Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection: Interpretation and Impatience

This is a substantially extended version of an article originally published in the April 2015 edition of Crosslight, the monthly newspaper of the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

As always, Easter is an opportunity to engage with the meaning and credibility of the church’s claims about the resurrection. We self-styled ‘modern’ middle-class Westerners have somehow convinced ourselves that we are the first to question them. In fact the claims have always been contested and Christians have always had to argue for them. In the modern context, those arguments have produced highly disputed interpretations of the resurrection narratives. Appeals are often made to the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’. I have often wondered why this distinction, which illuminates so little, carries so much currency in the UCA and other mainline denominations.
Certainly, the distinction will be helpful to those anxious about fundamentalism, and my observation is that it especially resonates with ex-fundamentalists. Nevertheless, I suggest another reason for its deep resonance. It is a by-product of a view of the relationship between language and reality embedded in the intellectual currents of the 1960s. This, of course, was a pivotal period for the UCA’s demographic and has deeply shaped the UCA’s culture. A rhetoric was fostered of something being only a metaphor, and as such one step removed from the truth. The idea grew that this was the appropriate category for theological language: it’s only metaphorical and therefore having only a tentative or tenuous connection to the truth.
Contemporary reflection on language and truth offers quite different options. For starters, language does not divide neatly between literal and metaphorical. Even if it did, the distinction between literal and metaphorical language is not between more and less certain ways of telling the truth. As one writer has put it: “The difference between literal and metaphorical is a difference between different ways of using a word in discourse.”[1] They are simply two ways – among many others – of using language to depict reality, each with its own possibilities and limitations.
Metaphors are a particular way of telling the truth, not of avoiding it. The fact that biblical and theological language happily employs metaphor, analogy, parable, and narrative should never be used as a reason for Christians to hesitate to make truth claims. Conversely, the literalness of literal language does not guarantee its truthfulness. After all, it is possible to use language literally, but in order to tell lies.
What then of the resurrection narratives? If the binary between literal and metaphorical breaks down anywhere, it is there. They are a mixture of history, imagination, speculation, literary artistry, and doctrine. The truth they tell cannot be isolated by distilling the supposedly more reliable element. It lies in the narratives themselves.
So, what is being affirmed in the claim that Jesus was raised? Uniting the multiplicity of the narratives is the conviction that Jesus had been vindicated by God. This meaning is articulated across the New Testament. It is evident at the various points where the human judgement on Jesus was understood to have been reversed by God: human execution was trumped by divine resurrection (e.g., Luke 24:21-35; Rom 6:1-11; Phil 2:5-11; implicitly in Mark 8:31; Matt 16:21; Luke 9: 22; 1 Cor 1:18-25).  Perhaps the most striking presentation of the resurrection as God’s reversal of the human rejection of Jesus is found in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: “this man…you crucified and killed…. But God raised him up” (Acts 2: 23-24 and closely echoed in v.36 and 4:10).
Many dismiss early resurrection belief as wish fulfilment or as a ‘metaphor’ for the disciples’ ‘spiritual’ experience. The arguments and counter-arguments are well-trodden. The modern Western preoccupation with the alleged credulity of belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection has obscured two other serious challenges to Christianity’s credibility stemming from its resurrection claims.
First, if Jesus was not raised and therefore vindicated, a question is placed over Jesus’ life. At the time of his death Jesus had changed nothing. The temple was still in place. The Romans still ruled. The poor were still poor. He had strikingly failed to foster a resilient faith amongst his disciples. When he set out for Jerusalem he was not pursuing a deeper experience of the ‘Sacred’; nor was he anxiously wondering whether the ‘Divine’ or ‘G*D’ ‘existed’. He proceeded with a deeply rooted trust in the God of Israel whom he addressed as ‘Father’, and from whom he hoped for vindication (Mark 8: 31, Matt 16:21; Luke 9:22). If he was not vindicated, then it is not just, as Paul says, our faith which is in vain (1 Cor 15:14), but also that Jesus’ life was in vain. His teaching would have been just another messianic stab in the dark. His healings those of just another faith-healer but not the kingdom breaking in. The God whose overturning of the world’s injustices he had confidently predicted and with whom he singularly identified (e.g. Luke 4: 16:21) was silent.
Secondly, even if we accept the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus, does there not remain a pressing question about the credibility of Jesus’ God? The problem is that the resurrection is all God did. In the face of the kind of hope that Jesus placed in God, the resurrection is actually a fairly modest act. Did Jesus not point to a reign of God involving something more comprehensive than his own resurrection? Did he not point to a new age and an overturning of the world’s disorder?
Convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, this tension was not lost on the first Christians: they spoke of the first fruits of a salvation awaiting fulfilment (Rom 8:23). Within the world of Christian piety, this often translates into a frustration with our own sin and a corresponding impatience for our own personal salvation. But should it not also produce an agitation and impatience for God’s promised reign so that the injustices and evils of history are overturned? New Testament scholar, Dale Allison, makes the point sharply: “God cannot be thought good in any authentic sense of that word if the world as it is, this desert in which so many briefly live, suffer, die and are forgotten, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.”[2] Allison goes on to quote the even more poignant words of William Placher: “Does God treat some people like garbage, casting them aside into nothingness without anything good ever happening to them?”[3]
The extent to which we feel the force of that question will reflect the extent to which our use of the word ‘God’ (or its various contemporary substitutes) is morally credible. There are many worthy things that Christianity has been and is. For many it has eased existential anxiety in a  seemingly meaningless world. For others, it has fostered successful and well-intentioned middle-class movements for social justice and transformation.It gives voice in some places to subaltern movements of liberation. Yet if it cannot extend from these to a universal and cosmic dimension, then it would be more morally credible to endorse those projects for their own immediate value without the theological or religious layer. If God is worth talking about and if the claim that God is love is not to be trivialised, there must be good reasons for extending the Christian discourse about salvation in Christ to a cosmic level. There must be some reasons for speaking about a reconciliation and transformation comprehensive enough to bring justice to the injustices of all times and places. And this requires eschatology, an eschatology of the sort that accompanied the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection. With this is mind, let me turn briefly to the work of Marcus Borg who also talks about God’s vindication of Jesus, but for whom the work of vindication is understood quite differently.
In his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary,[4] Borg explicitly interprets the resurrection as God’s vindication of Jesus.[5] Indeed, in a move which distances him from some of his fellow revisionist scholars, Borg declares that “Easter is not simply about people experiencing a person who has died”. The resurrection narratives, he says, “are stories of vindication, of God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus”.[6] Accordingly, “Easter means that the powers of this world do not have the last word.”[7] This seems to echo the argument above, but there is a subtle and very significant difference, and it all hinges on how Borg understands the eschatology of the Kingdom of God.
Borg distinguishes between an ‘imminent’ and a ‘participatory’ eschatology. The former is focused on Jesus’ imminent return. The later on “following Jesus on the way of personal transformation of which he spoke”[8] in his teaching about the Kingdom. He does not deny that Jesus himself held to an imminent eschatology, but he insists that this was a matter of secondary importance to him (and that ultimately Jesus got this wrong anyway).[9] Of primary importance to Jesus, says Borg, was the participatory eschatology according to which his teaching about the coming kingdom was a summons to participate in God's transformation of society away from the kingdoms of domination.[10] And because the resurrection is understood as the vindication of this primary (and not the secondary) message of Jesus, the proclamation of Easter is a summons to “oppose the imperial domination system”[11] 

This is a significant corrective to some understandings of the kingdom of God. But it is methodologically problematic. The downplaying of the imminent eschatology on the grounds of a distinction between primary and secondary matters of concern to Jesus is dubious, quite apart from whether the claim about the secondary status of the imminent eschatology is sustainable in the first place. And if Jesus was mistaken about the imminent eschatology why should we accept that he was correct about the participatory eschatology? But more than that, by relegating, and effectively excising, the imminent eschatology from Jesus' teaching and the resurrection, Borg has whittled away the only aspect of Christian faith that can truly speak of the past, future and cosmic dimensions of the kingdom. It precisely this broader eschatology which, for instance, allows Paul to move from the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection to the hope that God will eventually be ‘all in all’ and that ‘death’ in its broadest sense will be defeated (1 Cor 15:1-55). It is reflected in the hope for the 'universal restoration' of which Peter spoke in Solomon's Portico (Acts 3:21)  Yes, Borg can move from his understanding of the resurrection to a mandate for costly and radical political discipleship. He can speak of Jesus being Lord in contrast to the world’s lords. But he cannot, on his own premises, speak with any confidence of a renewal and transformation of all creation. The justice of which he speaks risks being parochial both in time and space, and ultimately, it does not require either belief in God, let alone claims about the vindication of Jesus.
As the vindication of Jesus in its fullest sense, the resurrection certainly includes a summons to a resistance to the prevailing powers of domination, but it is even more than that, much more. It points to a hope that all disorder and injustice will be reversed, not simply those produced by the evils of empire. Yes, we might wish that God had done more than raise Jesus. But nor should we diminish the resurrection by reducing it to a metaphor of spiritual experience or to the security of our place in heaven or to a potentially parochial political mandate. It is the revelation of God’s cosmic justice. It is what allows Christians, at the deepest and most fundamental level, to say that God is good. We can fully enter the hope it fosters. But if it is this hope in this God, then alongside the joy of Easter Day will be a deeply Christian agitation and impatience especially attuned to the cries of the neighbours, strangers and enemies across history with whom we share this disordered world. And hearing those cries, our lives, in both word and deed, will echo Paul, “Maranatha”: Come Lord Jesus (1 Cor 16:22).

[1] Colin Gunton, Actuality and Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 35.  Emphasis added.
[2] Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 218
[3] William C. Placher, Jesus the Saviour: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: WJKP, 2001), p. 159 cited in Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 218.
[4] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
[5] To be precise, what he actually says is that the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus “carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus” (Borg, Jesus, 289). This, of course, is one remove from an affirmation of Jesus’ bodily resurrection being a demonstration of God’s vindication of Jesus. To engage this distinction would take more time and space than is necessary for present purposes.
[6] Borg, Jesus, 289.
[7] Borg, Jesus, 289.
[8] Borg, Jesus, 259.
[9] Borg, Jesus, 254.
[10] See Borg, Jesus¸225-260.
[11] Borg, Jesus, 289.

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