way that denies a role for human reason in pursuit of religious truth. It is not my intent to proselytize those with established beliefs. It is for those who are searching for a way to fit their wavering faith into a modern context that dismisses the miraculous events inherent in Christianity. I take the miracles to be symbols of religious discourse as meaningful as any symbol used in human discourse. To attribute a rational explanation to a certain myth does not destroy its symbolic meaning and importance. The explanation is formulated in the materialistic mind compartment and the symbol of the explained event is held in the spiritual/aesthetic compartment. This is how I see Tillich's broken myth. 

 I wholly subscribe to the assertion of the Apostle Paul of the supreme importance of the resurrection to the Christian Faith. Paul was not asserting a Hellenistic spiritual resurrection but one of the body, a corporeal resurrection. Christ's physical body was needed to impress witnesses that God was serious and that Christ was truly discharging the mandate he was given by God. How many heroes had already died whose souls had gone to heaven but their corruptible bodies remained quiet in the grave? The living body of Christ was necessary to make a point that God was involved in the physical world, the Kingdom of God on Earth. Here we must digress for a while to consider how God might intervene in the physical world. Scientific materialists ridicule the notion of a divine creator who is actively engaged in creation. Prayer is considered an absurdity. I personally do not believe that God interdicts or changes the natural laws He created to intervene in human affairs. A patient with an incurable disease is not rescued by changing the physical events that caused the disease but by the timely application of a treatment that could reverse or alter those etiologic forces. It is just possible that God"s subliminal prompting of the therapist and guidance of treatment might be operative. There is no magical suspension of the rules. In addition the patient's mind could be directed to a source of treatment and given the willingness to accept it and to maintain a positive frame of mind. I see God"s will carried out by his people working in the physical world under divine instigation and inspiration. It is by myths and metaphors we are prompted to do God's work.

Returning to the issue of Christ's resurrection, how can the event be analyzed from the perspective of materialistic realities and still maintain its important mythical significance? Historical context is critical. The concept of resurrection had a number of meanings and implications to the Jews at the time of Christ, the so-called second temple Jews. To the Jews of the Babylonian captivity, resurrection symbolized freedom from oppression, the triumph of the Jehovah's people and the re-establishment of Israel. It was a cipher for a nation, not for the individual. The Pharisees believed there would ultimately be an embodied resurrection of the righteous at some future time, a notion completely rejected by the Sadducees. The Sadducees asserted that the current life was all there was so one had better enjoy it. A spiritual non-corporeal resurrection was a legacy of Greek Hellenistic philosophy widely held in the Jewish community. An immediate corporeal resurrection after physical death was something most Jews had difficulty accepting. So there was a variety of interpretations of the meaning of resurrection. To Paul the resurrection had to be physical or Christian faith was in vain. A considerable body of modern Christian scholars holds the bodily resurrection to be an historical fact in support of the Pauline claim. But why is the distinction between a spiritual versus a bodily resurrection so important and what can be said 2000 years after the event that makes sense to the modern mind tempered by scientific materialism? Is it possible an examination of conditions and customs existing 2000 years ago can provide an understanding of the putative event that makes both spiritual and material sense? If that is possible, we are creating, thereby, a Tillichian "broken myth", one we can retain for our discourse with God. I believe we can.

Historical evidence supports the view that something unique and special happened on Easter Sunday. I assert that something special had to be the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. What immense meaning the physical resurrection had to have. This was not simply an illusion, a Hellenistic rising of a spirit but a tangible indication that henceforth the world would be different. God was keeping the promise He made through the person of Jesus Christ.

  A number of theories of the resurrection can be cited that question the physical validity of the resurrection story. They include outright fraud perpetrated by the disciples or other interested persons who could have stolen the body. Hugh J. Schonfield in his book, "The Passover Plot", suggests that Christ deliberately scripted and orchestrated the entire passion story with the aid of other conspirators possibly including Joseph of Aramathea in whose tomb Christ was interred. He goes on to say that while on the cross Jesus was drugged to create the appearance of death. In the tomb he recovered from the potion and emerged to meet his disciples. The physical encounter was a necessary transforming sign that galvanized the disciples to propagate Christ's message and thereby create the Christian Church. Schonfield's theory, as well as those presupposing the theft of a physically dead body, all requires deception and fraud perpetrated not only by friends and disciples but by Jesus as well. To accept any of these theories requires a fundamental distrust of the legitimacy and verity of the person of Christ and his mission. Fraud and deception are wholly inconsistent with the Christian message and I personally reject such theories.

Two facts stand out that lend credence to the theory I am about to propose. First, Christ's legs were not broken as was the custom. Second, his time in the tomb was of relatively short duration, probably less than 48 hours. To me this means he may not have been, by modern standards, physiologically dead. Had his legs been broken he surely would have died due to massive hemorrhage compounding the other elements of crucifixion. Furthermore, had he survived with legs broken, he could not have walked and made appearances for 40 days. (I am of course making these arguments in purely materialistic terms.) It has been calculated that the duration on the cross was probably in the order of three hours. While any time must have been a horrifying experience it is still of a brevity that could favor a near death outcome. Secondly, his short residence in the tomb is consistent with a near death experience. It was customary for the Jews to visit tombs on the third day to make sure the body was actually dead. This was considered a sound interval to differentiate the truly dead from the apparently dead. Beyond three days there was little chance of making a mistake. What were the criteria for death used 2000 years ago? Obviously we cannot be sure. The chief criterion probably was the decision of the person in charge of the execution. It can only be imagined how thoroughly corpses were checked in the ghoulish excitement and probable chaos of a multiple crucifixion. Clearly no sophisticated tests could be used such as an electrocardiogram or an electroencephalogram to be absolutely sure. Near or apparent death was and is not unusual. History is replete with such stories. Breathing can be so shallow and pulse so weak as to be undetectable to the unaided observer. The custom of the Jews 2000 years ago to double check the status of the corpse after three days attests to this reality. In the 19th century a French physician reported 162 cases of "apparent death"  seven of whom recovered in from 36 to 42 hours after death was pronounced. Thus, it is quite within the bounds of possibility that Christ was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in a near death state. Yet, all who saw the body considered it dead. Thus, it was dead. Criteria of the times were apparently met as is clearly stated in the scriptures.

Alone in the tomb Christ recovers consciousness. His last recollection was terrible pain and fading senses on the cross. Now He feels alive. Can He be dreaming? No, He is alive. Lying on a stone slab in the tomb He feels the cold surface, He feels the pain of His wounds all signaling that once again He is a sentient being. What He has taught and what He believes has come to pass. He has been raised from the dead by his Heavenly Father.

This scenario incorporates no deception or fraud by any party to the event. It adheres to the scriptural record. What objections can be raised? Some would say that the body must have been truly dead to fulfill the scriptures. I would again ask, what were the criteria for death at that time? If the critics insist on a body that has putrefied to come back to real life there are inherent contradictions in their argument. After all, Jesus was considered True Man subject to the imperatives of that condition. Invoking a putrefied body is invoking a materialistic idea. A putrefied body does not reconstitute itself and return to an animated pre-death living state in materialistic experience. It is similar to saying the world is the center of the universe. An apparent death can be reversible. What I am trying to do is de-mythologize, to create the "broken myth" of Tillich. I want to explain the myth but not to discard it. The Resurrection is an irreplaceable part of Christianity. Without the Resurrection there is no Christianity. It is the chief symbol of our relationship to God. It is part of the lexicon we must use in our discourse about and with God. This hypothetical story is genuine - there is no deception. 

Once again, I recognize my words will not be well received by many. The fideist will reject any attempt at rational materialistic analysis of spiritual matters. Fair enough. What is important is for the individual person to arrive at his or her own set of views and doctrines that make sense and are consistent with his or her perception of the meaning of life. I would not want to change that. It is a personal choice. For the hard scientific materialist who rejects any concept of a Supreme Being or God I would say the same. Whatever makes you comfortable is fine with me. I make my appeal to those who are truly open to the idea of God but who cannot accept what they consider to be the rigid literalism of the church. How can they endorse doctrines they consider no more than superstitions wholly outside the realm of rational discourse?

I have suggested there are two distinct although interrelated mind compartments, the materialistic and the spiritual/aesthetic that process information differently. When operating in the materialistic sphere in the course of daily living, cause and effect observations are continuously made. When I turn the key in the ignition in my car the motor starts. When I engage the transmission I expect the car to move. Most of our daily actions and activities are a flow of causes and effects most of which are expected on the basis of previous experience. Why is that dog digging a hole in my yard? What is it after? The search for causes, reasons or explanations is the essence of the conscious cognitive process. Similarly, in the spiritual/aesthetic realm, there is a linear process of what or why but using a different data base. I am conscious. Why was consciousness created and who or what did it? The day is beautiful. Who or what caused it? Or the day is ugly. Why is it so?

To ask, is there a God, a first cause, or a prime mover of the universe, is a fundamental question eventually posed to most if not all people. No matter how the question is framed it must be confronted. Is there a God Creator? If so, there must be meaningfulness to life. Or, if the proposition of God is refuted then there is no meaningfulness to life other than that it occurs. Answers to this great question are always a matter of personal choice. We have choice because we are conscious. Those who chose to believe in things not verifiable in the materialistic realm are exercising faith.

In the spiritual/aesthetic compartment, ciphers and codes are used that employ symbols and myths. They are the lingua franca of this realm. Not only are words and collections of words into stories and myths a part of this language, so are events such as the resurrection. Materialists assert there is only one world, that of physical reality. Spiritual/aestheticists claim there is another reality juxtaposed to physical reality. It is a domain of mystery transcending the physical world. A barrier or thin membrane separates the physical from the transcendent spiritual/aesthetic domain. Symbols and myths are required to pierce that barrier and permit access to a reality that gives life meaningfulness.

The resurrection story is of fundamental importance to the Christian Faith. Paul says that without the resurrection our faith is in vain. His claim is of immense profundity. Many Christians in this modern era of science find their faith flagging because of difficulty reconciling the physical world with what many consider to be superstitions embodied in religious dogma. I contend that the search for God is inherent in the human psyche and will not go away no matter how thoroughly science may define and explain the physical world. It is because we have two mind compartments, the materialistic and the spiritual/aesthetic, each one deals in different ways with the problem of existence. It is possible; indeed it is propitious for the individual to utilize both compartments in approaching life.

In this treatise I have offered the story of Christ's resurrection for examination in the light of Paul Tillich's concept of the broken myth. This examination involves both compartments of the mind that I have described. The materialistic compartment informs the spiritual/aesthetic compartment but does not destroy it. A myth is "broken" but not discarded. Rather, it is used in our discussions about and with God. In this sense we can confess our faith with no sense of hypocrisy or naivete.

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