Monday, March 05, 2007

What it would take to make me give up my faith

In reference to all this bally-hoo about the supposed "tomb of Jesus", Church historian Andrew McGowan, warden of Trinity College at Melbourne University, said if the claims could be proved, some Christians would give up their faith.

I would.

I would give up my faith tomorrow if it could be proved today that Jesus Christ was not physically raised from the dead. Ie. if someone found a box of bones which could be shown beyond reasonable doubt to be those of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate. God alone knows how such a thing could be proved--it would at the very least involve finding an undisturbed tomb with an authentic inscription upon it and a skeleton in it with nails still through the wrists (and the carbon-dated inscription from above the cross thrown in for good measure)--so my faith is probably pretty secure.

As everyone from the Spanish Bishops to Cardinal Biffi (to whom my heart is gradually warming) have asserted in recent days: The Resurrection is THE basis of the Christian faith.

And I mean the physical resurrection. No other sort of resurrection cuts it for me, I am afraid. I am not interested in spiritual "floaty bits" surviving death. Every spiritualist of every age has always held such a view--there is nothing revolutionary about that. Real resurrection means no dead body. The real Easter hope, the hope I proclaimed every time I officiated at the side of the grave or in the crematorium, is that this body that we today commit to the elements will rise again. The Creeds say as much: a comparison of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds indicated that resurrection of the dead means resurrection of the body. All else is pale gnosticism.

And we have two strong historical reasons for believing in the physical resurrection of Jesus.

The first is that nothing else explains the emergence of the Christian religion. Nothing else explains why Jesus' followers--who deserted him at his death (a point that scores negatively for the apostles themselves, so they would hardly have made it up if it wasn't true)--had a complete change of heart almost immediately after his crucifixion that led them to "go out into all the world and make disciples of all nations", to the point of willingness to die for the faith they proclaimed. What happened to bring about this change? As Archbishop Bruno Forte, a member of the International Theological Commission, said in a Zenit report recently: "What happened? The profane historian cannot explain it. The Gospels imply it: There was an encounter that changed their lives."

The second is that, while there were plenty of folk in the first decades of Christianity who sought to discredit the Christian proclamation of resurrection with theories of grave robbers taking the body away (note that these theories are tackled head on within the gospel accounts themselves), no-one thought of the simplest solution: to open up Jesus' tomb and show that there was a body in there. They didn't do this because there was universal acknowledgment from both believers and unbelievers that the grave was empty. Nor was there any debate over whether or not Jesus had actually died. It was a public death, and seen by many. Surely the next easiest way to negate the resurrection would have been to point out that Jesus was still wandering about the place, married to Mary Magdalene with a son in tow.

It is just too silly for words.

My faith has one foundation, and one alone: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. However you like to dress up this statement--and I agree that it has as much about it that is spiritual and religious and faith filled--that statement is also a statement of historical truth.

That is why I am a Christian. And will be till the day I die.

Or they find the proven body of Jesus in a tomb somewhere.

6 Comments:

At Monday, March 05, 2007 2:58:00 pm , Blogger Dixie said...

We are watching that Discovery Channel special tonight and at the opening one guy said that if it was proven these were the bones of Christ it wouldn't affect his faith. And I am scratching my head thinking...what the heck is this guy, he couldn't possibly be a Christian if the Resurrection didn't matter to his faith!

Jaroslav Pelikan (may his memory be eternal) once said "If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen -- nothing else matters." That pretty much sums it up.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 4:02:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Amen to that, Dixie. I reckon it comes from some idea that the "real" meaning of the resurrection is some sort of spiritual truth that has no relation to historical reality. That's why I insist on the historicty of the physical resurrection of Jesus--even though it obviously goes beyond the mere physical and transcends the mere historical.

Claus Westermann asked of the Creation narratives: "What can be the meaning of a salvation history which has nothing at all to do with real history? ...The matter stands or falls with the question: Is God concerned with the real world which surrounds us? Is he Creator or not?"

The same can be said for the narratives of the New Creation: Is God Redeemer or not?

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2007 4:52:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

There are liberal Christians who either don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ as a histsorical fact, or don’t insist on it as a matter of necessity. (I recall reading of one American Episcopalian congregation whose Easter acclamation was ‘Christ is rising!’) But I think they are pretty much on the fringes of Christianity. However much Catholics and Christians may be divided on other issues, the historicity of the resurrection is not generally a matter of dispute among them.

But I think there is a fairly large body of Christians whose faith is not primarily theological. They encounter Christ in the Christian community and/or in the sacraments, and their faith draws its nourishment from that encounter. Their faith is not necessarily expressed in, or founded on, a firm belief in a set of credal statements. Nor are they particularly concerned to reject credal statements on the basis that they do not agree with them. They will not worry greatly about whether this new “evidence” against the resurrection is or is not conclusive, or whether they need to re-imagine and re-understand the notion of resurrection to accommodate it. As long as they can find a like-minded community to practice their faith, grapplng with this issue will not be a priority for them.

These are people who could fairly comfortably be members of a denomination which denies or de-emphasised the historicity of the resurrection. If “proof” against the resurrection were found and were widely accepted, and a number of denominations were to adopt an ‘agnostic’ stance on the question, I don’t think those denominations would melt away.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2007 8:51:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

All faith must have some theological content of some kind (even unconscious or unreflected) for it to be faith. Faith is always both "faith in" (ie. trust, or fides qua) and "faith that" (ie. belief, or fides quae). Even superstition has a dogmatic aspect.

Unless you reduce faith to a feeling. And one would suspect that anyone whose faith is so disconnected from the resurrection of Christ that it would not matter to them if Christ were not really risen at all, are not really Christian at all, but simply "religious".

Liberal groups that deny the historical/physical resurrection of Christ are already melting away, without this new tomb business. They are either totally failing to attract adherants, or they are ceasing to be recognisably Christian.

Ultimately those who claim that they could believe in "resurrection" (as a vague generality rather than as a specific event in the history of Jesus of Nazareth) even if Christ was not raised are simply proclaiming a vague wishful optimism rather than the "sure and certain hope of the resurrection" proclaimed by the Apostolic witnesses.

 
At Wednesday, March 07, 2007 12:09:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

I agree with you that faith has dimensions of both trust and belief, and that if either is completely lacking what we have is, at best, a deficient faith.

In the past my own temptation, or my own misunderstanding, has been to overstate the significance (and sufficiency) of belief, and to underplay or overlook the role of trust, and perhaps now in compensation I tend to overcorrect in the other direction.

The dimension of faith-as-trust was brought home to me in part when it was pointed out that Paul – very, very strong on the significance and importance of faith – tells us practically nothing of the historical facts surrounding Jesus Christ. If the four gospels had been lost, and we were reliant on the letters of Paul to tell us about Jesus, we would know practically nothing about him. The conclusion is either that Paul didn’t know a great deal of the factual history surrounding Jesus, or he knew it but didn’t think it was relevant to the message of faith that he was propagating. So he doesn’t mention the virgin birth, for example, or the baptism of the Lord, or the temptations, or the transfiguration, or many other things. And since at least some of Paul’s writings predate all of the gospels, this omission is certainly not because he thinks his readership is already informed about these things.

Now, having said that, I must of course point out that he does mention the resurrection, and indeed he insists on its significance for faith.

He doesn’t,. though, give all of the detail that the gospels give to establish the factual historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ. It is possible, if you want to, to read Paul as affirming an exclusively spiritual resurrection. Btu I don’t think that this is because the alternative of faith in a spiritual or metaphorical or symbolic or ecclesial resurrection is acceptable to him. Rather I think it is because his audience understands the concept of a bodily resurrection, and when he tells them that Christ is risen, he expects them to know that that is what he means, without having the point laboured for them.

So, for Paul, faith in the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ is an essential component of Christian faith, and I am not arguing that a faith which lacks this element is “just as good” as one which has it.

I am saying, though, that it’s a perfectly feasible faith. You can trust in Jesus Christ, and attempt to live according to his teachings, without necessarily believing in the historicity of his bodily resurrection,

It’s not uncommon to find people of apparently stung faith and grace-filled lives who (a) have a limited interest in Christian theology, (b) tend not to view or speak of their faith in terms of what they believe, and (c) when pressed, articulate their beliefs on quite basic matters in terms which do not actually reflect what the church teaches. It’s not that they necessarily reject what the church teaches in terms of the resurrection, or the real presence, or whatever; it’s just that it’s not terribly relevant to the way they experience and live their faith. And if its explained to them that they have misunderstood what the church teaches, this doesn’t bother them greatly. As far as they are concerned, they don’t need to understand what the church teaches on such theological matters; that is not what their faith is about.

So I think these people – who I suspect are numerous - could accommodate themselves to a situation in which their church or denomination restated its beliefs about the resurrection in a way which could include a metaphorical, symbolic or ecclesial resurrection instead of a historical bodily resurrection.

For Catholics, and I think most other major denominations, the point is academic. They are not about to restate their faith in this way. And, if the Catholic church did restate its faith in terms of a purely spiritual resurrection, it might not lose all its adherents, but I think it would lose me.

 
At Wednesday, March 07, 2007 11:06:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Mmm. I wonder. There is much in what you say--BUT... I don't think Paul is quite as ignorant of the life of Christ as all that. There is the mention of "born of woman" in Galatians 4:4--now of course all people are "born of woman", but some "gods" or "demigods" in the ancient world had other beginnings. Paul may not have known about the VIRGIN birth, but he did know that Jesus was born of a woman. But he never mentions Joseph as his father, although he does know that Jesus was a descendant of King David (Rom 1:3 and 2 Tim 2:8). And the other important historical detail we have from Paul (in fact, its earliest record is with Paul) is the account of the insititution of the Lord's Supper "on the night he was betrayed" (1 Cor 11:23ff). You are right that he doesn't mention Jesus' baptism--but according to his disciple Luke, this was an element of his preaching (Acts 19:4).

Ultimately though, it is Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 15 that clinches the historical and physical resurrection of Jesus. Although in this very chapter, Paul uses the expression "spiritual body" in opposition to "psychical or soulish body" (not "physical" as NRSV has it), he quite clearly understands the Resurrection (Jesus' and ours) in bodily terms. If the resurrection was not bodily, Paul's insistence that Christ is truly raised would be meaningless.

 

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