The Easter moment without an asterisk

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Marcus Borg often speaks of the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus was the Jesus who walked on the earth, preached, was crucified. The post-Easter Jesus was the Jesus as experienced by his apostles after his death.

"Experienced" is a broad, all-encompassing term, because it includes both those who believe that Jesus was physically resurrected (and walked among his disciples) after his death, and those who believe that the mythological accounts of his physical resurrection in the Gospels cannot be taken literally. There are many ways that the post-Easter Jesus could have been experienced. It is Marcus Borg's contention that it doesn't matter whether you take those mythological stories literally or not. Either way, you can be a Christian.

In a sense, I agree with Borg--indeed, it isn't necessary to take the Gospel resurrection accounts literally to be a Christian. But for me personally, and my religious life, this question does matter a great deal. Not only do I not take those mythological accounts literally, but the integration of rationality into my faith is too important to say that it doesn't matter to me. I admit that this is a personal reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing; there is little I can do about that. So while I think that Christians can legitimately fall on either side of the divide on that question, I find that my own faith expression needs to leave the literalism behind. And that is one reason why I find myself wishing to avoid church at Easter time. I am not interested in seeing these mythological accounts taken literally as part of my worship experience.

When talking about the resurrection, one can describe its participation by the disciples as the Easter moment--the moment when Jesus was experienced after his death by those who had followed him in life. The nature of this experience isn't clear, but I do believe that Jesus was clearly such a charismatic figure in his lifetime that his followers could not believe that death was the final word as far as Jesus was concerned. Thus they believed that Jesus was taken up in God's presence, and this was the something they felt deeply and personally. It was only much later, a half-century of so, after his death, that stories of a resurrected Jesus walking around on the earth started to crop up in Christian writings.

But the idea that Jesus walked around on the earth after his death, which some Christians claim is an "essential" tenet of the faith, was so unimportant in the earliest Christian writings that no one bothered to mention it. How odd. In fact, what we know from the earliest Christian writer, Paul, who experienced the risen Christ in a mystical or visionary way, is that he didn't think that any of the other apostles experienced Jesus in a way any different from how he did. Consider this quote from 1 Corinthians 15:

he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here we see that, for Paul, the experience of the risen Jesus involved not some mythological tales of Jesus walking around with his pals, but rather it was an experience of a wholly different order, of the risen Jesus who was taken up in God's presence, whom, according to Paul, "was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:4)" This resurrection was experienced in this way, starting with Cephas (Peter), and continuing with others, including himself.

Even when the first Gospel, Mark, was written, some forty years after Jesus died, it included no stories of a resurrected Jesus walking around with his disciples. Those myths were yet to be formulated. Instead, the women at the tomb were told to go to Galilee, where they would find the risen Jesus. Peter was specifically mentioned in that passage--interestingly, since it was Peter (Cephas) in the passage by Paul above who was cited as the first to have experienced the risen Christ. Thus, in my mind anyway, it seems likely that it was Peter, in Galilee, who was the one to first experience and proclaim his experience of the risen Christ. This, in other words, was the Easter moment--the understanding, perhaps based on a mystical experience, that Jesus was to be found present with God.

When the later Gospels began to include fanciful stories about Jesus coming back physically on the earth--appearing through walls, showing his crucifixion scars, and, as the icing on the cake, literally "rising" up to heaven, the latter reflecting what seems to us now a rather primitive three-tiered cosmology--the locus of events began to move from Galilee to Jerusalem. Matthew had Jesus appearing on a mountain in Galilee, but Luke changed the story dramatically and instead had Jesus and his disciples hanging around in Jerusalem--in fact, Jesus specifically tells them to stay in Jerusalem, which is, of course, the direct opposite of what was the women in Mark were told.

For some people, it is easily possible to dismiss the contradictions in the mythological resurrection accounts, and instead cling to the belief that they are literally true. But for me, this is simply not possible. I do not believe that religion is about believing the unbelievable, and, more importantly, I do not appreciate it when people insist that adhering to incredible beliefs is a necessary tenet of faith. This is what drives many rational people away from religion.

I think that Marcus Borg's perspective, of tolerance and mutual respect, among those who both take these stories literally and those who do not, is great in theory. In an ideal world, I would gladly partake of such a community of mutual respect. But the problem is that this is not an ideal world, and most religious conservatives are not interested in such mutual respect; they continue to insist that those who do not accept the literal resurrection are not Christians, and that such a belief is an "essential" of the faith. When you are excluded and marginalized, called a heretic, or (in some ways this is the most insulting) proselytized, you get fed up pretty quickly. I think it is great when progressives who have not been wounded by fundamentalism are able to try to carry out Marcus Borg's desire for tolerance and respect; but, in reality, I think that it is mostly a one-way street, since a great number of religious conservatives couldn't care less themselves about this mutual tolerance and respect.

It seems to me that we are a long way from the kind of Christianity that Marcus Borg would like to see. My experience has been that most of the self-described progressive Christian churches still preach about the resurrection as if it the events depicted in Matthew, Luke, and John were literal history. I could probably take that a little better if these stories were presented with at least some sort of asterisk. But that rarely seems to be the case. Even if the pastor privately holds a different set of views, I find little in the liturgy or music of church services that is not a full celebration of these mythological events as literal events, sans asterisk.

So there you have it. The Easter moment was literalized, and I who don't accept that literalization feel instead marginalized.

21 comments:

Frank said...

This raises important questions for me. If we sit around and develop a theology out of our own personal worldview which may be informed by reason but still something we just come up with because it "seems to be true" to us, then are we any different than a fundamentalist?

Anti-intellectualism is everywhere. In fact, that's the primary charge I've heard against Crossan and others of the Jesus Seminar (I haven't read them, so I'm anxious to see what the ruccous is all about). But what I've heard about the JS is that personal reflections and midnight ponderings are fine, but don't call that scholarship.

But then what is theology? Theology seems to suppose that there is something beyond just you and me and the guy next door getting together and speculating on the cosmos over a few beers at midnight. But is theology anything more than the cumulative speculation of billions of people throughout history and their midnight ponderings?

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't know, Frank, I do some of my best thinking at midnight. :)

If we sit around and develop a theology out of our own personal worldview which may be informed by reason but still something we just come up with because it "seems to be true" to us, then are we any different than a fundamentalist?

I think that you only become a fundamentalist when you take what seems to be true to you and raise it to the status of an absolute truth and expect everyone else to go along. But if you recognize that what seems to be true to you is a provisional theory, and if you acknowledge that the process by which you came up with your analysis is open to criticism, then you are taking a different route than that of fundamentalism.

I don't know who is making that charge of anti-intellectualism against Crossan and others. Personally, he seems pretty intellectual to me. But that's just my position. I could, of course, be wrong. :)

Lon said...

Awesome post, but maybe I say that only because it mirrors so many of my own thoughts. :)

To me, the revelation that none of Jesus' teachings are thought to be essential to being a Christian, while all manner of things that He never taught are thought to be essential was an eye-opener. Read the creeds and the confessions of faith. A lot of stuff derived from the thoughts and teachings of people who never met the historical Jesus, and absolutely none of Jesus' own teachings.

It has left me in a mental deadlock. On one hand, should I simply abandon the term "Christian" and refer to myself as something else, like "follower of Jesus"? Or should I insist that I too am Christian and I'm absolutely not as heretical as the people who say I'm not?

Personally, I believe that if there was anything essential to believe, Jesus would have mentioned it, directly, clearly, and repetitively. As He did when he repeatedly said that it was one's works that led to salvation. If belief in the bodily resurrection was essential, why would He have left that critical tidbit out of His discourses?

Just like His disciples, Christians today continue to confuse the affairs of the physical realm with the affairs of the spiritual realm.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks for your comments, Lon.

It has left me in a mental deadlock. On one hand, should I simply abandon the term "Christian" and refer to myself as something else, like "follower of Jesus"? Or should I insist that I too am Christian and I'm absolutely not as heretical as the people who say I'm not?

I understand what you mean. I have to admit that I think of myself as one who is drawn to Christianity, but I would not use the word "Christian" to describe myself. Then again, there are plenty of Christians who would not call me a Christian either.

James F. McGrath said...

I found myself wondering (on a recent trip to India) how much of the stories about the empty tomb being discovered, and other such stories focused on specific locales, arose from the activity of early Jewish-Christian tour guides, seeking to relate stories about sites of interest to visitors from elsewhere...

Mystical Seeker said...

LOL, James, you might be onto something!

Grace said...

Hey, Mystical,

What do you think about Paul's teaching in 1Cor. 15:14-25?

"If Christ is not risen your faith is vain, you are yet in your sins."

Hope I got this reference right. I'm sitting in a library with no Bibles in stock. :)

Are you thinking that Paul is just speaking in terms of a personal mystical experience, here.

I'm not sure I understand, Myst.

Mystical, I know that all of us are heavily shaped by our background, and past experience. But, still we can't allow our response to be totally conditioned by all this. And, maybe the fundamentalists can be right on about at least somethings.

I mean even a stopped clock hits it twice a day. :)

You have to consider that Paul was writing his letters to address specific situations, problems arising in local churches. I don't think his purpose was to give an exhaustive survey of everything all Christians experienced and believed.

I think we need to look at the witness of Scripture as a whole, and also the testimony of early Christian tradition, writings by the church fathers, for instance.

Mystical Seeker said...

What do you think about Paul's teaching in 1Cor. 15:14-25?

To repeat what I wrote in this posting, "Thus they believed that Jesus was taken up in God's presence."

I also said that Paul makes no reference anywhere to Jesus walking around among his disciples.

I don't know how to make my take on this any clearer than that.

Grace said...

Well, Mystical,

Probably your view would not be a problem in many churches. It seems that you feel Jesus was made alive again, taken into God's presence. That's the most important thing, I think.

You just don't seem to think He walked around in the interim in the flesh. I have no difficulty with this myself, and I think the bodily resurrection is a visible witness to us that Jesus Christ really did conquer sin, death, and the powers of evil, and that we will live again also. The Christian faith does affirm the resurrection of the body, and this is tied to the reality of the empty tomb.

But, Myst, I think someone could still be a Christian and hold to your view, if I'm understanding correctly. My concern would be more with the reality of the incarnation. You know, who is Jesus Christ, and what does He mean in my life.

The whole concept that God loved us enough to fully enter into human life, and suffering, to in a real sense, become one of us is central to the faith of the church. It shows us God's love in this really powerful and intimate way. And, is connected with the proclamation of the gospel.

What do you think?

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I'm not a Trinitarian, I do not believe that Jesus was God, and I do not subscribe to the incarnational theology that you have described. I also am describing what I think the early Christians thought when they said that Jesus was taken up into God's presence. However, I personally am an agnostic on the question of any sort of afterlife. Life after death is irrelevant to my faith, and I believe it is not necessary for God to impregnate a woman and come down for the sky for a few years either to fully experience the reality of human suffering or otherwise show his/her love for us.

Frank said...

MysticalSeeker,

I hear you when it comes to the openness to criticism and change. That would be a sharp contrast between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists.

I'm also trying to explore the differences in their embrace of intellectualism. Reason is critical, and intellectualism (good scholarship) would be an essential component of reason. Openness to criticism is one component to a scholar, but not the only one.

So my question is: Is there something to the study of theology that makes it an academic discipline? Or is it just "mere" speculation that just happens to be open to change? Does theology just follow along behind science, adjusting its views in light of new scientific discoveries, or does theology have an independent life of its own?

I'm not discounting speculation at all. But we could easily end up in a situation where everyone's speculation is equal, kinda like how no one can say whether a Beatles song is good or bad because its ultimately a matter of personal opinion. As long as a person takes into consideration the advances of science, then what you speculate beyond that is your own unchallengeable opinion.

Frank said...

Addition to the last comment: I guess what I'm saying is that if all we're doing is speculating over and above what science has framed, then are we any different than a fundamentalist who just uses a Biblical-literalist worldview (instead of a worldview informed by science) as the foundation and speculates on top of that?

The approach seems similar, even if it looks so different on the outside. I've seen fundamentalist preachers just open a Bible and start talking off the top of their head, without much regard to scholarship. I'm left wondering--how are they coming up with this stuff?? It fits their worldview, so they take it as truth. But how different is that from New Age or Profressive Christianity in these terms?

Mystical Seeker said...

I think you raise good questions about theology, Frank. I don't really know the answer to your question, although I tend to lump theology in the same category as philosophy, in that it is a way of discussing important questions. Maybe what matters more for theology is the process and the dialogue, rather than the conclusions.

OneSmallStep said...

I think a question we would have to ask is why do we need a bodily resurrection to demonstrate victory over anything? Paul does state that flesh and bones does not inherit the kingdom of God. So why couldn't the resurrection be something not confined by a body, but just in body-shape?

**And, is connected with the proclamation of the gospel.**

That depends on what one's interpretation of the gospel is. Jesus preached on the "good news" for quite a bit before he was crucified. Based on the synoptics, I have a hard time seeing that pictured as him saying he was God in the flesh, given how the crowds were amazed by his teachings. Even with John I have a hard time picturing this as well. In that, Jesus does make supernatural claims, such as he and the Father are one. However, to justify that statement, he uses Psalms 82, where other humans are called gods/judges. I think there is a huge difference between saying that Jesus is God made flesh, and Jesus is the word made flesh. I've seen translations that have John 1:1 go with "And the word was divine." To me, that makes more sense. Otherwise, the meaning of "God" changes there.

I also don't think we need God becoming flesh in order to demonstrate love for us, or entering the suffering in order to demonstrate love. If God needs to become flesh in order to fully enter suffering, then that is imposing a limit upon God. If God is all-knowing, then He is already intimiately aware of what suffering is and who it affects.

Mystical Seeker said...

I also don't think we need God becoming flesh in order to demonstrate love for us, or entering the suffering in order to demonstrate love. If God needs to become flesh in order to fully enter suffering, then that is imposing a limit upon God. If God is all-knowing, then He is already intimiately aware of what suffering is and who it affects.

I agree with you 100%. This is one of the principles of process theology, by the way--that God perfectly shares in all our experiences, including our sufferings already. But I don't think you need to subscribe to process theology to accept this; as you point out, if God really has boundless knowledge, then God surely doesn't have to magically transform himself into a human in order to fully understand the human experience of suffering. This really does limit God.

Grace said...

Well, guys, in the gospel of Jn., Jesus states, "Before Abraham was, I am," I am is an ancient Hebrew term for God.

I realize that the term, "trinity" is not used in Scripture, but the concept is certainly there.

Oh, Mystical, I don't know what to say. You're drawn to the Christian church, and yet have an antipathy to the most central tenets of the Christian faith.

But, God knows your heart, Myst. I can only commend you, and all of us to His love and mercy!!

One, have you ever taken a peek at anything written by the Anglican C.S. Lewis. I know his thoughts and books were instrumental in me coming to Christian faith? I also love anything written by Tolkein. :)

Blessings!

James F. McGrath said...

Grace, I assume that for Mystical Seeker it is important to note that, while Jesus is depicted as conscious of having pre-existed, it is also important this presentation places the Gospel of John in tension with the other Gospels in the New Testament, where Jesus makes no such claims.

Is what the historical figure of Jesus said the ultimate authority for you, or the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament irrespective of whether that portrait can be demonstrated to be historically reliable?

Mystical Seeker said...

You're right, James. I don't really view the ethereal, parabolic statements that Jesus makes about himself in John as having historical credibility.

And Grace, I get the impression that you view me as someone who hasn't figured out what my theology is and who is on some sort of endless quest to find a satisfactory religious faith, which I guess you see as an opening for proselytizing. In fact, I do have a theology. I admit that it is provisional in nature--unlike orthodox Christians, I am not stuck in a dogmatic mindset, and I am open to learning new things and expanding my horizons--but that doesn't mean that I am on some sort of endless quest for the theological Holy Grail either. I like the process of religious discovery, to be sure, and think of myself as being on a journey--but I'm not naive either, and I know better than to travel backwards and unlearn what I've learned up to this point. I don't think that Holy Grails exist anyway, and I find the journey more interesting than any supposed destination.

The restlessness I exhibit is not because I have not found a theological approach that is more or less to my liking, but because I haven't found a form of religious expression and worship to my liking. There are plenty of Christian writers and theologians and scholars who I have a great deal of respect for and who have inspired me and drawn me back to the Christian faith--Hick, Borg, Crossan, and Cobb, for example. I'm pretty happy with the way these writers have influenced me and where my religious outlook has progressed. The problem is that I am just not that crazy about Christian worship, even progressive Christian worship that I've encountered; I simply feel disconnected from organized religion.

I went into this project thinking that I could accept the good that I found in church and just ignore the things that I didn't agree with. That was fine for a while, but I think that the bar started to get raised over time. Hence the increasing dissatisfaction.

I also feel that you seem unable to come to terms with the fact that I come from an orthodox Christian background, so you keep recommending books for me to read, as if I were somehow unfamiliar with orthodox or conservative Christianity--when in fact I am all too familiar with it and left it behind because I find it objectionable. I know this might be hard to believe, but not everyone who disagrees with Christian orthodoxy does so because they just don't know enough about it or because they haven't read the right book that would sway them. I know that proselytizers often like to believe that this is so, but it just isn't.

OneSmallStep said...

Grace,

**Well, guys, in the gospel of Jn., Jesus states, "Before Abraham was, I am," I am is an ancient Hebrew term for God.**

Given that this was stated in Greek, it wasn't referring to Exodus 3:14. In Greek, the Exodus statement is saying "ego eimi ho on." In essence, "I am that I am" or "I will be what I will be." The second "I am" is the "ho on." In the John statement, Jesus is saying the "ego eimi." So the "ego eimi" is setting up the type of identity possessed by the speaker.

Now, there are instances in Isaiah of the "ego eimi" (when reading Isaiah in Greek). I think it's Isaiah 41:4, 43: 10-13, and Isaiah 46:4. But those also seem to setting up the type of identity that God has -- God is one who calls forth the generations from the beginning, or God is saying He is Jehovah, or someone who remains the same even until a person's old age.

But Jesus' statement itself is really common. The gospel of John saw Jesus as superior to Abraham, because He/the Logos existed before Abraham.

**I realize that the term, "trinity" is not used in Scripture, but the concept is certainly there.**

But think about this: this is a concept that took a couple hundred years to develop. Paul is very frank on what he considers the gospel to be: that Christ came, died for sins, was buried, resurrected, and ascended. That is the good news. That's stated in specific terms (the meaning behind all that is constantly debated, yes) It's not including the concept of a God become flesh. In Acts, when describing Jesus (Acts 2:22), they specifically say that God anointed the man Jesus, and singled him out. Jesus makes statements in John about how people shall know the Father, the one true God of Israel, and his Son, Jesus Christ, whom this one true God sent. Or telling Mary that she can't touch him, because he must go to her God and his God. Those are clear statements. But the idea of Jesus has God has never struck me as such in the Bible. Especially when taking the Tanakh into account, which is something like 66%.

**One, have you ever taken a peek at anything written by the Anglican C.S. Lewis.**

I've read bits and pieces, but I honestly don't find his arguments very compelling. The trilemma is one such example: it operates under the assumption that everything in the Bible actually happened. And technically speaking, Jesus could be a good moral teacher while still making the statements he did, if John were literally true. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a good teaching no matter who states it. Now, if a person says that and then promptly goes around killing people, the person is not setting a good moral example. But they have stated a moral thing.

Another one of his examples is that if he were not God, then we can't say that he is humble/meek because of his statements. But this doesn't work either. If Jesus was the Messiah, and anointed by God to be the vine, and the light of the world, then he is not being "non-meek" or "non-humble" by stating what God made him, or how God appointed him. If I'm very good at math, I could say that I'm both humble and good at math. It's not a prideful statement to say something that is a fact.

A third is Jesus announcing the forgiveness of sins, and only God could do that. I think there are only two instances of Jesus saying, "Your sins are forgiven." Matthew 9: 1-8, where he says that the sins are forgiven, and he has the right on earth to forgive such sins (and yet in response to this, people praise God for granting such authority to men) and Luke 5: 17-27. This is another instance where Jesus says that the person's sins are forgiven, and that the son of Man has the authority to do so. The thing is, having such authority does not make him God. First, he connects the human element of himself to such authority. This authority could also be given to him by God -- which Jesus states in various areas. God gives the son authority. And the Matthew verse is impressed that God has given such authority to men -- which seems to tie into the authority to forgive sins. Or possibly the power to heal.

I realize the Pharisees say that only God can forgive -- but I'm unsure where they pick up that claim. I don't think its stated anywhere in the Tanakh, and they don't seem to be considering that God could provide such authority to another. That, and the Pharisees are portrayed as often getting things wrong.

A fourth would be his critique on saying that "God is love" Per Lewis, that only makes sense if God contains more than one person. Otherwise, God wasn't love before the world was made. But this doesn't make sense, either. You don't need a physical existence in reality as we know it in order to be loved by God. There is never a point at which God does not know you, or love you. There is never a time when God was not aware that He wouldn't create the world. Lewis seems to be assuming that God almost operates on a linear fashion, and can only love if God is interacting with people as physical entities. The problem is, part of our reality includes the concept of time. If God is in fact outside of time, then what happens to us in a progressive fashion, Day 1, day 2, day 3, could occur to God all at "once." So when would God not be interacting with someone, if God isn't restrained by any sense of time? When does God not "know" you? If God has "always" known that He would create humanity, then God has always loved humanity. Lewis didn't seem to take "omniscience" into account. THe only way I'd find the argument convincing is if God was not always aware of humanity.

Grace said...

I understand, Mystical. Hey, I'll let it alone. God bless you, and everyone sharing here.

Grace.

Grace said...

One, I just want to add that it's pretty obvious that you're a deep thinker. Probably there's nothing I can share relating to the Christian faith that you must not have seriously considered. I don't want us to just be spinning our wheels together involved in endless debate. And, I think we could go on a looong time :).

God's peace, and thanks again for talking.