Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Resurrection Ain't No Myth

By the way, here are my lapsed Lutheran questions of the month: Jesus' parables and teachings were largely figurative, though he got into hot water because the powers that be took them literally. What if, and in what ways are/could Christ's resurrection and awaited return are meant to be figurative rather than literal?

This is the first of Sam's "lapsed Lutheran" questions from the comments. I promised a more thorough "practicing Lutheran" response to each. Here goes.

The idea that the resurrection is a pious story the early Christians told each other as indicative of the "meaning" of Jesus life is not new. It's been around for quite a while, but it's most compelling defender was Ludwig Feuerbach. If you want to read the best theological construction of this proposal, you can do no worse than read Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. In it he makes a compelling case for understanding the actual forms of religion as expressions of our various human needs. In this sense, the doctrine of resurrection is a kind of wish fulfillment, an expression of our human need to imagine life after death.

A more recent proponent of this idea, apparently, is Bishop John Shelby Spong. I'm not as familiar with his work, so I will not try and debate him or present his position. I will say what I do think I know, that he believes that Jesus ascended to God, but that the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus is not a doctrine that can mesh with postmodern rationality, and should be abandoned.

In any event, as a Lutheran, I find none of this at all compelling. Feuerbach's is a kind of Hegelian abstraction. Most versions of this theory worry too much over how exactly a body can be resurrected, thinking it seems magical, and therefore a barrier to true faith. The errors attending this theory include:

1) A kind of denigration of the body and the physical and the historical, so that religion needs to be abstracted from an actual history or Christ's actual bodily presence, and made into a conceptual myth
2) Too narrow a sense of creation, so that re-creation, new creation, resurrection, cannot be a part of God's good creation. In this way, most people who hold this theory seem to forget that the creation itself is a miracle, of which the resurrection would simply be the further small miracle after the big one of there being anything at all.
3) This theory does not cling to Christ and him alone. It clings instead to a pious theory.

Ok, so what would a Lutheran believe instead? Well, for one, a Lutheran would take Scripture at its word, and believe and confess that there were some early followers of Jesus who experienced the resurrected Christ, touched his wounds, ate with him, felt his breath on them, heard him say "do not be afraid," walked with him, and spent forty days with him after his resurrection learning the gospel of the 40 days, that is, the gospel communicated to them during the time between his resurrection and ascension.

Furthermore, a Lutheran would agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection is the grounds for our hope. If there is no resurrection from the dead, then faith is null and the promise is void.

But not only that, resurrection is not simply a pious thing we wish for some day in the future. Resurrection is something the Christian community participates in even now, already, through baptism, through the life of the church, which is the body of Christ. In this way, there are some resonances between the theory Sam puts forward and the Lutheran response, because it is true that the resurrection can function as a kind of parable for us, inasmuch as when we learn that we participate already now in the resurrection, that very story re-creates us and resituates us vis-a-vis the story. The resurrection is NOT a parable, far from it, but it is a narrative truth that makes a claim on us. In your baptism, you were made a part of the story that includes Christ's death and resurrection.

Finally, I think the resurrection as myth forgets how dead Jesus really was. This is not simply resuscitation. Nor is it simply memorializing a dead person so his memory lives on. That happens with many people. Abraham Lincoln is alive and well in our collective memory, for example. But Jesus is unique, in that he was truly dead, and God made him alive again, so that he is the firstborn of the dead. We will be like him, and this ain't no myth.

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