He is risen! … now what?
Last week I was a part of two vigorous online conversations regarding the resurrection. Then I had a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Easter Sunday in a glorious way. I thought it might be good to recap the implications of last week’s conversations and celebrations as we turn the corner toward Pentecost.
The next question seems to be “what do we do with this?” – also known as the so what question. People want to know because there are 3 key passages in the New Testament that say Jesus’ resurrection has consequences for what we as believers can expect after our death.
Here are the 4 layers of thought that seem to come out of the Resurrection conversation.
Layer 1: The disciples experienced Jesus after his death
and that signaled many things including that A) death is not the end and B) the Roman empire was not the final authority.
I like this interpretation. If this were all that there was, it would be enough for me. Last week I heard a number of times that this is nothing more than a ‘ghost story’ and offers no hope. I don’t see it that way, but I already wrote on it last week.
Layer 2: At the end of our life, we are taken into (or absorbed back into) the life of God. This position holds that life after death is total and absolute communion with God and that all the other ‘streets of gold’ and ‘pearly gates’ stuff is just anthropomorphic projection and imagination.
I like the language of this view. It also helps that I think the book of Revelation is a political critique of the Roman empire and has nothing to do with the end of the world and is therefor not instructive in the least about life after death. So I don’t have to worry about the personification stuff. It frees me to enjoy the thought of release and embrace: release from this life and embrace by the divine other.
Critics of this view say that it is too spiritualized and not specific enough and doesn’t give dignity to the existence of the individual. I hear what they are saying, but it opens us up the to anthropomorphic critique again.
Layer 3: Jesus was resurrected with a trans-physical body. So we can expect a glorified – bodily – spiritual/physical existence in kind.
This is the classic reading of the text. Jesus both interacted with the physical (making breakfast on the shore and letting Thomas touch his wounds) while also not being limited to the physical (walking through walls, etc.)
I am, of course, comfortable with this view as it is what I was raised with and ordained into. The only downside is that it desperately needs to humbly engage the gaps that emerge in Biblical scholarship instead of arrogantly raising it’s voice to anyone who dares question any aspect of the accounts that were written so much later and which vary from each other.
Layer 4: Some really thoughtful modern theologians have put forward some new theories or vocabularies with which to have this conversation. Notable are N.T. Wright, John Cobb, and a honorable mention goes to philosopher John Caputo.
I was listening to an interview with John Polkinghorn and he said something that caught my attention.
“What is the real me? It is certainly more than the matter of my body, because that it changing all the time. The atoms are always changing – but in some sense it is the pattern of how the atoms are formed. That,I think, is what the soul is (agreeing with Thomas Aquinas).
It is an immensely rich pattern that doesn’t end at my skin. It involves my memories, my character, my personality. I think it involves all the relationships I take on. It is complex and we struggle to even say something about it. But I do not think that God will allow that pattern to be lost and I think that God will recreate that pattern after resurrection.
Faith and Science are in conversation about what could be the continuity between this world and world that has yet to come.”
I love this language. It gets away from the historical argument of only literal vs. merely spiritual and points to the possibilities of a preferable future – but does so without being dogmatic, wooden interpretation or concrete physics. It leaves the door open for faith and invites us into a conversation. In my mind, that is better than rote
regurgitation repetition of old formulations. It encourages us to think and causes us to explore.*
* I would even go so far as to say think biblically and explore theologically.
April 25, 2011 at 7:36 pm
>As a psychology major, I can tell you that we don't know what is going on with consciousness. Similar to issues of theology, even though we have the same evidence and the same facts on hands, we come to different conclusions about personality and identity. We all agree that there is such a thing as personality, but we don't know where it comes from. Some evidence suggests that who we are is the sum total of the biological processes of all the different parts of your brain. Take any part of that away and you take away an aspect of personality and consciousness. Some evidence suggests that who we are is primarily determined by our environment and how we respond to it. In a sense, we are the sum total of our memories and experiences and environmental influences. Some evidence suggests that what we call personality is simply instinctual biological responses to external stimuli. We are essential machines, that while individual, respond to our stimuli in consistent and predictable fashions, essentially that we have no free will. There are other theories about personality as well. My point is, it doesn't make a lot of sense to speculate about what our consciousness looks like in the afterlife when we don't even know what consciousness is. If who I am is the sum total of all the electrical signals passing through all the neurons inside my brain, when my brain ceases to exist, what happens to my personality? Does that mean that there will be a biological existence in the afterlife? If I am the sum total of my experiences and environment and social influence, does that mean the afterlife has social interaction? What about the soul? The soul that exists either nowhere in my body or everywhere in body? Is it separate from my personality? Can my personality die while my soul lives on? I am comfortable with the fact that I do not understand the afterlife. I am comfortable with this because I know that God is Love, and every model of life after the resurrection I have ever seen has been a good one. I trust that God has something good in store, even if I cannot comprehend it.
April 25, 2011 at 8:15 pm
>Ok – so I want to pick out a line and start there: "My point is, it doesn't make a lot of sense to speculate about what our consciousness looks like in the afterlife when we don't even know what consciousness is."I totally 100% get what you are saying with this. My question is what place do we give the thought of 1st century thinkers. We have a cannon of Scripture that we want to honor – but are we limited by the constructs they were employing? Scripture sets the agenda… but does it set the parameters?
April 25, 2011 at 9:16 pm
>No. Why should our concepts of God and the preternatural be defined entirely by people who lived in a different cultural context, and wrote and thought in a different language. We can rely on first century thinkers to give us something to work with, but we must draw our own conclusions.
April 26, 2011 at 2:16 am
>I am most fascinated by the classical understanding of the 'bodily' resurrection and its conjunction with layers 3 and 4. Currently I am of the view that God had specific purposes for the death and resurrection of his son to be during the roman empire, as well as the other events of scriptures that happened in specific times and places and with specific people. The bodily resurrection has less to do with the physical purpose except that God meant it to have certain anthropomorphic characteristics and metaphysical ramifications/implications. Even though the parameters of the written scriptures, the early church, etc., are limited when compared to our own time and place in history, I would suggest that one parameter stays persistent- our humanity. The meaning of a 'physical' resurrection indicates only that creatures who are human beings have a specific purpose, but within the context of existence on Earth. When all other parameters pass away including geographic location, time period in history, language, culture, etc. our humanity connects all persons together as well as the idea that God would sacrifice his divinity to dwell among us. I feel that this is a parameter that is most frequently overlooked when the church teaches about God through various orthodox/non-orthodox doctrines.
April 26, 2011 at 2:32 am
>Whenever I have been asked to describe my understanding of God, I have a hard time putting a lot into concrete ideas. But one that has consistently come up is, "God would do anything to restore His people. Any of them. Even only one of them." Faith it seems, is abstract and hard to comprehend as life in general. I think Dogma and orthodoxy are a cage. I think when you're afraid to ask some questions about what's really going on and what the Bible really says, you're afraid to see God face-to-face and interact with a Person (more like *the* Person). I also feel that it stifles the discussion and relationship with the people of your community. I can't rely on 300 year old theology to try to explain to the people I care about why something that happened 2000 years ago in a backwater province of a dead empire is still relevant and important today. I have to understand the story not only in the context in which it occurred, but in the context I live in now, the context in which that story is still occurring. A lot of it has to do with base assumptions. If your assumptions are that the narrative is important, it is going to define a lot of parameters on your belief about God and the preternatural. If you start by believing in God, you come to believe the narrative is important. I think there is a difference here. There are different ways of having the same elements, but they are arranged differently. A person who starts under the assumption that the Bible is a book worth reading and then concludes that there must be a God is going to think very differently from someone who starts by saying that there is a God and then starts reading the Bible to define that understanding.
April 26, 2011 at 2:52 am
>Sam,Yes! People tend to forget that the story is still occurring. When talking about the assumption:'someone who starts by saying that there is a God and then starts reading the Bible to define that understanding, It seems that a personal experience of God in our current age as an authority on the knowledge of God is commonly overlooked because most 'orthodox' assumptions rely on the Bible as the 'only' revelation of God and his character. Somehow the personal experience of God by past theologians and 'saints' such as St. Augustine, etc. and the written scriptures including the personal experience of the apostle Paul have authority but our own personal experiences do not. Personal experience is a parameter of humanity.
April 30, 2011 at 9:26 pm
This has been a WONDERFUL conversation! Thank you both so much for the thoughts 🙂