TOWARD A REVISIONING OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

THE CONTOURS OF THE RAPPROCHEMENT OF POST SECULARITY

Religious thinking does not happen in a vacuum, nor is theology exempt from complying with the insights from other forms of human knowledge. Theology does not override, trump, or cancel the verified findings of other branches of knowledge. 

Theology and science analyze the same reality, but tell different stories. This isn’t a problem, since both disciplines are looking at different aspects of the same reality. They see different, yet interrelated things. And quite importantly, they often use different language to make their points.

The ancients, among whom Christianity was born, reasoned differently than we do, employing a greater amount of mythopoetic language than we do today. Mythopoesis is the description of reality in the language of myth and poetics. It is the employing of metaphor, simile, and symbol to help explain the meaning of things. It can be argued that it might be more accurate to speak of mythopoetic language as opposed to mythopoetic reasoning. Yet language and reason are so entwined, that making the distinction may not be significant.

The origins of the West’s major religious traditions are within the ancient world. Civilization at the dawn of the Common Era operated under a different worldview than our own, contemporary, scientific, postmodern mindset. Therefore, the foundational claims of Christianity were made from within a worldview different than our own, by individuals operating from within a significantly different intellectual milieu.

These peoples operated without science, or modern medicine, or psychology, or even a decent sense of history. Our ancient spiritual ancestors understood nothing about space or physics, the big bang, or evolution. They had not harnessed electricity or even fossil fuels. Their world was primitive, superstitious, and full of mystery and conflict. This is not to say that our spiritual ancestors were stupid or naive. In many ways they were quite sophisticated, often more so than we their postmodern descendants.

What’s important for us to always keep in mind was that the ancient writers of our sacred texts didn’t think they were writing science manuals or reporting history as we do today. Scientific reasoning and method did not even exist and history was told mostly in mythic narrative form. Ratther, the ancient authors and religious thinkers were trying to make sense of the world in terms of meaning and human purpose.

If the authors of the biblical texts didn’t think they were writing strictly factual claims or science, why should we today treat the same writings as offering scientific insights or claims? This recognition is vital in order to address forms of theological imperialism (fundamentalism and literalism) that use the biblical texts as scientific and historical manuals. The same recognition is also vital to address secular critiques accusing the texts of the same. Religious literalists and many secular critics (think the New Atheists) are commiting category errors and talking past one another.

The purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science (or other disciplines) over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern — of value and meaning — which science can’t fully address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.

Much of theological reasoning wrestles with normative and qualitative claims that cannot be deduced or induced or justified through scientific method. Rather, much of the religious enterprise relies on illative reasoning which operates by drawing together variant strands of arguments and evidence, none of which is conclusive on its own, but together may offer a reasonable argument.

Such thinking is not simplistic spiritual assertions into “gaps.” Rather, it is the recognition that existential realities are often passed by, unnoticed by the tools of science as the sea is not caught in totality by the fisherman’s net.

We are not speaking here of practical problems in need of theological answers – science will continue to provide refined answers to practical questions – rather, we are speaking of mysteries that call for reflection and meditation. Mysteries of existential meaning and purpose do not cry out for solutions or scientific answers – they (may) find their resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage the question why? And this why? is not simply the curious probing of science (although such may help), it is the subjective yearning of each human heart. 

The work of healthy theological reasoning is to give defense and support to our religious convictions through the elucidation of accumulated information from what we determine to be reliable facts, authoritative sources, sound reasoning, and critical reflection on our own experiences aided by ongoing verification and corroboration – none of which on its own is air-tight or convincing, but when put together allows for us to reach tentative, but satisfactory conclusions. (See John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent)

Much of our attempts to explain moments of gratitude, awe, and wonder rely on illative reasoning and mythopoetic language. The same applies to much of our moral reasoning as well as any sense of personal purpose.

The religious reasoning of any religious tradition is based on interwoven insights arrived at through illative reasoning and that therefore cannot be strictly argued for using deductive or scientific methods. Yes, science helps us separate superstition from mythopoesis and helps us understand aspects of our world and ourselves. But science can’t fully address the core concerns of spiritual even once the supernatural magical thinking has been factored out – normative and qualitative concerns, issues of existential import and meaning.

Pondering the normative, qualitative, and existential arenas reveals mysteries that science can inform us about, but can’t solve, and pondering these mysteries is part of the pivotal undoing of the flattening effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which culture can be judged and renewed. Cultivating this sense of awe and reverence is the purpose of spirituality.

Spirituality therefore seeks to speak about the meaning and purpose of life and offer wisdom on how to live it best and find wholeness. It needs to avoid trampling on science’s proper domains and it also needs to state it’s own claims reasonably and in alignment with scientific findings and evidential reasoning. Such a task is at the heart of the postsecular rapprochement.

The reciprocal obligations of the rapprochement require the sciences to recognize a positive role of religion when its speaking (correctly, of course) to issues of normativity, morality, and human purpose and meaning. The same reciprocity requires religion to formulate its claims in accord with scientific and reasoned evidence and differentiate or indicate when it’s speaking mythopoeticly.

Unfortunately, many Christians, operating from literal, fundamentalist, or even reactionary conservative positions refuse to adapt their theological thinking accordingly. They claim a privileged position for theology that isn’t justified or merited. And worse, many still look back nostalgically (and with hopeful eyes) to religious ways of thinking that are by now at least three centuries out of date. Simply proposing the same theological vision more forcefully, more purely, and more earnestly won’t do. In terms of Christian theology and spirituality, it’s time for some necessary upgrades.

A (RE)VISIONING – NECESSARY UPDATES

Most of us have had the experience of having to install updates on our computer or smartphone or even install a totally new operating system. We do this because the old system has flaws and design limitations and we’re promised that the new features or system are better.

And we all hate these update experiences because they take time to download and they make us change things we were familiar and comfortable with. And if we’re honest, most of the changes are for the better in the long term, although not all the changes bring their promised benefits.

Christian theology and spirituality need some badly overdue intellectual updates and operating system upgrades. These changes are required for the sake of the truth as well as for the sake of the long term viability of the tradition in general.

And these needed theological upgrades, like software and computer updates – take time to download and will result in uncomfortable, even sometimes painful changes. Yet sometimes we even need to delete data and start over with new code and instructions.

The choice is ours – upgrade and change – revise our understandings – or allow our old, outdated systems and programs to eventually freeze up and crash.

GETTING CHRISTIANITY TO MAKE SENSE AGAIN

The updates I speak about are necessary, because the typical educated, individual in the postsecular culture is unlikely to accept a theology that requires simplistic belief in resurrected corpses, virgin births, and miracles involving bread and wine. Also unlikely is their acceptance of infallible authorities or arguments for the inerrancy or divine authorship of scripture. Conversations about sin, hell, salvation, spiritual rebirth, redemption, or angels and demons will also likely fail to convince or even interest them.

The notion that these same individuals simply need to be properly evangelized by earnestly sharing the above, or quoting scripture, or explaining the Four Spiritual Laws or sharing about God’s love, might be well intentioned, but is misplaced at best. In fact, the efforts will likely repel them.

Modernity and beyond sees the world through a a factual-historical, evidential mindset, the result of science and evidential reasoning. Those who identify as secular tend to be formed by and immersed in this epistemological worldview.

Ironically, the same influences have led many Christians to reify and literalize Christianity’s myths, symbols, metaphors, and rites. The result is the concretization and literalization of originally mythopoetic claims and language. Arguing for a literal six day creation destroys one’s credibility in the eyes of the secular, naturalist culture. It’s also factually incorrect.

Our culture is increasingly formed by a soft naturalist, scientific mindset that asks for evidence and appeals to reasoned experience when presented with claims, and many, many Christians engage and present a theology which contradicts this mindset.

Granted, human nature is not a computer program, reason is only one aspect of the human person, and people are idiosyncratic. The human psyche includes not only rational functions, such as thought, evaluation, and conceptualization, but also functions such as intuition, symbolic imagination, and the ability to experience awe, gratitude, belonging, and love.

Christianity, revisioned and rightly explained, may possibly be appealing enough to be reconsidered by secular individuals, or at least cast in a better light. Yes, the effort involved in this revisioning is significant. And yes, the effort to re-present Christianity to the secular culture is a massive undertaking whose chances of success are perhaps slim. But Christianity has little choice if it hopes to remain meaningful, vibrant, influential, and above all, coherent and truthful.

Part of this theological revisioning effort requires a better understanding and appreciation of naturalism.

THE CHALLENGE OF NATURALISM

Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.

– John Paul II

Much of my call for an evidential theology is a call for the application of a methodological naturalism within theology and spirituality. However, my advocacy for the application of naturalist considerations into theology is not a crude overlay of strict scientific naturalism onto issues of metaphysics, existentialism, and morals.

Naturalism holds that the scientific method (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat) is the most effective way to investigate reality and that such methods are required to ascertain the truth about the world. Science has benefited humans in stunning and truly amazing ways – medical advances, technological progress, and significantly enhanced understanding of our world and ourselves. Humans are truly and radically better off because of science.

Naturalism and reliance on the scientific methodology is fundamentally an epistemological commitment, but one that often leads to an ontological conclusion that what is real is only what science can investigate. The science most naturalists take to be foundational is physics. Therefore, the ontological worldview of naturalism is often forms of materialism or physicalism.

Many naturalists therefore argue that scientific methods are the only valid way to conduct all human inquiry, including ethical analysis, normative decision making, aesthetic experience, valuation, and even interpersonal relationships. This position has been popularized and promoted within philosophy by American thinker, W.V.O. Quine.

Some naturalists, however, are recognizing that the above scientism and reductionism isn’t completely accurate and doesn’t serve human learning or science itself. The assumption that strict scientific naturalism is the totality of naturalist theory seems mistaken.

These thinkers, Hilary Putnam, Loyal Rue, Mario De Caro, David Macarthur, Wilfrid Sellars, or Lynne Rudder Baker, and others, have been developing more nuanced forms of naturalism, including liberal naturalism, poetic naturalism, and near-naturalism which are varied philosophical interpretations and explanations of naturalism that do not require a materialist or reductionist worldview. While there are important differences in these varieties of naturalism, for the sake of brevity, I’ll speak about these under the rubric of liberal naturalism.

Liberal Naturalism incorporates a range of views, a central tenet being that there is more to what is natural, and more to how we can investigate it, than scientific naturalism allows. It argues that one should respect the explanations and results of the successful sciences without supposing that the sciences are our only resource for understanding humanity and our dealings with the world and each other.

According to liberal naturalism, persons, existential concerns, the beauty of artworks, institutions, rational norms and moral values, to mention just some things, benefit from scientific inquiry, but are not fully explicable by science alone. Therefore, liberal naturalism calls for integrating scientific inquiry and philosophy in order to expand our efforts into personal purpose-seeking and meaning-making.

Liberal naturalism is thus more expansive both ontologically and methodologically, than stricter forms of naturalist philosophy. It acknowledges the existence of non-scientific modes of understanding that are central to our talk of reasons, epistemic justification, valuing, and intention which cannot necessarily be mapped onto talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them.

Truth is unitive, the conclusions and assumptions of all forms of human inquiry must still ultimately align with what the sciences demonstrate. Liberal naturalism does not permit grand conjecture, magical thinking, or wish projection as valid forms of reasoning. Rather, It is a naturalism that acknowledges the descriptive and explanatory power of science without allowing it to become reductionist.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE RELIGION?

Where does all this discussion then leave theology and religion in general?

Liberal naturalism is the secular, naturalist, and scientific response to the postsecular rapprochement. It operates from a holistic understanding of human persons and attempts to avoid reductionism that is akin to the various forms of Christian fundamentalism.

In short, naturalistic approaches to religion tend to pursue the following strategy: reject the transcendent claims, psychologically and neurobiologically explain aspects of religious experience, and focus primarily on the potential social and cultural aspects and benefits.

This approach toward religion is fairly easy to grasp. Naturalism largely defines itself by its rejection of supernatural realities or transcendent ontologies. Such realities cannot be demonstrated or verified by naturalist inquiry and scientific methodology, and therefore are set aside or outright rejected.

Liberal naturalism does not assert the non-existence of God or the transcendent as such, but simply the irrelevance of such entities for scientific investigation. It reaches this conclusion largely based on an argument of absence, that if the supernatural does exist it is seemingly silent and its effects are non-observable when relying on scientific methods.

The cogent naturalist concedes that naturalism cannot strictly demonstrate that nothing transcends nature. Correspondingly, the cogent theologian must also recognize that while it may be true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is also true that absence of evidence is absence of any respectable or sufficient reason to believe in something.

Yes, there are meaningful and fascinating philosophical arguments about nature and reality being contingent and therefore the need for some grounding beyond nature. But such arguments are complex, abstract metaphysics and do not strictly logically or practically lead to proofs for personal deities, spirits, and so on. This all means that Christians must refine how they speak about God and transcendent realities. (See David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God for the best rendition of these arguments.)

Naturalism has its limits. Engaging in liberal naturalist methodology doesn’t render religion useless, without value, or superfluous. Rather, naturalism as I’m speaking of it here, offers religion an opportunity to refine and improve itself. This claim harkens back to Habermas’s conclusion that secularism (largely rooted in naturalism) and religion can coexist and fruitfully dialog with one another.

Naturalism, and secularism being motivated by such, in general, asks religion to justify and defend its claims. The process of such is a healthy exercise for religion forcing it to go beyond juvenile assertions of magical thinking, wish projection, and mere assertion of revealed theological “truths.”

Theology must carefully scrutinize its claims, aligning them with science whenever possible. It must be humble, reserved, and careful of any supernatural claims it makes, knowing that justification and evidence for such is difficult, at best, and that such arguments and claims are met with stiff resistance in our secular culture.

This means that a revisioned Christianity must be less about supernatural metaphysics and become much more a way of life, centered around the teachings of Jesus – as a complex and multivalent interweaving of reason, ritual symbolism, personalism, and culture-building. A revisioned Christianity can therefore serve as a much needed forum for addressing issues of personality, purpose, meaning, morality, ideals and values that positive science is ill equipped to analyze.

The strong and somewhat eccentric emphasis on belief and faith in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. Christians tend to treat religion as an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data. Unfortunately, instead of focusing the meaning of such doctrines, they literalize them, and require assent to such literal interpretations.

Yet most other religious traditions place a primary emphasis on practice and action over belief and faith. Yes, obviously thought and action are entwined and influence one another. But there may be something of a benefit for Christianity to consider a renewed emphasis on orthopraxy instead of narrow orthodoxy.

Religion is primarily about meaning and valuing, not about science, and therefore it is (or should be) more concerned with forms of practical knowledge. During the Enlightenment, largely due to naturalism, the stage was set for scientific methods to become so successful that mythopoeia was discredited, scientific rationalism became seen as the only valid way to speak about the world and the only path to truth. The Christian response was, and often remains, a rejection of science, the digging in of heels in increasingly ideological theologies, and a reactionary drift into various fundamentalisms and literalisms.

In light of the valid and useful challenge of naturalism, Christianity needs to update its core assumptions and revision its theology and spirituality accordingly. And to achieve this revisioning and place Christianity on more solid footing in the postsecular, post Christian world now unfolding requires developing what I call an evidential theology.

TOWARD AN EVIDENTIAL THEOLOGY

To return Christianity to a healthier, reasoned, and vibrant state will require a willingness to rethink the tradition through various forms of theological reasoning, namely a regaining of familiarity with mythopoetic language and illyative reasoning, and an updated interpretation of theological claims through the application of evidential reasoning.

The claims of any discipline or form of analysis must align with reality, and theology is no exception. Such a requirement derives from the heart of realism and reason itself. Theology and religion are not exempt from such requirements. Theological claims must be reasonably explained, justified, and verified. To the degree they cannot pass such testing, they should be put aside.

For religion to be authentic and have the power to improve human lives, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Authentic spirituality is rooted in evidential thinking and operates from an epistemological conservatism and realism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer a theology that aligns with that understanding. Our religious thinking should conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.

Sound theology therefore accepts a correspondence approach to truth – that truth consists in the adequate alignment – a correspondence – of our propositions and judgements, our claims about reality – and reality itself. Accordingly, theology must assess the adequacy of our religious claims concerning their alignment with reality. Such a task is an ongoing process. And such a task must be informed by and align with science and its findings.

Humility therefore must be a core theological-intellectual virtue. We must avoid ideological theology that lacks humility, makes unwarranted claims, and arrogantly demands that reality conform to its narrow views. Are our theological convictions and narrative formed by reality or do we force reality to conform to them? Any theology that imposes itself on reality in ideological, militant fashion, without regard for reason and the truth that emerges from lived experience, is false theology.

We must recognize that the further our theology moves away from reality – the more abstract our claims, the more internecine and insular our preoccupations, the more removed from our everyday experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become, especially to the secular culture.

The challenge for for any spiritual tradition in the postsecular age is to remain credible and influential. Yet for Christianity to remain a viable enterprise and cultural influence it must now dramatically reconsider its claims and core convictions – simply doing business as usual and continuing to cling to the same understandings will diminish any tradition and likely force it into terminal decline.

Many today simply find claims about supernatural realities implausible. Many Christians, too, are uncomfortable with the inauthentic pretense they feel compelled to uphold when they involve themselves in religious practices that presuppose a supernatural worldview. And they seek a serious spiritual practice that fits their evidentialist way of living and understanding the world.

Once we peel away the unjustifiable supernatural lingerings of the ancient worldview, what wisdom is there to cling to and develop? The insights into human dignity, the wisdom of what leads to human wholeness, the value of freedom, equality and inclusivity, compassion, care of the poor and marginalized – the resistance to the dehumanizing forces in our culture – such things have incommensurable value and can still resonate with our postmodern sensibilities.

AN ANGLICAN SUGGESTION

Christianity is not monolithic, it’s varied and diverse. In reality, it’s more accurate to speak of Christianities that have developed and have been expressed through the ages, in various subcultures, and in diverse denominational structures. In this light, each denomination within the overall tradition likely has some wisdom to contribute to our project of revisioning.

In particular, the manner in which many Anglican’s understand their theological enterprise might be especially valuable to our efforts. While there is diversity within Anglican theology itself, it generally approaches the theological task as a balance of engaging and understanding tradition and scripture through reason and experience. This balance has been spoken of in many ways, including the somewhat well known analogy of a three legged stool (tradition, scripture, and reason.) Regardless of how many legs, let us examine the merits of this approach further.

Many Anglicans, although not all, tend to affirm that reason is the main arbiter when attempting to understand Christian tradition and the scriptures. If one comes across theological claims or assertions that are contrary to reason and common experience, Anglicans are more willing to put aside a literal or simplistic understanding of the claim, in favor of an approach that takes modern methods of interpretation into account. Therefore, many Anglicans will adhere to and keep the forms of tradition (a generous orthodoxy) while interpreting the meaning of the claims of those forms in light of current knowledge, including science.

My own preference is to talk about the general schema of the Christian theological enterprise being a balanced application of reason and experience (including science) to tradition, which includes the scriptures, since the tradition produced and compiled those texts.

Therefore, sound theology first must understand the historical and cultural contexts of the Christian tradition as well as be well versed in the claims of the tradition itself. Yet the task cannot end there, it must then engage the tradition and its claims with reasoned reflection on experience, essentially engaging in what I have described as evidential theology.

A second trait of Anglican theology that is worthy of consideration is that interpretive authority is not centralized, but resides with the individual within communities. Yes, there are bishops, and the unifying symbolic role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but each national Anglican church is autonomous, and bishops and clergy claim no infallibility or authority to require theological or intellectual conformity from the laity. Yes, a basic and broad orthodoxy is expected and takes shape, but a diversity of views is also tolerated within the contextual guardrails established by the reality of the tradition itself.

Practically, theological issues are hammered out in conventions with bishops, priests, and lay representatives all having a say in a more or less democratic, dialogic, discerning decision making process. Anglican unity is maintained by voluntary association, ongoing dialog, mutual tolerance, and above all, shared liturgical forms, especially the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Anglican approach toward reasoned interpretation without central authority, conducted by individuals reasoning together in communities offers us insights and suggestions on how to engage in evidential theology. And it is this evidential theology that offers itself as the methodological tool for revisioning Christian theology and practice in such a manner as to make it understandable and possibly appealing to the mainstream, secular mindset.

APPLICATION – AN EXAMPLE

Using the resurrection as an example, let us offer a limited, initial look at how an evidential theological approach might work, understanding that while the steps and manner of inquiry will be similar for those engaged in such a theology, the individual and personal conclusions will vary.

An Outline of the Method

The method of evidential theology would involve the following steps:

1) Focus on a particular claim, related set of claims, or theme(s) of the Christian tradition. Survey the scriptures and the tradition to gain an overall familiarity with the claims and assertions themselves, as well as the self understanding of those who made them.

2) Relying on evidential reasoning, science, and the best of accepted human learning, including accepted forms of textual and historical criticism, ask whether the claims being made were intended as and/or should be approached literally-factually-historically or mythopoetically-metaphorically-symbolically. This task will unlikely result in definitive resolution, since gauging the intentions of deceased authors remains speculative.

3) Reflect on the meanings behind these claims, their existential, normative, and qualitative sense within the cultural-historical realities of the people making the claim.

4. Then apply that meaning to our own reality and culture, again, allowing reason, science, including the social sciences, and the best of accepted human learning to aid us in our own reflection. Finally, adding our insights and interpretations to the claims keeps the Christian tradition alive.

An Example of the Method Applied

The early Christian communities made claims concerning Jesus’ resurrection. These claims are at the core of Christianity itself and no one can argue that the resurrection is not central to the tradition. Generally speaking, the claims assert that Jesus rose from death to renewed life and appeared among his followers before finally “ascending” to God.

An evidential theological analysis commences by looking at the claims themselves. Careful and informed analysis seeks clarity as to their content and scope as well as noting variances and discrepancies.

For example, all four of the canonical gospels tell the resurrection account differently – who first reached the tomb, who did Jesus personally appear to, how many young men in white (normally interpreted as angels), and so on. Paul in his many letters barely mentions any historical details about Jesus’ life, no less claimed historical accounts of the execution, burial, or resurrection.

The surveying of the claims includes reading the scriptural accounts as well as any ancient references (in their original languages, if possible). To this is then added a general historical sweep of the treatment and progressive understanding of the resurrection. This is followed by then widely engaging the analysis, interpretations, and commentary of other, learned theologians and thinkers, past and present.

Once the immersion into the sources and their claims is reasonably complete, we turn our attention to what sort of claims are these? How do we sift the factual-historical from the mythopoetic-metaphorical? And it’s essential to keep in mind that the ancients making these claims didn’t differentiate those modes of reasoning and language as we do today and that claims can overlap into both categories.

One manner of differentiation is to allow science, advanced human learning, and reason to aid our assessments. This is, in fact, a significant aspect of seeking an evidential turn in theology.

What are we to make of the claims of a physical resurrection? Our reasoned experience of the world doesn’t include dead bodies coming back to life. There are no validated, scientifically studied, reputable cases of such happening in human history. Truly dead, brutalized bodies do not get up again in any physical sense – that’s what reason and experience, aided by science, make clear.

A second part of this step is to ask what the form, language, and textual manner of the claims. Evidential theology leans on theological scholarship and methods of textual, historical and form criticism. Such forms of analysis immediately remind us that the ancient writers did not understand their telling of most accounts as a strict presentation of historical facts or a journalistic reporting of news, as we do in our modern age.

For example, we know that the consensus of the biblical scholarship is that the gospels are not biographies or history in the same way we today understand such. First, that genre of writing was not yet developed and existed only in limited form. Second, the more time one spends with the gospels, the more evident it becomes that the gospels are carefully structured, complex, even sophisticated examples of midrash, teaching, and event telling, not simple reportings of eyewitness accounts to formulate what we today would understand as a biography. The early authors employed mythopoetic language in midrashic motif that was willing to sometimes allow the deeper spiritual meaning and symbolism of the event to shape the details of the telling.

What are the results of this first half of our analysis? Our first round of cultural, historical, and textual analysis would leave us more clearly knowing that the claim of Jesus’ resurrection was central, transformative, and momentous, as well as knowing something of the cultural context, but it also leaves us without a single, definitive account of the event. Additionally, we understand that the resurrection accounts likely tell of events through a blend of actual experience, meaning, and myth.

Our first round also leaves us wrestling with claims that appear to stress the physicality of the event – an actual bodily resurrection. The gospels speak of the risen Jesus eating, talking, being touched, and so on. Yet our contemporary, scientific, evidenced-based understanding of the world cannot affirm such, and the same soft, liberal naturalism underlying evidential theology also doesn’t accept miraculous explanations either.

So, what are we to do? The first thing we do not need to do is establish a central authority to tell us the right or correct position to adopt. This is the default response of most strict orthodoxies – create an authority to settle the matter, require conformity with the judgement, and then allow that authority to expel those who don’t accept that judgment. Doing such, while perhaps satisfying on some level, doesn’t actually settle anything, even if one believes that their authority is infallible.

Mysteries are not matters to settle, rather they are matters of existential truths that must be ongoingly engaged, reflected on, and lived through. Nor does communal unity require that everyone think exactly the same on such issues. Obviously, unity urges all to engage such mysteries earnestly, and together in dialog, but it doesn’t require narrow intellectual conformity.

The second half our evidential theological analysis then turns toward what meaning did the first Christians find in the resurrection and what meaning can we find in such today?

One way forward with this second part of our analysis is to spend time with the details and discrepancies in the telling of the events. Who did Jesus first appear to? How many men in white were seen? Did the risen Jesus tell the disciples to go to Galilee or wait in Jerusalem? The accounts are contradictory on these matters. Why the discrepancies in the telling of such an important event?

Some try to explain the discrepancies by pointing out that eyewitnesses to the same event tend to remember the event differently, from different vantage points and perspectives. But Mark’s gospel, the first to offer something of an account (and only in later editions) is written at least thirty to thirty five years after the event. First Century Palestine was not an oral culture as some understand the meaning of that term. (See Bart Ehrman’s, Jesus Before the Gospels, for details.) Therefore, all of the accounts of the resurrection are second hand or beyond, conveyances of such.

Can the discrepancies themselves, as well as the details of the event emphasized, point us toward a better understanding of the nature of the event itself?

For example, the resurrected Jesus only appears to those already Christian. We have no record of pagan gentiles or Jews encountering the risen Jesus. Are the claims then also telling us something about the importance of faith or seeing the world in a certain way? Is to claim the resurrection of Jesus a metaphor for a certain perspective on the meaning of the events?

Another consideration, in two of the appearances, the presence of Jesus becomes clear in the setting of a meal and at the breaking and sharing bread. Are these accounts trying to tell us something of how the early communities encountered Jesus in their Eucharistic meals?

Is the claim that Jesus rose on the third day intended as symbolic or literal, or both? The number three had spiritual significance for ancient Jews, symbolizing fullness – Jonah spent three days in the whale, and so on. What did the early Christians mean by the ascension? What about claims of vanishing and appearing although the doors are locked? What does the story of doubting Thomas tell us? Is there any significance or importance in who sees the risen Jesus first? How does the claim of the resurrection fit with other claims and tellings of the Christian narrative?

My own conclusion is that the discrepancies and manner of telling of the resurrection speak of the meaning of an event whose historical details were clouded. Therefore, when our analysis is done, we don’t have a singular, consistent, historical telling, rather we have disjointed retellings that focus on details, perhaps mythopoetic and midrashic in nature, that are intended to privilege the meaning of such details over the importance of the exact, factual reality, which wasn’t likely known to the authors.

What this means is that it’s unlikely that the gospel authors had an authoritative source for a singular narrative of the resurrection. They didn’t know who first saw Jesus or even how they saw him. But they also knew that such details were meaningful and therefore worth including, even if that inclusion required an imaginative treatment.

Ongoing reflection on the claims of the resurrection reveal multiple, overlapping, layers of meaning. The claims convey a real sense of Jesus’ enduring and “living” presence within the community after his death. The claims also are a statement about the inability of the Empire to eradicate Jesus’ and the truth of his teachings, values, and way of life. The claims are about new life out of death, renewal, restoration, and redemption. And the claims are about how our actions, values, and way of life reach beyond our own death and influence those who remain and who will come after us. The meanings are many, overlapping, and inexhaustible as mysteries are.

The chosen telling of the event seems to indicate the possibility that the early Christians encountered Jesus in meaningful, but not physical ways – at eucharistic meals, when reading the scriptures, and when gathered as community. We talking about a felt presence, a vivid memory, a clarifying sense of Jesus’ teachings and actions, and perhaps visions and dreams.

John Dominic Crossan takes the Road to Emmaus event in Luke to be possibly paradigmatic of the resurrection experience. The two followers of Jesus are leaving Jerusalem after the crucifixion. They are struggling to find meaning in such events and comment on how some are claiming that they are encountering Jesus. Whether those encounters are in dreams, visions, symbolic spiritual experiences, or actual physical encounters isn’t made clear.

The two followers encounter a stranger on the way, someone they don’t immediately recognize, possibly implying a progressive, unfolding over time, understanding of the resurrection and meaning of Jesus. This stranger interprets Jesus’ execution and rising in light of the scriptures. This could possibly mean that the early Christian communities used Jesus’ teaching and example as the interpretative key for a rereading of the Hebrew scriptures to help them better understand things. This also implies an ongoing process likely over an extended period of time.

The two followers do not recognize this stranger as Jesus until they offer him hospitality and then share a meal. Is this possibly a statement concerning the early Christian communities experience of Jesus’ presence in their gatherings, hospitality to strangers, and especially in their eucharistic meals?

I personally find much merit in such an interpretation, but admit no one can offer a definitive account of the resurrection or explain its meaning in an exhaustive and full sense.

We must accept that we were not present at the actual event and therefore can’t state with certainty what happened. But we also must accept that reason and science don’t allow for dead bodies returning to life and to claim Jesus’ resurrection as a miracle also violates our reasoned, scientific view of the world. Even if we accept a physical resurrection, it’s meaning remains uncertain. Clearly, such a happening would be incredibly significant, but the meaning of this significance would remain unresolved.

The above theological process is intended to be a balanced application of reasoned experience to the claims of the Christian tradition. Extreme approaches – simply writing off the claims as naive, superstitious nonsense or uncritically accepting the narratives in a literal sense (which is actually impossible, because they are disjointed and contradictory) – leaves one impoverished on some level.

Obviously, one is free to set aside the claims and not engage the mystery of resurrection at all. That is one of our freedoms in a liberal, secular society. But those who find meaning in engaging the Christian tradition have an obligation to participate in understanding and applying the mystery as they best understand it, with the interpretive help of their communities and scholars and experts, while resisting the temptation to allow others or ourselves to impose their interpretations as mandatory or definitive.

All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)

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