Saturday, 29 April 2017

Absence of Christ

As Christians, we are sometimes unaware of certain paradoxes that are interwoven within our faith. Some appear insurmountable, such as the discovery that our planet is much, much, much older than the interpretations offered by our illumined and "modern" predecessors could afford, and then that the Genesis text was neither written nor given in any spirit of police report. That's a whole chapter of its own, but one which illustrates well that the path of interpretation of our texts is dynamic, especially when we give ourselves the time and apply ourselves to being humble enough to look for the meaning that necessarily carried the texts over the centuries to us. If I am speaking in such terms, it is in no small part thanks to the influence of my friend, Barney Asprey, who has set me the challenge of taking with greater seriousness the precautions given us by Paul Ricoeur (among others) to not go too quickly in hammering out afresh a "scientific" faith. Fortunately, our biblical texts are loaded with diverse genres, especially that of story, within which there is the obvious purpose of retelling. Once separated from its source - the spirit, the hand and the revisions of the author - the text is unleashed. It lives. In the case of a canonised religious text, it literally becomes Eternal Word of God.

I apologise for this parenthesis, which might have distracted us from the direction I wanted (this is a translation from my original post in French last night) to take, which is the ascension of Christ. Having already published a short reflection on the meaning of the resurrection of Christ here, I now want to move at this appropriate time to his exaltation. However, not just to his exaltation, which represents a subsequent step loaded with meaning, but to the absence of Christ. Warning! I am not saying that Christ is absolutely absent, not at all, since we read clearly in the gospel according to Matthew "I am with you always, until the end of the age". Note, however, that Jesus is saying this in his departure phase (even if, unlike Luke, the author does not include the physical ascension itself). In other words: I am going and I am staying. This seems paradoxical, and before offering "a solution", I need to pay attention that I don't take the "voie courte" of simple comprehension. Interpretation offered by the church is transmitted from the very early years of childhood. The first lessons of Sunday School are not just that "God loves you", but that "Jesus lives in your heart" (of course, God is Jesus and Jesus is God at that point). Jesus is in your heart. This is not a childish reduction - it's a profound, dynamic reality experienced by millions of Christians of all ages. A while later, our children learn that God is also Spirit and Father, comprising further realities that attach onto our experience as we grow as Christians.

So we learn that Jesus and the Father are in us through the agency of the Spirit of God. Are you ready for another paradox? For God, his indirect action is as direct as his direct action, which is why the little Greek word "dia" is of such inestimable value. So, when Jesus physically leaves this planet in his human flesh, transformed according to the purposes of God for all the creation in submission to decay, he remains spiritually among God's people, there where "two or three are gathered" in his name. What can we notice? This departure prepares the way for an extraordinary deluge from the very heart and being of God, his Spirit, sent by the Son, which presences both Father and Son... and Christian, who suddenly exists as she or he has never been able to exist before! Jesus is thus made present despite his absence.

But why speak at all of his absence? Should it not suffice to speak of and rejoice in his presence?

I would say no. It is very important to understand, or perhaps stand under, the humanity of Christ, not just in the ontological sense, but to grasp where the New Testament is coming from. Of course, this latter testament followers the former and, with the Marcion interpretation so utterly and fatally crushed, continued to carry the meaning of a good God proud to ransom his good creation. Indeed, even beyond the scope of the New Testament, these centuries of gnostic and platonic prominence failed to lure the faithful in embracing philosophy of escaping from and denigration of the natural order. Instead, second temple Jewish expectation and conviction continued to be grounded in a God who would soon resolve the problems here.

Do you see the connection? It is for these reasons that the "picture" of Christ sat on the throne at the right hand of God is more than a picture. Yes, friends, it is yet another paradox. It has to be a paradox. The resurrected Christ did not vaporise his bones. Even the molecules, if we follow a certain modern logic yet ground it on the ancient transversal belief among nearly all Jews (except the Sadducees), even those atoms were transformed in a new physicality entirely driven by Spirit, which can only know life. I am starting to tire of all these paradoxes now, the new star being a body driven by spirit. All complaints to be sent to St. Paul...

Many may not realise that orthodox interpretation says that once the Christ incarnated flesh, being born of Mary, his incarnation is eternal. According to this tradition, which for me is deeply meaningful, Jesus bears his scars forever. Visibly. Physically. Let us return now then to the main paradox that prompted me to put pen to paper yesterday evening. This physical Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He need only turn his head to the left and he can gaze directly into his Father's eyes and reciprocate the gaze that transformed the history of the world.

Let us not forget, and we so need to insist on this point, perhaps with reference to the solid of reference of N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, that the first generations of Christians - who were also Jews - understood this resurrection with the same language they reserved exclusively for the great Spring Clean - the apocalypse of God. Except that the resurrection scheduled for that end time had already taken place at Easter. "The resurrection" had been decisively split into two; first for Christ, and later for his people (leaving aside a complex passage at the end of Revelation). This great cleanup (I really like John Dominic Crossan's language here), by definition, cannot be just symbolic. But if the resurrection is understood as above all a miracle, it would be surprising for some to realise how slippery the slope is back to the lure of escaping the physical prison. That for which our souls thirst is doubtless something akin to escape, but escaping the natural order entirely is a severe and even fatal corruption of the earliest interpretations. The supernatural transformed the natural. That is where my question came from last night (there are so many things to say on this topic but it was late and I didn't want to have this paradox still hanging over me today - even if I am sure that I will never have a satisfactory answer): how can Jesus be understood as being located to the right of the incorporeal father, and the father to the left of the corporal son?

The absence of Christ's body in the tomb visited by the women on the Sunday morning should still speak to us today. An absent Christ can doubtless be in our hearts, along with the Father, but an absent Christ enables him to be "located" in the supreme authority position, present next to his father, our father. Let us remember that a resurrected Christ reigning from Earth would have had significant limits. How hard would it be to believe in his resurrection (a never-aging man, king of Israel...): it would seem that our God appreciates steps of faith, which various apologists sense a need to remove for the Christians they "serve". However, if we look at the ontological interpretation options, that is to say the interpretation of the satisfaction of messianic promises in a resurrected, non-ascended Messiah, would no doubt still include being "a son of God", even in a more absolute sense than David, but still much less than approximating an equal to God himself.

Christ's absence, therefore, would seem as important as his presence. According to me, Barney ;)

Friday, 28 April 2017

Absence de Christ

En tant que chrétiens, nous sommes des fois inconscients de certains paradoxes qui s'entremelent de notre foi. Certains paraissent surmontables, comme la découverte que non seulement notre planète est beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup plus ancienne que l'interprétation offerte de nos prédécesseurs "illuminés" et "modernes", mais aussi que les textes de la génèse n'ont été ni posés ni composés d'un esprit de rapport policier. Cela est toute une histoire qui illustre simplement que le chemin de l'interprétation de nos textes évolue, surtout lorsqu'on se donne le temps et se permet l'humilité de chercher le(s) sens que les textes ont forcément portés avec eux au fil du temps. Si je parle de cette manière, c'est bien grâce à l'influence de mon ami, Barney Asprey, qui me pose le défie de prendre plus au sérieux les précautions dévelopés par Paul Ricoeur, parmi d'autres, à ne pas aller trop vite dans une science de la foi. Heureusement, nos textes bibliques sont très chargés de genres divers, notamment celui du recit, qui porte un objectif ne serait-ce que dans l'objectif de la retransmission. Une fois détaché de sa source - l'esprit, la main et les révisions de l'auteur - le texte se déchaîne. Il vit. Dans le cadre d'un texte religeux, canonisé, il devient litéralement une parole éternelle, forcément parole donc de Dieu.

Je m'excuse pour cette parenthèse, parce que la vraie direction que je voudrais prendre ce soir est l'ascension de Christ. Ayant déjà publié une courte réflexion sur le sens de la résurrection de Christ ici (en anglais), je souhaite passer, à ce moment opportun donc, à son exaltation. Cependant, pas uniquement à son exaltation, qui représente un pas supplémentaire chargé de sens, mais à l'absence de Christ. Attention, je ne dis pas que Christ est absent absolument, pas du tout, puisque nous lisons très clairement déjà dans l'évangile selon Matthieu que "Je suis avec vous tous les jours, jusqu'à la fin du monde". Notez, cependant, que Jésus dit cela toute à fait dans sa phase de départ (même si l'auteur n'inclut pas l'ascension elle-même comme fait Luc). C'est à dire, je pars et je reste. Ceci parait paradoxal, et avant de proposer "une solution", je dois faire attention à ne pas prendre "la voie courte" de la simple compréhension. L'interprétation proposée par l'église se transmet dès la petite enfance. La première des premières leçons de l'école de dimanche est bien non seulement que Dieu t'aime, mais que "Jésus est dans ton coeur" (bien évidement, Dieu est Jésus et Jésus est Dieu à ce moment-là). Jésus est dans ton coeur. Ce n'est pas une banalité infantile; il s'agit d'une profonde réalité dynamique dans la vie de millions de Chrétiens de tout âge. Un peu plus tard, nos enfants apprennent que Dieu est aussi Esprit et Père, ce sont autres réalités qui s'attachent aux cheminement et vécu du chrétien.

En effet, nous apprenons que Jésus et le Père sont en nous par le biais de l'Esprit de Dieu. Etes-vous prêts pour un paradoxe de plus? Pour Dieu, son action indirect est aussi direct que son action direct, d'où l'inestimable importance du petit mot "dia" en grec. Donc, lorsque Jésus part physiquement de cette planète dans sa chair humaine, transformée selon le dessein de Dieu pour toute la création en état actuelle de soumission à la pourriture, il reste spirituellement parmi le peuple de Dieu, là où "deux ou trois sont rassemblés" en son nom. Qu'est-ce qu'on constate? Un départ qui prépare un déluge extraordinaire depuis le coeur, l'être même de Dieu de son Esprit envoyé par le Fils, qui rend présents père et fils... et chrétien, qui existe du coup comme jamais il n'a pu existé auparavant ! Jésus est donc rendu présent malgré son absence.

Mais pourquoi parler d'absence ? Ne suffirait-il pas de parler et se réjouir de présence?

Je dirais que non. Il est d'une grande importance de comprendre l'humanité de Christ, non seulement dans le sens ontologique, mais pour saisir d'où vient le nouveau testament. Bien évidemment, ce dernier suit "l'ancien" testament et, l'interprétation marcionne étant rejetée d'une force fatale, a continué à être porteur d'un sens profond d'un bon Dieu fier de racheter sa bonne création. En effet, même au delà du nouveau testament, les siècles de prominence gnostique et platonique, n'ont pas réussi à tenter "les fidèles"  à l'échappement de la prison corporelle, mais plus tôt à affirmer les convictions juives de l'ère du deuxième temple, que Dieu allait bientôt régler les problèmes ici.

Voyez-vous le lien? C'est bien pour ces raisons-là que "l'image" du Christ assis sur le thrône à la main droite de Dieu est plus qu'une image. En effet, c'est encore un paradoxe mes amis. Il faut qu'il en soit un. Le Christ réscucité n'a pas zappé ses os. Les molécules mêmes, si on suit une certaine logique moderne fondée sur la perspective juive transversale de l'époque (parmi les Juifs, en tout cas représentatif d'une démographie juive bien plus transversale que l'exception des Saducéens), seraient transformés dans une nouvelle physicalité entièrement animée par l'Esprit qui ne peut qu'émaner de la vie. Je commence à m'épuiser à compter les paradoxes maintenant, le nouveau star étant ce corps animé par l'esprit. Pour toute réclamation, on  peut s'adresser à St Paul...

L'interprétation orthodoxe, beaucoup ne le savent pas peut-être, dis qu'une fois que le Christ a incarné la chair, en naissant par Marie, que son incarnation est à perpétuité. Selon cette tradition, qui pour moi est riche de sens, Jésus portera éternellement ses cicatrises. Visiblement. Physiquement. Revenons-nous au paradoxe principal qui m'a poussé à mettre de l'encre sur ma plume ce soir. Ce Jésus physique et visible est à la droite du Père. Il n'a qu'à tourner sa tête à gauche et il pourra regarder son Père directement dans ses yeux et échanger le regard qui a transformé l'histoire du monde.

N'oublions pas, et il faut tellement insister dessus, peut-être sur un appui solide telle que la référence The Resurrection of the Son of God, par N. T. Wright, que les premières générations de chrétiens - également juives - ont compris cette résurrection avec un langage qu'elles réservaient pour le gros ménage du Printemps de Dieu, son apocalypse. Sauf que la résurrection qui était prévue pour cette époque  a déjà eu lieu à Pacques. "La résurrection" a été décisivement scindée en deux; d'abord pour Christ, et puis ce sera pour son peuple (mettant de côté un passage complexe à la fin de l'apocalypse de St Jean). Ce gros ménage divin (j'aime bien l'appelation de John Dominic Crossan du great divine clean-up), par définition, ne peut pas être que symbolique. Si la résurrection est comprise comme surtout un miracle, il serait étonnant pour certains de réaliser la vitesse à laquelle on peut vouloir, de nouveau, s'échapper de cette prison corporelle/naturelle. Ce à quoi nous aspirons est un peu comme un échappement sans doute, mais ceci est un détournement profond et fatal des interprétations précoces. Le surnaturel a transformé le naturel. D'où ma question ce soir (il y a tellement de choses à dire à ce sujet mais il est tard et je ne veux plus avoir ce paradoxe à résoudre demain - je suis assez sûr de ne jamais trouver une réponse suffisante), comment peut Jésus être compris comme à la droite du père incorporel, et le père à gauche de son fils corporel ?

L'absence du corps de Christ dans le tombeau où sont allées les femmes le dimanche matin devrait nous parler encore aujourd'hui. Un Christ absent pourrait être présent avec son Père dans nos coeurs, sans doute, mais un Christ absent est paradoxalement en position d'autorité suprême, "présent" avec son père, notre père. Rappelons-nous aussi qu'un Christ rescucité en situation de règne terrestre aurait eu des limites fortes: grande difficulté pour les femmes et les hommes à ne pas croire dans sa résurrection (homme qui ne vieillit jamais, roi d'Israël, ...). Il paraît que notre Dieu apprécie le pas de foi que de nombreux apologètes chrétiens se sentent missionnés d'enlever des chrétiens qu'ils "servent". Un Christ ici présent, du point de vu interprétation ontologique, aurait satisfait les promesses messianiques différemment, même suite à l'acte décisif divin de sa résurrection. Sans partir pour régner sur le cosmos entier à la droite de Dieu, il serait sans doute "un fils de Dieu" dans un sens plus poussé que David, mais toujours bien moins qu'un égal à Dieu lui-même.

L'absence de Christ serait donc aussi important que sa présence. En tout cas, selon moi, Barney ;)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Crucified God

On the Trinities podcast, we have been looking at various efforts to explain how one who is "fully God" could die, if God is immortal.

It's a bit of a head-scratcher, but I had a go at playing "devil's advocate" and wrote to both the show host and the PhD student advocating a new form of social Trinitarianism to try and assess the strengths of this approach.

Here then I posit the following impossible triad (all cannot be true) and how I think a Trinitarian should answer. These alternatives are inspired by Jurgen Moltmann's distinction that it is not as accurate to say death of God as death in God (The Crucified God) and McIntosh's intrinsic/group persons. If I were a fourth century or later trinitarian, I would also want to distinguish between person and being, or intrinsic and group persons. I would say that the Triune God is a being (or group person) and that Jesus Christ is not a being (or a group person); Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person.

God = one (group) being; God = three fully divine intrinsic persons, F S & HS
Immortal = "never dying"

1) God is essentially immortal
2) No fully divine person has ever died
2) Jesus is fully divine

As I mentioned in my comment, I think the way forward for a capital T Trinitarian might first be to deny the wording as accurate because Jesus Christ is an intrinsic person, not a being (i.e. human-divine person, not a human being), to substitute the word person for being, then deny 2. Now they can take refuge in the person/being distinction and propulse a possible further distinction that might follow from Moltmann's thought, that God experienced death within him.

Alternatively, if we took a McIntosh Group Person social Trinity, this scenario could invite the comparison with a closely knit family losing a treasured member. The functional group person experiences the death of an intrinsic person. Here, it is the group person who is essentially immortal, and the intrinsic person Logos incarnandus (Barth) who is not.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Unsurprised by injustice?

In the Bible, there seem to be conflicting views about quite what to expect from God in this life in terms of justice. On the one hand, you have the idea that if you are good, then God will reward that good attitude and action with blessings and safety, and conversely, woe betide the one who crosses God's law. The biblical authors, really early on, worked out that is not at all how it works out in reality. The sun rises on the good and the wicked. Job realised this; others realised this; yet they continued to believe.

Today, faced with the apparent injustices of our world, coupled with other reasons, many no longer feel a need to embrace theism. They don't "reject God". If the world rejected me, I would be the loneliest man alive, but I would still be alive. Rejecting-God language is the language of believers - not of unbelievers. But let's get back to this interesting slice of the biblical worldview that says:

- God is about justice!
- This world is unjust!
- God, what is going on?! This is rubbish, God!

What I like and what I don't like about this biblical view

I really like the way in which writers like Philip Yancey encourage honest and disappointed Christians and seekers (I put myself in both categories) to properly wrestle with the incompatibilities and ask God all the hard questions. Nothing - literally no deep, disgusting or shameful desire or emotion, should be kept from God. He wants 100% honesty, and as a result, we become more honest too. Who would not count it as a blessing to be more integrated and single-minded human?

I also like the fact that the biblical promises of justice can be interpreted eschatologically. That is to say that one day, from a Christian worldview, there really will no longer be any selfishness, pride, manipulation, pain, harm, and so on. To feel a sense of injustice now, is not only a confirmation of the later but a commissioning to do something about it. With Tom Wright's utter blessing, John Dominic Crossan describes the period in which we live as participative and collaborative. What he means is that God enrolls his people is a powerful Judeo-Christian mutation from within the Jewish worldview in order to advance to completion the establishment of his Kingdom, no longer through fairly dramatic and direct divine intervention, but from the new Christian perspective, Christ has spent his Father's Spirit in order to empower his people to usher in this future kingdom rule in the here-and-now.

What is there to not like? Well, like everyone else, there are times when I suffer and question. I hope that I will never give up my faith as a result. I very nearly did do exactly that when in 2014 I realised how weak I saw the direct biblical evidence to be for Jesus being "fully God" (according to my categories), and I can say it was not a very liberating experience. I always want to question things and doubt things - sounds awful, right? But in this context, not liking some aspects of how I see this biblical perspective I think can be healthy in keeping me honest in my faith.

I currently co-host a podcast with my friend Reinald in which I play a role - a role that is true to my mind - of being skeptical about some Christian apologetics. We are scheduled soon to do an episode or two on the question of biological evolution. I always want to identify the risks of the various positions that seem available. I side strongly with the dominant scientific consensus that evolution has indeed taken place to produce life. I enjoy linking this to God's enormous creative ability and the privilege of being shown more of his workings than previous generations (and thereby realise that this is less than future generations). Also, and in part thanks to Reinald's caution on evolution, I am in no way discouraged in thinking this happened despite the limitations in current explanatory power of the workings of evolution. It's humbling, that's all.

But I am nonetheless exposed to risk. There's nothing special about that - all views about pretty much most important things that people debate are exposed to risk. What is my risk? My risk is the deist God. This is the God who doesn't need to intervene much in human history. He set things up so perfectly, why should he? And there's the apparent paradox. A perfect creator doesn't need to fix anything.

What about apparent injustice? Well, it's just about drawing people closer to God, that way they can go deeper and get properly philosophical about truth and God and meaning? It mobilises people into a sense of empowered, corrective action? But what corrective action is there for the profoundly loving and caring Algerian mother in palliative care probably just months away from abandoning her three daughters?

The risk is the same as with evolution. On the one hand, it can be deeply inspiring and mobilising. On the other hand, you can legitimately ask the question: what difference does God actually make, i.e., what is the difference between belief in the active existence of God and active belief in the existence of God? That is my risk. The point is that, at the end of the day, we have a choice. To believe or not to believe, the choice is yours. It is a true choice. Since I am a skeptic, I am deeply skeptical of Christian views that overstep their bounds about the evidence for the active existence of God, and I also feel very skeptical about refutations of the Kalām cosmological argument, from which I am certain all theistic apologetics must flow.

So, belief that justice and injustice have meaning is a choice. To believe that they have theological meaning is another.

I have to confess, as I wrestle with my model of the Triune Hub of first-century Christian faith, why on Earth might God confer a new perspective through me, someone who struggles with the fundamental choices? Perhaps God needs skeptics, loves skeptics even! Maybe they help keep us sane and encourage honesty on important issues that affect him and how he is perceived in his world.

For me, the fundamental choice is eternally preserved by the New Testament writers, who insist over and over and over again, that God acts in this world through his agents. A lot of Christian apologetics ignores this, in part because it undercuts some of their other concerns, such as demonstrating the deity of Christ. But it is perhaps the most radical message of the Christian gospel, right there, that we are significant in this Kingdom-come melarky.

Blessings. Choose well. John

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The startling surprise of resurrection

I am currently researching for some further chapters in my book, Mutated Faith, which is a serious historical re-think about how belief in the Trinity arose in what I believe is a two-stage process over the first four centuries of the common era.

I am absolutely loving looking again at a very cherished book of mine, The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, published in 2003 (which is also when I bought it). The reason why this is an important book for me again is that I need to demonstrate why this "mutation" talk is so relevant, since I am applying it to the Trinity. There is a fundamental issue that historians of early Christianity have had to come to terms with, which is to answer: how could it have been possible that the first Christians were also Jews? Furthermore, why even did they hold to the Jewish Scriptures - surely the occasional New Testament citation should have been sufficient? Heck, we could just call it "The Testament". Something similar to this was indeed attempted by a Second-century Christian called Marcion, who dissociated the loving Father of Jesus from the vengeful YHWH of the Old Testament.

The answer to these questions lies in the word "mutation". Although other vocabulary can be and is applied (e.g. "innovation"), fundamentally, Christianity described as a mutation of Judaism provides a good historical understanding of how the movement rose up from within an existing religious framework, before their points of incompatibility became too great.

"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with..."

I have spied out three key contributions to understanding the Christian mutation, all of which can and are described as mutations in their own rights, and all of which prepare for the understated "mumma" of all mutations: the religious core, a.k.a. the Triune Hub.

One of these three key mutations to prepare my presentation of the Trinity (which is founded on developed subjective understanding and not ontological fact claims, thus attempting to adopt Ricoeur's voie longue), is resurrection - hence my interest in Tom Wright's tome. The other two are dyadic worship patterns (worshipping Jesus alongside the Father) and participative eschatology, actively including the people of God in ushering in God's kingdom, instead of waiting for God to do it by himself. These three combine to prepare for the dramatic reconfiguration of the core of the Judeo-Christian faith into three inter-locked entities.

Why is resurrection such a startling surprise? Wright does an excellent job showing how in Judaism and in the ancient greco-roman world, no-one had been resurrected. He also forcefully differentiates where others have assimilated 2nd temple Jewish eschatological hopes in the resurrection from liberating platonic escape for the soul. Why are these two not the same? For second temple Jews, I think more so than second-century Christians, the foundation was Yahweh, their God, who created all things and created all things well. He was a redemptive God, saving his people powerfully from the hand of the Egyptians through the Red Sea. He is not in the business of throwing out duff stuff that he loved, but instead of fixing it.

Despite that drastic difference, and maybe some sense of veneration of former heroes of the faith like Enoch, David, Abraham, Moses and so on, there was no talk of them being raised from the dead. At the same time, hope was crystalising as needs intensified for a Messiah-King to coordinate another great act of Yahweh (aka the LORD) to save his people from oppressive foreign forces. As Wright puts it:  "nobody put those two hopes together until the early Christians did so" (p205). As a result, Judaism was "quite unprepared for the new mutation that sprang up [Christianity], like a totally unexpected plant, within the already well-stocked garden" (p206). My emphasis.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Resurrection and Meaning

Writing toward the end of the second century, Celsus was the first writer to really attack the foundation of Christianity (rather than dismiss or persecute), and he had a go at the resurrection. Interestingly, he wasn't a naturalist, believing in the miraculous. However, he did find the Christian hope really quite absurd - but is that so different to Christians today? How many Christian families raise their kids to believe in an eternal life with Christ and the Father in resurrected bodies like the early Christians did and like Christ taught? I sometimes get depressed thinking how far we have drifted from the early hope, settling for platonic disembodied vagueness and bliss.

But this is my exaggeration, not the situation per se. Lots of Christian education does include the idea of "new bodies", but what of transformed bodies? To get to the heart of the issue, we need to look back at Jesus' resurrection and ask, what did his resurrection mean? Why did it matter that the tomb was empty?

It is often repeated in Christian discussion around the resurrection that we needn't think that an empty tomb means a resurrected Christ - more obvious natural explanations would explain such an event, as Mary Magdalene demonstrates in John 20 ("they've taken my Lord away", v13). It is the empty tomb plus the appearances that point to a resurrected Christ. If you have just the empty tomb, but no appearances, then something else happened to the body. If you have just the appearances, then the earthly body remains in the tomb. But the Christian hope has both. Why though?

Resurrection was the hope of the pharisaic Jews (fairly mainstream) of the second temple Judaism era. More clearly than in the Old Testament itself, these Jews believed and taught that the dead would rise back to life and God's kingdom would come, with his messiah-king to reign eternally as his Son. The bad guys would be kicked out forever. This helps to understand Jesus' early ministry as an apocalyptic preacher, that the end was nigh and God's kingdom had come.

God resurrecting Christ means the beginning of the end phase. But the end of the end phase still hasn't happened. When it does it will be marked by the same resurrection as that of Christ, who was the "firstfruit". But I wonder if Celsus had a point, which leads to some of the confusion today. Part of the point of Jesus' bones no longer being in the ground was to convey all this meaning of God's massive redemptive act and kingdom advance being true "according to the Scriptures", as Paul and his predecessors insist on emphasising. As the psalmist said in Psalm 16: you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

But what about our relatives' decayed bones and flesh? 2000 years of waiting, for a lot of Christians, including those eaten by lions, can lead us to ask in what sense will we be resurrected if we are to be resurrected as Jesus was? Aren't our predecessors' molecules scattered throughout nature and even reintegrated into other organisms? Aren't masses of folk scheduled for resurrection in a current state of cremation? Is it not all a little absurd?

Coinciding with the future cataclysmic return of Christ, we can usefully differentiate two distinct types of resurrection. There are mortals who have died and mortals alive. For decayed individuals receiving "transformed" bodies, this will presumably equate to a gift of a new body. The physical transformation of a mortal body disintegrated into a myriad of other organisms or the world at large seems to carry no sense. Conversely, those whose mortal bodies are still alive will presumably experience transformation of their bodies into the new spiritual state of those bodies.

A couple of points of meaning to note then. Firstly, note how Christ's resurrection anticipates both of these distinct types. Secondly, can you imagine cemeteries and other reminders of death and decay in the future transformed physical world order? If that is not conceivable, then one component of the full meaning of Christ's resurrected body from the grave does not need to apply decayed corpses, whose spatial "location" is meaningless. In other words, in light of the resurrection apparences, the empty space of Jesus's empty tomb previously occupied by death carries a powerful symbolism that a new regenerated physical universe would probably not require, unless you think corpseless cemeteries might be a feature of the world to come. 

I hope you can enjoy this Phatfish classic and please have a great Easter!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Justice: a means to a greater eschatological vision?

In preparation for the next podcast of FatScript, due for recording on Monday, I know that I need to think about this question of "ought-ness". This expression comes up quite frequently and is a reference to the idea that there are moral facts which, so the story goes, do not depend on humankind. Do you agree? How could you know that they existed independently to ingrained rules for your species' success? I think it's difficult to say.

But I need to think more carefully about justice, I realise that. It seemed from my exchange with my co-host, that justice issues might be a special case of the moral realm, that might require a perfect God, such as the God to whom I pray and worship. What can we say about justice from within and from without the Christian worldview?

When we say "justice" in English, the word "fair" is never far away. Another great friend and mentor of mine has been Dean, huge, humble, anti-corruption, American, IPA-lover, Dean. I love him, what a friendship blessing. One of the life lessons he taught me that I will take to my grave and hopefully communicate before that time, is that there is an illness that we can recover from, giving us another keyword connected to justice: entitlement. We are entitled to justice. Why? Because we feel it to be profoundly true?

I live in France, where droit (a literal translation might give you "right" or "rights") seems to give the frame for society's social and educational appatus. As a result, everyone wants to cash in on their entitlement, their inalienable rights. Part of the process of dying to self, in which I think I am caught up to some degree, has been to alienate some of those entitlement mental processes in my mind and life. Why?

It sounds stupid - okay. For humankind to make any kind of progress in this playground called planet Earth that we have been given, we probably need to recognise that every human being has the right to clean water (and probably a lot more given our developmental status, healthcare etc), which is desperately far from reality today in huge swathes of our population. We simply don't seem to have the critical mass of people and power willing to uphold and implement these kinds of rights. Jesus' profound justice statement of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is still a monumental struggle, made all the more so by the under-represented party of strugglers. The majority, albeit to varying degrees, would rather prefer others do unto us what we want, "end of".

But is there a problem in the notion of rights and justice itself? Who could ever sue for not having access to clean water? Never seen that case in court. Third world at-risk populations vs capitalism, 2017. Who'd be the judge of that case?

One of the most radical and subversive dimensions of the Christian faith is that human beings are not entitled to anything. We are owed squat. If we are owed a whole bunch of life-sustaining or enhancing stuff, then it is to insist that life itself is not a gift. That's the awkward part, seemingly propagating ideas that might be seen to endorse inequality. If you receive that to which you are entitled, then what space is left for gratitude? Gratitude has been demonstrated to be thereuptic to human minds. Should we then be grateful for our rights? Surely there has to be some middle ground if God is to be involved, and we are to acknowledge no fundamental (i.e. not God-attributed) rights, and yet that he is the God of justice, right?

Well, I suppose in a sense that is true - that human equality is a myth. There is one human whom I believe, along with 2 billion others, is not equal to the rest of us, and whom you might think might be "entitled" to more goodies than the rest of us, assuming I was right about this inequality. I'm thinking of Jesus of Nazareth, who humbled himself. Is he entitled to something more than the rest of us?

We can't answer that question without probing this word entitlement still further. What is in this word entitlement, that word to which I had to and still have to "die"? Firmly nestled in there is the word "title". The problem with titles is that they are not essential. In other words, you don't need your title in order to be you. Maybe you are a mother, or a boss, or a well-digger, an app encoder, or well, whatever. One crazy detail that I think is understated, is even your name doesn't really define you (I confess I often feel a real dissonance between "John" and me). You could have been born with a different name, or you could change your name. Those are big changes, but I believe not fundamental.

I think I believe that Jesus does not want his followers to think that he is entitled to worship. That would be worshipping the title, not the person. It would also be to rob us of also being givers of worship; merely debtors of worship.
So far, I guess my thought process is not very favourable of justice, as I see it as reductive of gratitude and the joy of gift.

But what about "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"
Well, surprisingly enough, humankind, heck with that, I do not always reckon in terms of gratitude. I do not go to the supermarket and expect the products for free, nor do I bend the knee to the cachier in gratitude. A money transaction happens at the checkout, in which my bank account is debited the exact amount that we have agreed for the goods purchased. This is justice. A product fails to work as indicated, therefore I am entitled, surely, to a refund or an exchange.

So where is justice? What is justice? One way of checking its transcendental nature - for a Christian - is to look into the eschatological hope. Will justice be a feature of that eternal life, in which the "kingdom of God" has fully advanced, every tear is wiped away and death is no more? When all of humankind's evil's are forever eliminated? What need for justice is there when everything works perfectly?

I guess from my random forray, that for us now there has to be a functional, societal baseline of justice, that assumes injury.

Tertullian argues against Hermogenes in the third century that God is not eternally Lord, because to be Lord is to assume a title of lordship over....something. Yet before creation, God was not Lord over anything and so, argues Tertullian, with the apparent backing of the opening verses of Genesis chapter 1, God was not strictly "Lord" at that time. The inaugurator of the word "Trinity" also states that it is not appropriate to call him "Father" at that time either, since he had not yet begotten his Son, but that's probably another subject for another day!

If justice requires injury in order for its invocation, it would seem that it neither belongs to eternity past nor to the eschaton.

If NT Wright et al are correct about the two stage eschaton, i.e. that Christ's resurrection inaugurates the end-times, Christianity is not called to simply uphold justice, but to invoke something more eternal than that. So justice is not the goal, even if it may be the result. If it were the goal, then you might want to say that God sent his Son in order to die to pay for the sins of the repentant world. The fact that this is a massive understatement of the divine purpose should give us purpose to situate justice within a wider and more ambitious purpose.

An iteresting question might be to debate whether or not the pursuit of justice might ever achieve justice. A non-religious perspective could, I believe, look to the optimistic Christian worldview, wherein all is privilege and for others' deep benefit, as a greater vision to secure a more realistic outcome of justice, which remains desirable for individuals and the species as a whole.