Reinterpreting the Resurrection Mythos
He is risen! He is risen indeed, hallelujah! There can be no doubt that without resurrection, without that event at the heart of Christianity, there could be no Easter, there could be no Christianity, there could be no dissenters who come along down the line, and thus, there could be no Ipswich Unitarians. The temptation is, within liberal church contexts such as ours, to avoid the crux of the matter on Easter morning. No doubt in many churches today, there are liberal religious ministers taking special pains to avoid St Paul’s stark words, as he states them plainly in 1 Corinthians (15:11-15): “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.”
What are we sceptics to do, we who cannot believe? Paul is so critical to Christianity, we should surely be taking his lead, and yet, do we not find ourselves to be his adversaries, the very people that Paul condemns? This polarity between Paul’s way, and some vague religious liberalism, in which we reduce the resurrection of Christ to an allegory for spring (what I often think of as fluffy bunny theology), has been confirmed to us personally when we have encountered so-called bible believing Christians, those who, by appeal to superstition and bronze age dialectics, have challenged and alienated us. From them we have fled, not wishing to give way to credulity, but in our flight there has been a consequence, it has created a duality. A false duality between those who affirm, and those who deny the resurrection.
Historically speaking, the liberal Christian tradition has never rejected the New Testament’s central claim, that of resurrection. Our task is not to cherry pick, not to accept and deny; our task is to understand and reinterpret the event in the light of what we know now, with the tools of contemporary intuition, our knowledge of human history and psychology, so that we can recognise a continuity between ourselves and those early disciples, yes, even St Paul. In doing such though, what I’m not attempting to do is replace one capital T “Truth” with another. I would not, and could not, state the reality of resurrection, what it really means, because I do not have a totalising vantage upon reality. We cannot say if it is this or that, but must rather seek to transcend beyond any such dualistic notions. For after all, all knowledge must be necessarily situated. I state this almost as a get out clause, for the limitations of human language make avoiding totalising statements almost impossible. We are wired to think in terms of what is, and what is not, public discourse is, by its nature, framed in this way. So, despite appearances, I am only ever speaking in mythopoetic terms, or notional terms, or what some philosophers term ‘weak thought’. I’ve spoken before about the 19th Century psychologist, William James, and I think he is very helpful on this point. He can be read as a proto-postmodernist, someone certainly with a relativized sense of truth; he says for example, “How good it is sometimes simply to break away from all old categories, deny old worn-out beliefs, and restate things ab initio (from the beginning), making the lines of division fall into entirely new places!” This suggests a creative regard for truth, an interplay between what we choose to believe and the world we come to inhabit, and this idea of course ties in with Neville Goddard and the New Thought movement I was talking about last week. God, thus, is such a truth to be inhabited, as is resurrection.
For our Good Friday Communion service we went through the entire Easter Triduum mythos, from the mount of olives, where he was betrayed, to his trial, his death, to the darkness of the tomb, and ultimately to resurrection. The darkness of the tomb is important; it represents a complete breakdown in meaning. All the disciple’s hopes are being dashed, just as we can and do encounter, in bleak times, a nihilistic dread, a fear that all is irredeemably empty. But also, in simply regarding our relativized world as what it is, from such a vantage we are unable to know the Christian hope. For is it not so, that any pretence of hope can seem contrived, a false façade worn to mask a bleaker reality? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of being with people so hopeful, it feels disingenuous. Despite all this, despite this being the age of the sceptic, I continue to intuit a meaningful Christian hope, though I glimpse it so fleetingly it’s difficult to even articulate what I mean by that. It is not a hope that rests on any metaphysical claim, but rather it hinges upon the idea of heaven emptying, or God emptying - what in Greek is termed kenosis.
There is an historical journey unfolding: once we were a people who believed in an all-powerful God of the sky, personally maybe, but collectively definitely, and then a process began. That God was poured out from above into the world. At first he was seen though the person of Jesus, but still he emptied further. He was seen as the dying one upon the cross, divinity being torn apart, entailing a new reorientation of spirit, a spreading of divine energy, no longer inaccessible and remote, but intimately bound up with creation and our human experience. Thus, resulting in a process of ongoing resurrection. Remember St Paul, although he occasionally makes pronouncements it’s just impossible for us to reconcile ourselves to, there is a thrust in his writing also, that expresses something of this immediate spirit. He speaks of Christ (who Paul understood to be God in some sense), who he knew to be an historical person, whom he never met, not in flesh and blood terms anyway, but rather encountered on the Damascus road. But as well as this knowledge, he also simultaneously used this word ‘Christ’ to refer to us as community – we are the body of Christ! As such, our hope is no longer something we entrust to a sky-God, but something we glimpse through the people we walk with, talk with, and break bread with. This universal body of Christ.
To live out the Easter story is to understand ourselves as people caught up in this dynamic flow of divinity, as it pours itself out into the world, as it finds expression through us. As this dispersion continues to be recognised by us, as individuals, and as a society, we increasingly see such divinity in everyone we encounter. This compels us to elevate the other, and their intrinsic dignity, and affirm their human value, ever seeking to create a beloved community, ever participating with Jesus in his vision of love to redeem this world. And so, in a spirit of humanism, and human solidarity, I joyously declare, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”