Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Customized Christianity: The Resurrection vs. Things That Actually Matter

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

It is important to remember that faith and practice, theology and ethics, compliment one another. It is equally important to realize that not all theology is created equal. There are certain of the "fantastic stories" Burklo alludes to that should not and were probably never intended to be taken literally (if by literally we mean historically, factually, or scientifically). There are certain dogma which arose late in the life of the church which can be accepted or rejected liberally (and frankly, until the Reformation and Trent, the church universal understood this). Unfortunately, Burklo makes no distinction between different types of biblical data, those whose historicity or factuality are essential to the faith and those whose historicity is an unnecessary hindrance.

No one takes the entire Bible literally, not in the sense we've defined the term. Everyone knows that the Psalms are poetic and that parables are moral fictions. From there a tremendous debate arises. Did a winged creature really destroy Sennacherib's army or is "angel" an all-inclusive way of speaking of a providential act or was the supernatural explanation a pre-modern attempt to understand something like a plague? Who knows? And Burklo rightly points out that it doesn't really matter, because the point of that story is not the mechanism by which Israel was delivered by the causal relationship between Hezekiah's faith and Jerusalem's deliverance, a theme which carries over into the New Testament very well. Whether you think the inability of the Assyrians to take Jerusalem was the result of a supernatural slaughter, natural devastation, or simply economic inability to maintain the siege is irrelevant so long as we all affirm the active God who listens and responds to human need.

The problem is not with admitting that certain stories or certain details can be questioned historically without invalidating the faith. There are whole books of the Bible that I would argue need to be read etiologically (e.g. Genesis) or allegorically (e.g. Jonah) and have no basis in historical or scientific fact. Burklo's problem is his inability to distinguish between the seven days of creation and the resurrection of Jesus.

Instead of caring whether the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a fact or a myth, let’s concern ourselves with things that matter.

That's dumbfounding, at least to anyone who has made it far enough out of the Gospels to find 1 Corinthians 15. Burklo apparently has not, suggesting that:

The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

Curiously, Burklo doesn't seem to realize that the Sermon on the Mount is offered only in Matthew, while all four Gospels have an account of the resurrection. In fact, it is the resurrection that is the defining event of the Gospels. And why not, since according to Paul, it is the Gospel (unlike Burklo who asserts, without explanation or justification, that the Gospel is "the good news that Love is all that matters"). "If Christ has not been raised," and Paul specifies a bodily resurrection, "then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."

Paul isn't exaggerating. The resurrection is the central event is Christian thought. It is the purpose of the Incarnation, it is the victory of good over evil, it is the means by which humanity is redeemed, it is the core of the message Christians proclaim to the nations, and it is the future hope for all the redeemed in Christ. There is a reason the creeds include an affirmation of the resurrection of the dead. It is core to everything we do. It defines our anthropology which, in turn, defines how we treat not only ourselves but others. It shapes a theologically valid relationship with the material world. It is our promise of participation in the eternality of God and the sustaining hope of millions who suffer. Without the resurrection, Christ's and ours, there is no Christian faith.

It is interesting from a historical standpoint, that all manner of beliefs seeped into the mainstream of Christian thought at one time or another. The belief that the Son was a creature and that the Spirit was a creature. The belief that Jesus was a human-deity hybrid. The belief that, after a period of pedagogical suffering, even the devil would be saved. Curiously, however, the mainstream of Christianity never entertained a belief that the resurrection did not literally happen. Certain gnostic sects certainly, as part of a broader complicated cosmology in which the Christ was never really here to begin with and therefore never really died and never needed to be really raised. For Christianity, this has been a modern pretension.

I can swallow a lot of skepticism. They could discover today that the whole Old Testament was written by a council of rabbis in the 200 BC, and I would trudge merrily on. You could tell me you don't believe Jesus walked on water or changed water to win or even drew water from a well if you're so inclined, and I can still extend you a sincere, if shaky, hand of fellowship. But a graduate student at a seminary in the Midwest once told a friend of mine, "If they found the bones of Jesus today, it wouldn't affect my faith at all." I'm not there. I'm with Paul; if Christ has not been raised, my faith has been in vain. Burklo needs to understand that. To suggest that the historicity or factuality (or however you want to phrase it) of the resurrection is a matter of no consequence is to misunderstand everything: the structure of ancient narrative, the historical witness of the church, the soteriological and eschatological promises of Christianity, in short, the faith in its entirety.

The church can and should scrub away the accretions of overactive imaginations and the layers of obscurants created by ancient idiom and metaphor. The church also can and must distinguish between those things which can be scrutinized safely and those which, if undone, will mean the end of the faith as we know it. Some of those essentials, particularly the resurrection, may unfortunately fall into Burklo's unbelievable category. This, of course, cuts to the heart of Burklo's problem. A faith which can only believe that which it already considers believable is no faith at all, and a God who can only do that which His creations can reproduce in a laboratory is no God at all.

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