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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The Myths of Christianity - 5
The Myth of the Resurrection
(Continued)
Richard Holloway

At first sight it seems to be an either/or issue: he either rose from the dead or he didn't, so make your choice. However, if the approach I have been adopting has any integrity to it, there is likely to be more to the issue than either persuading ourselves to install an old piece of mental furniture in our minds or rejecting it out of hand without a moment's further thought . We might be persuaded of the physical fact of the resurrection without it making the slightest difference to our actual lives.

Theologians can be quite subtle in talking about the resurrection today. 

A parallel with the puzzle presented by the existence of the universe might help here. If the Big Bang theory is a hypothetical way of accounting for the origin of the universe, we could say that we have no direct access to whatever it was, but only to its effects in a universe that still appears to be expanding. In other words, we read back from the present to the past and offer our best guess as to what got the universe going. 

By analogy, we could say that some kind of decisive event got the Christian movement going. Something happened to the disciples of Jesus to change them from the demoralised followers of a fallen leader into people of courage who now proclaimed the message of the one they had earlier deserted. 

The earliest account we have of the resurrection is from Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain. 

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them - though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

In many ways, verse eight is the most significant part of Paul's statement: 'Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me'. 

In a previous lecture in this series I spent some time thinking about the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. He was riding along when a light from outside blinded him and a voice commanded him to cease his persecution of the followers of Jesus. 

We read in the following verses that a follower of Jesus named Ananias came to him and ministered to him, restoring his sight. Saul, now to be called Paul, becomes a Christian apostle. There is no doubt that something happened to Saul of Tarsus that turned him into the formative genius behind the early theological understanding of Jesus. 

We can accept all that, we can even accept the apparently miraculous blindness that afflicted him, but we approach the event from within a different interpretative framework. Saul's passionate vehemence against the followers of Jesus would suggest that his attention had already been arrested by the movement he was persecuting. This is a common phenomenon. We know enough about bigotry to understand something of its causality and that one of its roots is fear or anxiety.

 The classic way to deal with this kind of discomfort is to externalise or project it onto someone you can punish for the distress you feel about your own un-admitted longings. The blindness was psychogenic, a somatic expression of the turmoil in his soul, as he refused to acknowledge, refused to see, what his own heart was telling him: that Jesus of Nazareth had captured him for himself and would, if surrendered to, take over his entire life. 

Thus the story of Paul's conversion can be accounted for without recourse to supernatural agency; it was a struggle that was resolved within his own heart. That change was the real miracle we call the resurrection and Paul's account is the closest we can get to the originating event. 

Later writers, the more restrained of whom got into the official New Testament, set out to satisfy human curiosity with more detailed descriptions of the event. One, called the Gospel of Peter, actually describes the event, the stone rolling away by itself and three men emerging from the tomb, two of them helping the other, and the cross following.

These attempts to describe the event of the resurrection are, for their day, not unlike the attempts by scientists to picture the moment before the Big Bang. They are attempts to explain the originating event that is hidden from them by reading backwards from the reality that is before them and positing an explanation. 

This retrospective method is also true in theology and it is already fairly clear in the way the gospels were written. The resurrection moment was the time when the penny finally dropped for the disciples and they discovered who Jesus was. 

Though the gospels appear to follow a chronological sequence, from birth to death, they are packed with coded as well as with overt claims about the significance of Jesus from the very beginning. In his narrative Mark signals the identity of Jesus at his baptism; Matthew and Luke from his birth; and John goes back to eternity in his prologue. We have to ask ourselves today, therefore: if that is how they expressed the significance of Jesus for them in their words, how might we do it today in ours?

I have found an approach proposed by a previous Gresham Professor of Divinity to be very helpful. It was difficult to get my head round it at first, but when I did, I saw that it had real power of application in many situations. It comes from the seventh century in a dispute between Jains  and Buddhists. In both of these traditions, there is an ultimate truth called nirvana that is essentially one, even though it may be referred to by various names. 

This led Haribhadra, a Jain, to what has been called "the logic of nirvana" and it goes like this: 

If nirvana turns out to be nirvana, it is nirvana that nirvana turns out to be, even though you and I may have been thinking about it in approximate and opposing ways. If the Earth turns out to be spherical, it is spherical that the Earth turns out to be, even though you hold that it is round and I hold that it is flat. We are both wrong, but at least we are approximately wrong about something. 

We may argue, as Haribhadra did, and try to convince each other; and, in the end, one position may be more approximately right than the other. But it will still be about a spherical Earth that flat Earthers and round Earthers happen to be arguing. 

On the basis of this 'logic of Nirvana', Haribhadra concluded that "It is impossible for thoughtful people to quarrel over the way in which one expresses one's loyalty to this truth." It follows also, in his view, that anyone who points the way (however approximately) to what is truly the case must be honoured...

In other words, thoughtful people should not quarrel over the different ways in which they express their loyalty to truth, because, if they are being honest, their disagreements are at least about something real and all genuine attempts to struggle for truth must be honoured. 

This sounds like a different version of Kuhn's paradigm theory. Aristotle was not bad Newton, but a different approximation to an understanding of the reality that was in front of them both. Applying the logic of nirvana to the resurrection means that, whatever it is, it cannot be threatened or damaged by what we make of it. Whatever the originating event was and however we interpret it, all that we see is its consequence in the lives of those who encountered it. 

As I have already suggested, the resurrection is like the Big Bang which scientists hypothesise as the originating event in the life of the universe. It is not available to us except by guess work and theory. Just as scientists engage in backwards interpretation, by reading the effect that is the universe back to the unimaginable moment of its beginning, so theologians have read back from the transformation of the disciples to a hypothesis as to what caused it. 

We could say, therefore, that there are two resurrections, but only one is available to us. The first is the originating event, the mythic resurrection, the big bang that ignited the Christian movement. The second is the effectual resurrection, which is the continuing impact of Jesus upon history. 

The interesting thing about the Resurrection is not what was claimed, but who made the claim. The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and fled from his dying, somewhere found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his life. That transformation, that turnaround, is what we mean by Resurrection. I would say that the Resurrection of Jesus is best understood, best used, as a symbol or sign of the human possibility of transformation. 

Albert Camus wrote that 

In the midst of winter I finally learned that 
there was in me an invincible summer

That is the resurrection voice, calling us from despair and all its defeats to the possibility of transformation. The logic of resurrection can be experienced at both the personal and the social level; and one can lead to another.

I could suggest many examples of the transformative resurrection at work, including the long struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. But the example I want to offer is from the Civil Rights movement in the United States, because in its origins it is a fascinating combination of personal change leading to social and political action.

The campaign to give Afro-Americans full civil and human rights began as an act of personal transformation in the black community itself. It all began when one tired black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, refused to go to the back of the bus. She was sitting on the front seat of the black section and was asked to give that seat up to a white man who got on at a later stop. She refused, a policeman was called and she was arrested. 

The day after Rosa Park's arrest, Martin Luther King called a meeting. A leaflet was sent out to 50,000 black people. It said:

 Don't ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5. A Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat. Come to a mass meeting Monday at 7pm at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instructions. 

This was the beginning of the famous bus boycott that changed American history. It was as simple as that. They knew they would have to pay for their refusal to submit any longer to their own daily humiliation; they knew they would have to face hatred and persecution. But something dropped away from them, some burden of fear or timidity or resignation. To adapt the resurrection metaphor, a whole people walked out of the tomb of segregation, because a woman had the courage to refuse to go to the back of the bus.

Resurrection is the refusal to be imprisoned any longer by history and its long hatreds; it is the determination to take the first step out of the tomb. Resurrection is a refusal to be gripped for ever by the fingers of winter, whatever our winter may be. It may be a personal circumstance that immobilises us, or a social evil that confronts us. Whatever it is, we simply refuse any longer to accept it, because the logic of resurrection calls us to action. 

It follows, therefore, that if we say we believe in the resurrection, it only has meaning if we are people who believe in the possibility of transformed lives, transformed attitudes and transformed societies. The action is the proof of the belief. 

So I end with what may appear to be a paradox: I can say I believe in that resurrection then, the Jesus resurrection, because I see resurrections now, see stones rolled away and new possibilities rising from old attitudes. My belief in resurrection means that I have to commit myself to the possibility of transformation, and, however feeble I feel, take the first faltering step towards change. 

That means continuing to struggle with the intractability of my own nature. More importantly, it means joining with others in action to bring new life to human communities that are still held in the grip of winter, and there are lots of frozen churches and deep-frozen human institutions that need thawing out with resurrection fire.

Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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