Recently in my blog bibletracts (bibletracts.wordpress.com) I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.
Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.
But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?
The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.
Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?
That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-f3), I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.
Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.
As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.
But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.
Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.
As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?
A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).
The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.
Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).
The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.
In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (meta–phorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.
Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.
Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.
In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.
But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.
This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.