I recently finished up re-reading the book The Resurrection: Myth or Reality? by Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong that totally consumed my “free” time over the last couple of weeks. Being that it’s Lent, I wanted to, as I got my ashes on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Reading religious books (beyond The Good Book of course) is one way I chose to stop and reflect on my faith and what better book than about The Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Spong has always spoke directly to me and help me put words to a faith I find difficult to describe.
I realized that I never really confronted exactly what I positively believe about the resurrection and afterlife. I tend to dismiss literal interpretations of sacred history recounted in The Bible, but that’s a negative affirmation: what I don’t believe. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is in fact risen and alive though not as I am. He’s alive in a way I’ve struggled to put in words beyond a vague spiritual description, but Spong does better.
It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment, a realm of life and love, a realm of God from within which Jesus appeared to Simon.
As I expected, Spong confirmed that resurrection is not the sort of thing you film and playback on a DVD much less narrate.
Was it real? Yes, I am convinced it was real. Was it objective? No, I do not think it was objective. Can it be real if it is not objective? Yes, I think it can, for “objective” is a category that measures events inside time and space. Jesus appeared to Simon from the realm of God, and that realm is not within history, it is not bounded by time or space.
Spong’s approach to understanding the resurrection reflects my study of the Bible: we try to understand the reality and truth of our faith by taking account of the witness of ancient people and the worldview shaping that witness. In this particular case, we attempt to read Scripture with Jewish eyes and listen with Jewish ears. Understanding Jewish midrash is the framework Spong used to do this which makes eminent sense. All the writers of Scripture with the possible exception of Luke-Acts were Jews.
Midrash is the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past. It is the ability to rework an ancient theme in a new context. It is the affirmation of a timeless truth found in the faith journey of a people so that this truth can be experienced afresh in every generation. It is the recognition that the truth of God is not bound within the limits of time but that its eternal echoes can be and are heard anew in every generation. It is the means whereby the experience of the present can be affirmed and asserted as true inside the symbols of yesterday.
What all this meant for me was that to find an “objective,” literal, “historical” account of the resurrection would be forever frustrated. Rightly so. History is not the grist of faith. Theology, biblical criticism, etc. perhaps, but not faith. And that was one lesson. As Spong states:
Ultimately one comes to a point in this search where one must say either yes or no to Jesus, and yes or no to the ultimate significance of his life. That line is drawn, and we must decide whether we will step over it in faith or, by refusing to step over, turn and walk away from this [Christian] tradition. No matter how deeply we search the Scriptures, no matter how profoundly we probe the text for literal details, no matter how many questions we raise, finally the Christ must either be the source of resurrection that lies within us or we are forced to admit in honesty that we have become the faithless ones.
But a more humbling lesson was that I would have no ammunition against atheists or literalist fundamentalists who with arrogance and condescension offend both my faith sensibilities and my insecurity borne of pride.
Was it then delusional? I do not think so, but there will always be those whose eyes are not opened and those who will never see what Simon saw, so they will always think it is a delusional claim.
There will also be some who accept this definition and then pretend that they do see, even when they do not. They will insist that they have concrete evidence. Many of them will occupy high positions in ecclesiastical circles. But the proof of the vision or lack thereof will be seen in what happens in their lives. Do they become Christlike, open, accepting, loving, and the feeders of the hungry sheep of the world? Or do they become righteous, eager to enforce their understanding of truth on others, judging and rejecting those who, by their standards, are inadequate believers or inadequate human beings.
My irritation will simply have to be the cross I will have to bear because I too have been eager to enforce my understanding of truth by judging others as inadequate believers for whatever reason. That’s my sin. This is why I must repent. Until my Christian compassion, Jesus within me, is so complete that only God’s grace to unconditionally love and show acceptance remains, this is my Lenten journey.
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