Sunday 1 April 2018

The Resurrection

I have never understood people who claim to be Christian but don't believe in the resurrection. That surely is the whole point of Christianity and it demonstrates who and what Christ is. If it's not true, Christianity is built on a lie so why bother with it even if you think its moral teachings are helpful? I grant that the resurrection can be seen as a metaphor but it's a true metaphor. It's the point where myth and reality coincide. For the life of Jesus was the one occasion in history when something utterly real has happened on Earth. Everything else approximates, to a greater or lesser degree, to transcendent archetypal pattern but Christ is the pattern embodied in its perfection.

I see the resurrection as something you would never have thought possible before it happens but then when it does happen you realise it actually makes complete sense. We all suspect that death is somehow an offence to life, a cruel insult, and to see it defeated in this way has a kind of cosmic logic to it that goes far beyond mere earthly reason. It is confirmation of a truth felt in the heart but not known outwardly until it actually takes place when it seems (for Christ, it would not seem so for anyone else) almost inevitable.

The surrounding events of the resurrection also fall into a pattern of deepest truth. The ignominious death representing the nadir of disillusion and despair. All is lost, all hope and joy destroyed. We have reached the very bottom. But then the wonder of the resurrection and the confirmation that Christ really was who he said he was. You might say it's all too good to be true but that saying only has any rationale to it in the context of a meaningless universe. If the universe has meaning, which if course it must or we would not even have the conception of meaning nor would we feel the lack it, then nothing is too good to be true. Truth and goodness are one and the same. That is why we all crave goodness as we do truth, and recognise them as right. 

And after the resurrection Christ didn't just disappear completely straightaway or else carry on teaching as before, making grand public appearances in Jerusalem. That too seems right. We have entered a new cycle. To return to his previous ministry would have somehow been vulgar and ostentatious. He has risen from the dead but he's not a show off! He doesn't want to force people to believe in him. He wants them to come to him because of an inner movement towards truth in their own hearts. So he stays and he teaches for a certain period and then he ascends into heaven with his risen and transformed body, leaving his disciples to spread his word. All is just as it should be. The important qualities of dignity and beauty are observed. There is glory but there is also reticence. There is no brash shouting about this momentous event but it is left to speak for itself. It is a sacred thing and is treated as such.

Nowadays many people apparently don't even believe that Christ existed never mind that he rose from the dead. The churches have not done this story any favours by reducing both it and Christ to a humanistic level in which the main message is to be nice to each other and treat everyone as equals in terms of this world. But this was not the message of Christ at all. He came to give us the life more abundant and save us from the spiritual death of a materialistic existence. He pointed us towards the higher life centred in the reality of God and demonstrated what this was by dying to his earthly self and then being reborn in a new spiritual state in which the old nature was not destroyed but transformed into something higher. But this old self could not be reborn until it had been allowed to die, and the lesson is that we cannot become like Christ until we too allow our old natural self to die, and this includes the relations it has to the world and to other people on its own level. 

It seems to me that the modern churches don't emphasise this anywhere near enough when it should be central. They don't say that the old self must die to be transformed, but that it must just become better. Stay the same, keep its old centre but be more inclusive and brotherly. This was summed up by C.S. Lewis as the difference between nice people or new men. To be a new man requires the death of the old man not his improvement. He does not become better, he must become new. Not changed but transformed. Resurrection must always be preceded by death. Jesus taught this and he demonstrated it. It is the central fact of his life and mission.

If the resurrection were just a metaphor, it would be worse than a lie because it is purported to be true. Which is not proof it literally is true but if it is then that changes everything. You can reject it if you like but if you do you are rejecting something fundamental about God and his self-revelation to the world. You cannot say it is just a symbol and keep Christianity. It is a symbol but that of which it is a symbol is only possible for us because it was acted out in this physical world by Christ thereby creating the possibility of spiritual rebirth for all humanity. Without the energy released by his crucifixion and resurrection, we would still be living in darkness with escape from this world through the rejection of self the only spiritual possibility. Christ redeemed the material world because he sanctified it through first embracing it and then transforming its darkness, thereby making possible the salvation of creation and its eventual integration with spirit. 

The resurrection is the triumph of spirit over matter but in this victory matter is not rejected, dismissed or denied but raised up and glorified in and by spirit.


Edwin said...

Wonderful column. Thank you. It is curious that many people tend to dismiss the importance of a thing by saying it is "only a symbol." A symbol of what is the question. The implication of the "only a symbol" phrase is that the whole thing can be dismissed as unreal or unimportant, should one so choose. Some people (Christians?) speak of the resurrection as a symbol of spiritual renewal, which seems to mean something along the lines of becoming a better, nicer person. What an anticlimax! The resurrection is outrageous, stupendous, inconceivable. And the early Church staked everything on it. When you read St. Paul, you find that the hope of the early followers of Christ was not a disembodied state in Heaven, but a resurrection of the body and a new Earth. Total transformation of matter in some astounding way. That the resurrection of the body has taken a back seat to Heaven is regarded by some as the substitution for Greek (Platonic) ideas for the original Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. It seems more reasonable to speak of an immortal soul rather than an immortal body, but the testimony of the early Church insists on the latter as the meaning of salvation. I recently acquired a new translation of Julian of Norwich in which the translator changes "salvation" to "liberation", in the sense of moksha. This is to radically change Julian's meaning, for liberation (dropping the body once and for all and disappearing into brahman) is not what Christ did nor what his followers understood as their hope. Thanks again for this column. A fine Easter gift.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for your comment, Edwin. Yes, the radical message of Christ, one he actually embodied and did not just teach, was the marriage of spirit and matter, a union which brings about something more than either one on its own.

Moose Thompson said...

Fascinating topic and article. William - if you don't mind my asking - what do you make of the traditional Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the end times in light of your views on reincarnation? This idea seems unique (as far as I know) in world religion and at odds with the more intuitive idea of cycles of physical death and rebirth. That said I intuitively suspect a deeper symbolic meaning or significance to the idea, but I haven't groked exactly what yet.

William Wildblood said...

Good question, Moose. Short answer, I don't know. But my understanding of the resurrection of the body is probably a little different to the conventional one in that I think the soul can eventually acquire a body of light through correct orientation to God and repeated attempts to purify itself of worldliness and materialistic impulses. So that's why I talk of the integration of spirit and matter rather than the resurrection of the dead. I don't think body actually refers to the flesh and blood thing we know but that the matter of which it is made is transmuted into light. But really like you I'm going by intuition and, as you say, suspect there is a deeper meaning behind these doctrines that I can currently understand.

I don't think reincarnation presents a problem to the idea though since each body we have is really just a physical representation of a spiritual template which exists continually. it may be that it is this template that is or becomes the real body. The idea that the dead carcasses of people will come back out the ground at the end of time makes no sense to me and seems a materialisation of a fundamentally spiritual idea.

Unknown said...

God mystery can not be grasped through human low logic. It is a question of faith, it is not a question for debate. Muslim do believe in Jesus coming back, the Koran says as he spoke to you in his infancy, he will speak to you in his old age. He is a sign of end time. We do not go along with those who speak of etheric, astral or split Jesus. Islam does not also go with the crucifixion or resurrection because that undermines the supreme power of god in not being able to protect his prophets from the encroachment of the disbelievers. Mohammad said, if god has really a son I will be the first to worship but god is the one, the unique in essence and begets not nor it is begotten, the one that has no equal. We live in a time of disclosure where the inspiration process will be proved by humans only to prove the truth delivered by all prophets.