April 1, 2018 Editor

Easter Song, Keith Green, and Reflections on the Resurrection

NOTE: Please check out the footnotes for additional more detailed commentary.

Please also see two outstanding sermons, one on Good Friday, the other on Easter Sunday, by my colleague Randy Klassen: both in the context of criminal/restorative justice.

WN: While I do not get off on his style of worship, or his seeming smugness about “knowing Jesus” (seen in some other YouTube videos of his performances), Keith Green’s song here (originally composed by Annie Herring, 2nd Chapter of Acts) is top of the charts for me! Forty plus years ago, we used to listen to this innumerable times throughout the year, but especially at Easter! I’m happy to “resurrect” it this Easter Season.

Speaking of resurrection: there is a person of my acquaintance who used to love this song, once at least by his account pulling over on the road to deal with overwhelming joy in response to its sheer power, an exuberance that touched him emotionally to the core. There came the day however, sadly long since, that it was all rejected, and his “Jesus” became so completely watered down that it is impossible to conjure up an understanding of why such a “Jesus” was viciously rejected and crucified — if one holds to his (un)belief. As to then rising again, Dead men simply do not rise, his “scientific” mind asserts dogmatically like the best (or worst) of any religious fundamentalist I have known.

At least as hard or more so to imagine is why a whole rabble of Jesus followers joyfully joined the ranks of martyrdom in allegiance to that belief — then or since (a rather gargantuan throng of such in fact).

So is it the case, as my acquaintance now claims rather dogmatically, that the Gospels are barely “historical”, that it is simply known that scientifically, the resurrection is at best mere fairy-story, at worst a belief to be jettisoned if one time held, or rejected if considered? (I have concluded that there is no more rigid fundamentalist than one who comes to reject what once was held near and dear: in whatever field of inquiry/activity).

There is a slight problem with my acquaintance’s fundamentalist pontifications: he is in no way qualified to make such sweeping denials — not as an historian, not as a scientist, not as a theologian. He is none of them. But it’s ok with me. I bear him no ill-will for his unbelief. I do however become a bit frustrated when his (un)beliefs are pronounced as incontestable truths. As though if one remotely had intellectual/academic/moral integrity one would just know his now old-found fundamentalism with contrary content is the only show in town… I do not mind that he rails against/mocks Christian fundamentalists, that a Bishop Spong for instance is/was his particular cup of tea. (Spong who in the books by him I read repeatedly presented himself as one of the greatest fundamentalists of them all!) Sigh.

My other problem is simply: there is no historical, scientific[1] or theological evidence that compels one to disbelieve what he once believed and found great joy in. None on all three accounts.

And while his outright rejection of the Church is another story, and such is likewise as brittle fundamentalist as his other sweeping contestations about what one now must (dis)believe, I’m at a loss as to what to do with such overwhelming prejudice and closed-mindedness with so underwhelming legitimate evidence. (On the contrary: he needs to do a bracing read of Sir Larry Siedentop‘s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, that does a sweep of 1800 years of Western history, demonstrating that 

The roots of liberalism—belief in individual freedom, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, in a legal system based on equality, and in a representative form of government befitting a society of free people—all these were pioneered by Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages who drew on the moral revolution carried out by the early Church. These philosophers and canon lawyers, not the Renaissance humanists, laid the foundation for liberal democracy in the West. — from description of book highlighted above; emphasis added).

So I leave it to him in his tiny fiefdom of two — his wife concomitant Lady of the Manor, perhaps even more stringently fundamentalist? And both so unaware of their entrenched fundamentalism. While they may have rejected their earlier black-and-white fundamentalism,  the spirit of fundamentalism has arisen like a phoenix within them. My wife and I however long since gratefully committed lèse-majesté and self-expulsion from that sorry realm of facile, faux deontological unbelief. Well, we really never were inhabitants (though we likewise abandoned an earlier Christian fundamentalism)…

Of course, he’s welcome to his (un)beliefs! No I don’t believe he is going to hell for rejecting the Christian faith of his previous self. But I have not heard him express for many a year the kind of high-spirited joy he once had in the resurrection — and with it the whole bag of for him once life-giving tricks. I find that sad… (Not that what I believe is “certainty” either! It is after all “faith”.)

For those however who might be on the contrary more open-minded, I’ll point you to (if unaware) some of the outstanding historical/scientific scholarship that influences me–if you are considering these things[2]:

As a historical statement we can say quite firmly: no Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus is the single greatest ‘presupposition’ of Christianity, so also is the resurrection of Jesus. To stop short of the resurrection would have been to stop short (p. 826).

The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself (p. 712).[3] [4]

  • A world-renowned journalist/historian with prodigious output is Paul Johnson. An octogenarian when he wrote Jesus: A Biography from a Believer, he invites readers to request any substantiating scholarship — readily available from him — for his biography of Jesus. (For those who object that he is clearly biased in light of the subtitle, the very objection of course carries its own objection of bias in turn!) Johnson writes at the end of the book:

The Gospels are designed to be read and reread. The oftener we do so, the greater our delight in them, the deeper our understanding, and the more we grasp their realism. They are the truth. What they tell us actually happened. The characters are real. The details are strangely, sometimes mysteriously, convincing. As we go on reading, the many centuries which intervene gradually slip away, and we become familiar with a world not so different from our own… [The Gospels’] message, at its simplest, is do as Jesus did. That is why his biography, in our terrifying twenty-first century, is so important. We must study it, and learn (pp. 224 – 226).

By stark contrast, I once listened for 4½ hours or so to my acquaintance as he trashed the Gospels as unhistorical and hence quite dismissible in his rendition of a kind of anti-creed. Perhaps ( 😉 ) one can guess whom I find  more credible: the three historians mentioned above (and so many more!)  — over against the profound, comparatively uninformed bias of my acquaintance…

  • Francis Sellers Collins is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, United States. He is a scientist’s scientist in ways that put my acquaintance into a totally different league, so bush as not even to bear comparative mention. Sadly for my acquaintance. (To be noted: I’m also in that same incomparable bush league!)

Collins has published several books in relation to his Christian faith: something he embraced out of an earlier atheism. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (incidentally, University of British Columbia’s President and Vice Chancellor Santa J. Ono[5]states that this is his favourite book), Dr. Collins writes in the Introduction:

So here is the central question of this book: In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews? I answer with a resounding yes! (pp. 5 & 6)

In the face of the above scholarly testimonials, I find my acquaintance’s dogmatic fundamentalist unbelief wears a bit thin…

Hope you too can thrill to the joy of the resurrection! If you can, surely the above song will contribute to it![6]

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen

  1. [1]In this brief commentary, I point below to works related to issues of historical credibility of the Gospels.  There is a rough parallel between earlier “Historical Jesus Quest” historians in their dismissal of New Testament historical reliability, and earlier scientific research that to this day (scientific) materialists claim explains everything without reference to God. The classic text on this is by physicist Stephen M. Barr who writes:

    The question before us, then, is whether the actual discoveries of science have undercut the central claims of religion, specifically the great monotheistic religions of the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, or whether those discoveries have actually, in certain important respects, damaged the credibility of materialism (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003), pp. 2 & 3.)

    The author, in very irenic, often understated form, concludes the latter, saying at the end of the book:

    It is certainly conceivable, if to many of us not credible, that materialism is true, but surely it is not irrational to ask for somewhat stronger arguments on its behalf (p. 256).

    So with issues of historical reliability of the New Testament: it is conceivable that the documents are overall not very historically reliable. But the evidence does not compel one to that conclusion. On the contrary… to which I point below.

    When I wrote a major essay on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (see below) in my undergraduate German literature program, with a view to challenge Lessing’s presuppositions about the general historicity of the New Testament (“accidental truths of history” he dubbed them), and the inviolability by contrast of reason as ultimate guide to truth (“necessary truths of reason” he called them: see more below), my prof thought it rather presumptuous that I would tackle one of the Enlightenment founding notions about religion. He indicated great surprise upon giving me a high mark for the paper: it was “compelling”, he felt. It is fair to indicate that anti-religious bias is so ubiquitous in our (educated) culture, that it is rarely acknowledged: like a fish unaware of the element it lives its life in. Reality is: the Judeo-Christian Tradition is amongst the most ancient in history, and has throughout engaged brilliant thinkers butting up against what is known about the wider world/universe — and making sense in light of faith.

    As the Wikipedia article states about Barr’s book:

    Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003) is a book by Stephen M. Barr, a physicist from the University of Delaware[1] and frequent contributor to First Things. This book is “an extended attack” on what Barr calls scientific materialism. National Review says of the book: “[A] lucid and engaging survey of modern physics and its relation to religious belief. . . . Barr has produced a stunning tour de force . . . [a] scientific and philosophical breakthrough.”[2]

    And further:

    The book is divided into five parts spanning 26 chapters. The main religious and philosophical themes include determinism, mind as a machine, anthropic principle, and the big bang theory.[3] Its main thesis is that science and religion only appear in conflict because many have “conflated science with philosophical materialism.”

    Barr repeatedly disclaims offering “rigorous proofs” for traditional Judeo-Christianity. Rather, he systematically carves out room for its embrace based on what is known from modern physics. Not a few surprises await (at least) the previously uninformed reader (like me).

  2. [2]This Easter 2019 article by James Martin, S.J. captures the essence: “The ‘literal flesh-and-blood’ resurrection is the heart of my faith“. In it we read:

    Let me offer my own perspective on this.

    I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. And I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor. This is, frankly, the very heart of my faith. Also, I do not believe that we can or should reduce the great mystery of the resurrection to an experience that occurred within the community. This is what some contemporary theologians have posited: that Christ “rose” within the community. Theological approaches differ, but, in essence, some theologians offer the story of how, as the disciples came to reflect on the life and death of Jesus Christ, he became “present” to them in a new way, through the Spirit. This, in turn, empowered them to proclaim the good news of his Gospel. Some theologians offer this as a more credible or contemporary way of understanding the “resurrection.”

    But there is a problem with this idea of the resurrection as the after-effects of a “shared memory.” Certainly, after the resurrection and the ascension the disciples would have “remembered” Jesus, and certainly they may have had powerful Spirit-filled experiences as they did so, often as they gathered in community. But, to my mind, only something as vivid, dramatic and, in a word, real as the multiple appearances by the risen Christ could have moved the disciples from abject fear (cowering behind closed doors) to being willing to give their lives for Jesus. Nothing else can credibly account for the transformation of terrified disciples into willing martyrs.

  3. [3]]In my university German studies, we read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing‘s famous and normative Enlightenment dictum that There is an ugly broad ditch between the accidental truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. In other words, “historical” events so claimed by Christians such as the Resurrection are not in themselves self-evident truths compared to axiomatic truths of reason, accessible to any rational mind. Or: it is impossible to prove faith from history. Two characters in my Chrysalis Crucible novel respond thus to Lessing:

    Andy replied, “there was a ‘self-evident’ truth Lessing himself was overlooking. The truth is, ‘truth’—even the ‘necessary truths of reason’—are not so obviously ‘true’ or ‘necessary’ after all.”

    Dan could not hold back. “The great Michael Polanyi objection, precisely! [More on Michael Polanyi is in the next footnote.] Had Mr. Lessing been able to transport himself magically and linguistically to the head hunters roaming around New Guinea at the time, he’d have quickly found out how non­universally-self-evident were his ‘necessary truths’ after all, perhaps only moments before falling prey to their ‘necessary truth,’ namely, outsiders were best in the cooking pot, and his sun-shrunken head pride-of­-place charm above the chief’s doorway.

    James D.G. Dunn comments:

    In short, the tension between faith and history has too often been seen as destructive of good history. On the contrary, however, it is the recognition that Jesus can be perceived only through the impact he made on his first disciples (that is, their faith) which is the key to a historical recognition (and assessment) of that impact…

    It should not go unobserved that if this insight is justified it provides some sort of solution to the long-perceived gulf between history and faith. For in the historical moment(s) of creation of the Jesus tradition we have historical faith. The problem of history and faith, we might say, has been occasioned by the fact that further down the stream of faith and history the two have seemed so difficult to reconcile… All I am saying at this point is that the actual Synoptic tradition, with its record of things Jesus said and did, bears witness to a continuity between pre-Easter memory and post-Easter proclamation, a continuity of faith (ibid, pp. 132 & 133).

    In other words, the Historical Jesus Quest for 500 years has attempted to get behind the scenes of the Gospels to see what was really going on, the axiomatic assumption since the Enlightenment generally being, what is going on in front of the scenes, the actual play as recorded in the Gospels, is untrustworthy because in Lessing’s word merely “accidental”. 500 years of abject failure in, one may rather definitively say, the stage or front of the scenes — the play as recorded in the Gospels — is all one will ever be able to see! And in the paraphrased words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play’s the material wherein to catch the conscience of us all …

    Dunn’s entire study is of a “Jesus Remembered” who is accessible equally to history and faith, wherein the only Jesus of history it is possible to discover is the Christ of faith. In light of 500 years of failed “historical Jesus questing”, yielding only a multiplicity of Jesuses historically “reconstructed” to look each time suspiciously like the reconstructionist is invariably projecting his/her bias (or preferred “Jesus” if you will) onto the Gospels’ Jesus, “it becomes clear that a theological and cultural agenda is the driving force rather than a desire to do better history (The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Third Edition, Luke Timothy Johnson, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, p, 629 — in Second Edition).”

    It’s just possible then that Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” was dug by him and his contemporaries… into which many since subsequently haplessly fell.

  4. [4]Michael Polanyi emphasizes that personal knowledge is dependent on “communities of dialogue” within given cultural traditions which we all inhabit. It’s just that different cultural traditions yield different knowledge/rationalities.

    He writes:

    Articulate systems which foster and satisfy intellectual passion can survive only with the support of a society which respects the values affirmed by these passions, and a society has a cultural life only to the extent to which it acknowledges and fulfills the obligation to lend its support to the cultivation of these passions… The tacit coefficients by which these articulate systems are understood and accredited, … are also coefficients of a cultural life shared by a community (Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 203.)

    Again:

    Our formal upbringing evokes in us an elaborate set of emotional responses, operating within an articulate cultural framework. By the strength of these affections we assimilate this framework and uphold it as our culture… (ibid, p. 70.)

    Lessing was a white adult male within an educated elite European circle of white males in the 18th century at a time of the incipient Enlightenment, whose shared rationality was moulded by that community. There is otherwise no shared universal rationality.

    A helpful study that discusses Michael Polanyi and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre together in this regard is here.

    Larry Siedentop also traces in the study noted above the profound changes in the basis/understanding of “rationalism/reason” from ancient Greco-Roman culture to the modern era under the enlightened (read “liberalizing”) influence of the Church. The burden of his monograph is to demonstrate that without that influence/by continuing with ancient pagan cultural conceptualizations of rationality, there would never have been development of the Western liberal concept of the individual.

  5. [5]Please also see this article: “Katharine Hayhoe, Santa Ono featured in major science/faith conference
  6. [6]In that thrilling affirmation, you may take to heart then act on Bishop Thomas Gumbleton’s challenge to us in his Easter Sunday 2019 homily: “Have complete faith in the Resurrection“.

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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Wayne Northey

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