August 01, 2008

Do You Believe in the Resurrection?

by Debra Dean Murphy
There were doubt and struggle on that first Easter morning and in the days and weeks that followed. But doubt and struggle were not obstacles to faith; they were its necessary precondition.

Throughout history and into our own time there have been persons on a mission to “prove” the resurrection as historical fact, and there have been others intent on disproving it. Last spring, CNN aired a special program called “What Is A Christian?” It was predictable and disappointing in ways that these sorts of shows almost always are: The earnest host, the likable Anderson Cooper, introduced segments about healing, global warming, miracles in the Bible, and then believers were pitted against non-believers, persons of faith against skeptics and naysayers, the would-be “provers” against those intent to disprove.

But the gospels do not seem very interested in putting forth a unified argument or irrefutable evidence that explains the resurrection, as the four very different accounts indicate. When it comes to the resurrection the gospels collectively seem to say: you don’t explain it, you witness it and you bear witness to it.

If we’re honest, we’ve all wrestled with the subject matter at the heart of Easter: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Some of us are content to call it a “matter of faith” and leave it at that; some of us have found ourselves preoccupied with the laws of physics and biology that resurrection must defy, not to mention those of logic and reason; but all of us, whether in brief, fleeting thoughts or in longer periods of struggle and spiritual drought, whether in a moment’s hesitation or in a sleepless night of tossing and turning and cold sweats, have asked ourselves, directly or indirectly, “do I believe any of this?”

On Easter and the Great Fifty Days that follow, there are people in churches who don’t believe any of this. They might like the music, the liturgy, the pomp and festivity of the celebration; they might associate Easter with fond childhood memories; but they don’t really believe in the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen, risen indeed.

But perhaps the problem is not so much with disbelieving people as it is with our notion of what counts as belief.

In an essay entitled “Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity,” Kathleen Norris tells of a heated exchange between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The theologian, also a priest, had just given a talk on the history and development of the Christian creeds, and a student asked this question: “What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?” The priest-theologian responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.”

Feeling that he had been misunderstood the student tried again: “What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the Creed—like the Virgin Birth?” And he got the same response: “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.”

Clearly exasperated, the student raised his voice: “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?” And the unruffled priest-theologian replied, “It’s not your creed, it’s our creed—the creed of the entire Christian church.”

For some, as Norris points out, this is not a very satisfying answer. If we understand Christianity to be a set of propositions to be believed in with our intellects, this kind of answer will only exasperate us.

But if Christianity is a story we are called to bear witness to, the story of God’s extravagant love and generosity, of God’s abundant grace and mercy, and if belief—as its root meaning suggests—is fundamentally about what we give our hearts to, not what our heads “think,” then to believe in the resurrection is to participate in a shared life of worship and witness—a life in which we practice, over time, a faith that is not of our own making, but is itself a gift, and one that we must claim over and over again.

And in this shared life of worship and witness, we recognize, with the apostle Thomas, that doubt and struggle are part of the practice of believing; in fact, they are the fertile ground on which belief can grow. At the beginning of his novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving quotes these words from Frederick Buechner: “How could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

There were doubt and struggle on that first Easter morning and in the days and weeks that followed it. But doubt and struggle were not obstacles to faith; they were its necessary precondition. As Norris reminds us, what the first followers of Jesus came to see is what we too are called to understand: that religious belief is best thought of as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that we plunge into, not knowing exactly what we are doing or what will be demanded of us in the long run.

The task that Mary Magdalene and the other disciples were charged with that first Easter morning was not to go out and explain or defend an empty tomb, but to witness to a way of life that they had come to know through the life, death, and now the resurrection of their brother and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, and to bring others into a community that would be a living witness to God’s transformative power—a power that, as the apostle Paul reminds us, has destroyed the last enemy: death. This community is rooted not in self-interest but in love of neighbor, stranger, enemy; not in scarcity and lack but in abundance and plenty; not in fear and war-mongering but in the politics of peace.

The resurrection of Jesus makes this kind of community possible. And the believing community, made possible by the undoing of death manifests in its life together the risen Jesus. “It does not simply talk about him,” as Rowan Williams has suggested, “or even ‘celebrate’ him. It is the place where he is shown.”

It is the place where, to borrow a line from a Wendell Berry poem, resurrection is practiced; where we are free from the power of sin and death to be a people of joy, gratitude, forgiveness, hope; a people who say, with Mary Magdalene, “we have seen the Lord.”

And so perhaps the question before us this Easter season is not what are we to make of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but what will it make of us?

(Originally published Saturday, March 29, 2008)

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