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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Rethinking the Resurrection
Anthony Freeman, 2005

One of the many blessings to flow from my temporary suspension from priestly duties was the opportunity to become a full member of the choir in my local church. I am not a very good singer, but I enjoy it, and if you can make a half-reasonable shot at singing tenor there is no parish church choir in England that can afford to turn you away! A by-product of choir membership was saying in the vestry before every service a choristers' prayer, which includes the petition: "Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts."

Those of you familiar with the worst excesses of Victorian hymnody may shudder at the thought of anyone believing every word they had to sing, but right from the start I took those words very seriously. They forced me to ask myself, Do I really believe in my heart the great affirmations of the Christian faith about which I sing week by week?

The answer I gave was, "Yes". But with that answer came a renewed awareness that I could only believe these things because I had been privileged to study the scriptures and the doctrines and to understand them in a way that made sense in the twenty-first century. All too many of the congregation - never mind the public at large - imagined these things had to be believed in ways more appropriate to the first or the fourth or the sixteenth centuries. Small wonder they made heavy weather of it.

So to my recitation of the words "Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts", I began silently to add the reminder to myself: "And it is your job as a priest and a preacher to proclaim those words in a way that makes them believable today."

This does not imply any kind of spiritual dumbing down. Quite the opposite. It means a spiritual and intellectual sharpening up. It means rejecting the false notion that faith is somehow opposed to reason and intelligent thought, and embracing instead the dictum of Augustine: I believe that I might understand (credo ut intelligam), a theme echoed later by Anselm when he described theological study as Faith in search of understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). My task here is to give you an example of how this works in practice, by tackling the central Christian doctrine - especially topical in Eastertide - of the resurrection of Jesus.

Christians celebrate Easter because Jesus is alive. It is no part of my brief to suggest this is a false belief, but it is very much the theologian's job to ask: What do we mean when we say that Jesus is alive?

Quite often the clergy are asked to sign certificates for occupational pensioners, confirming that the person is still alive and entitled to draw their pension. Suppose I were asked to certify that Jesus, carpenter of Nazareth, is still alive and therefore entitled to draw his pension. Could I sign such a certificate? I could not. Whatever we mean when we say that Jesus is alive, we are not using the words in the way that a pensions or insurance company uses them.

When we say that Jesus is alive, we are also very clear that he died and was buried. He is not alive in the straightforward ordinary sense of the word.

This is both a blindingly obvious thing to say and an absolutely essential thing to say. Essential in the first place, because until we clear the decks of all the things that don't form part of the Christian faith, there is no space to set out what Christians do believe. And essential in the second place, because there is no shortage of enemies of open, honest, believable Christianity, who are only too pleased to promote the false idea that religious faith means having to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

So, to repeat, when Christians say that Jesus is the living Lord, they are not saying - and have never been saying, in all the 2000 years of Christian history - that he is alive in the straightforward ordinary sense of the word.

Let's try another tack. Many Elvis Presley fans will tell you that 2Elvis lives!2. They may even (with more than a passing echo of Christian claims for Jesus) give him a royal title and proclaim that "The King lives!". Now, we may feel this language is extravagant, but it is not entirely stupid. We can make sense of it. It is a dramatic way of saying that the power of the man and his music have not been extinguished by his death. 

So is this what Christians mean when they say that Jesus lives? Or proclaim that Jesus is Lord, or King? Are they simply affirming the continuing power of his message and his example to inspire millions of people the world over?

That is certainly part of what we mean, and I would say it is a very important part. It is important not least because it provides a bridge between the religious use of language and something closer to its ordinary use. Unlike the prosaic pension-company understanding of the words, the Elvis example manages strongly to affirm the "being alive without in any way denying the reality of the "having died". It actually offers two ways into the meaning of our religious language.

First, it uses the terms "alive" and "he lives" in a metaphorical way rather than a literal one. In the literal sense used by pension and insurance companies, being dead and being alive are mutually exclusive conditions.

This is true even of those well-publicised cases where a person has been declared clinically dead and has subsequently recovered, cases that find a biblical parallel in the examples of Lazarus or the widow of Nain's son. These people are temporarily dead, and then alive again for a shorter or longer time, before dying permanently. 

By contrast, when Christians say that Jesus is alive, we do so in a way that affirms his dying and its permanence. It is because Jesus has already died "once for all" that his disciples can confidently proclaim that he will never die again, that "death has no more dominion over him".

This is crucially important. Insisting on the reality and the permanence of Jesus' death is not a sop to a modern scientific culture that cannot cope with traditional red-blooded belief in the resurrection. It is part of the central claim of Christianity from New Testament times onward that - uniquely - Jesus did not "come back" from death but rather burst through the death barrier. Small wonder that Christians and non-Christians alike find themselves struggling even to imagine what this might mean.

This brings us to the second way in which the Elvis phenomenon can be a pointer - albeit a very inadequate one - to a better way to understand our religious language about Jesus and his resurrection. Elvis lives on to the extent that his fans still respond to his music.

And it is in the words and deeds of his disciples, and in the context of their changed lives, that the words "Jesus is alive" have their meaning. Whatever it was that the disciples experienced on the first Easter Day and the weeks immediately following, it enabled them - more than that it compelled them - to say, "No longer does death make a mockery of life; no longer does it make life meaningless. Indeed, death has become the key to life's real meaning."

One common way of expressing this has been to speak of death as the gateway to new life. There has been envisaged a succession of events: earthly life, followed by death, followed by eternal life. This has been presented (for instance in the Epistle to the Hebrews) as the pattern set by Jesus and promised to us all. But we have already seen that such language cannot be taken literally. Saint Paul underlined this when he said that for Christians eternal life begins at their baptism, that is to say the occasion of their "dying to sin", and does not have to wait for physical death.

So the Church has always taught that eternal life is a new quality of existence that begins here and now. It is the change that comes about when we hear the story of Jesus and see the limiting factors of life in a new light. We are all tempted from time to time to be overwhelmed by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". Pain, sickness, cruelty, above all death itself, seem to make a nonsense of life.

The Christian claim that "Jesus lives" is an affirmation that - on the contrary - it is life's limitations that make sense of it, because they give it the boundaries, and therefore the shape, which are necessary to meaningful existence.

By this point some of you will be feeling short-changed. "He was advertised as speaking about the resurrection, but he's not mentioned any of the difficult questions at all. What about the empty tomb? What about passing through locked doors? What about the lack of recognition?"

Well, in one way you are right to be sceptical. For me the thing to hang on to is the experience of millions of Christians, the undeniable fact that their lives on earth have been transformed by the story of Jesus' triumph over death. Never mind how far the details of the story can or cannot be understood as literally true. In whatever way we are able to hear it, that story surely has the power to bring a new quality of life to each of us here and now.

This is eternal life. This is what Easter is all about. This is what it means for the Church to proclaim that "Jesus lives!"

I can appreciate, however, why the nuts and bolts questions of "what really happened?" do worry many people more than they do me, and I am happy to talk about my interpretation of the resurrection accounts in the New Testament.

Unfortunately that is not a task that can be undertaken in isolation from my approach to the entire Bible, the kind of writing it contains, and the proper - and improper - ways of using it.

Very briefly, we should not treat the Bible as a telescope, but more like a Hall of Mirrors. With a telescope we are presented with a close-up picture of a distant scene, and to use the Bible in this way is to imagine that it gives us access in accurate detail to events that happened long ago and far away and even in the heavenly realm. But the Bible cannot deliver that kind of clear precise information. As in the Hall of Mirrors, the scenes we perceive are the result of multiple reflections and images laid one upon another, so that little if anything is quite what it appears at first sight.

Nowhere is this more true than in the accounts of the resurrection, which are notoriously difficult to weave into a single coherent account, and even when taken individually are far from straightforward. For me the most striking aspects of the resurrection appearances are the ambiguity - Mary Magdalene thinks he's the gardener, the fishermen see a figure they don't recognize, most curious of all, the disciples dare not ask him, Who are you? because they know it is the Lord - and the emphasis on eating.

Taking it all together - especially the story of the Emmaus disciples and the repeated appearance to the disciples in the locked room on the first day of the week - I see the Eucharist as the clue to the Easter stories. It was in their table fellowship together that the apostles were aware of Jesus' presence among them, but it was a sensed presence rather than a straightforward physical one. Precisely how this ties up with the events of the Last Supper I do not know, but tie up it undoubtedly does.

As for the empty tomb, all four gospels mention it, but the accounts differ, and the most elaborate - that in John's Gospel - is clearly influenced by theological considerations. Most obviously there are the detailed differences between the raisings of Jesus and Lazarus, which can hardly be accidental. More thoroughly worked out is John's theme of the second Adam, which runs right through his account of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. I see no way in which from this distance we can ever piece together the actual events of the first Easter Day.

But as I have said, for me that does not matter. What does matter is that faith in the resurrection should be expressed as a confidence in the power of life over death, not seen as test you have to pass in order to become a Christian. And the best way to achieve that is by bringing a contemporary understanding to the traditional texts and teachings.

I began with an allusion to the choristers' prayer. To round off in similar vein, I will put this sentiment in the words of Paul that the Royal School of Church Music have as their motto: "I will sing with spirit, and with the understanding also (psallam spiritu et mente).

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