Of Reason and Resurrection: The Scientific Sense (or Nonsense?) of Faith
Daughter Else asks magnificent questions.
Almost four years ago, I wrote here about Else’s nightly ritual of asking to be told about the story of Jesus.
She preferred it if we began “In the beginning.”
That gets long, and so we settled to conflate the tales as found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and then a little of Paul thrown in there too, in 5-7 minutes or less.
One night, however, after I ended with the news of Jesus being raised from the dead, and the women hearing the news and telling others of the news, so that now I was able to tell Else the news that death doesn’t win, and that we need not be afraid, and isn’t that good news to tuck us into bed, along with a good night kiss, Else looked at me.
She looked at me with narrowed eyes, and she said, slowly and with determination, “Mama, what did the soldiers say when they saw Jesus the second time that he was alive?”
I stared at her. “I have absolutely no clue,” I told her.
I had a ringer, though, a ringer in my Dad, who is a New Testament theologian.
I rung up my ringer, and I told him the story, and I said, “Dad, what do you think? What did they say?”
And then, “Probably, ‘Sheeeeeeeit.’”
One of my hopes, through OMG, is to provide a place to ask questions that people had never thought about before, or had never thought to ask before.
Sometimes, it takes non-Christians to ask the best ones.
After this column of mine came out last Sunday, I had a man, a man who is definitively and happily not Christian, ask some really good questions.
One of those questions had to do with the resurrection.
How, he wondered, how is it possible for an intelligent person to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead?
It’s 2014, after all.
Resurrection defies everything that we know is physically possible.
We Christians tend to have some stock responses to these sorts of questions: We scoff, we laugh, we shrug, we change the subject, or we say, “Because,” and hope that that cuts it.
Now, there are things in which people put their faith that are worthy of scoff, at least if you’re an adult, and certainly an adult living in 2014: Santa, for example. The Great Pumpkin. The alien space craft trailing the Haley-Bopp Comet.
Substantively, though, many agnostics and atheists wonder where, exactly, we Christians see the difference between waiting for a dead-guy-who-is-purportedly-alive-again-and-promises-to-return-sometime and those folks who were ready to hitch a ride on a visible heavenly body.
See, within the enclave of faith, we Christians rarely hear a question like this posed.
Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!
It’s a fact!
Well…not a provable fact like say, carbon dating, or proof that gravity keeps us from flying off into space, or a display showing that middle C has a certain frequency.
Some Christians are uncomfortable with the request for reason to have a role in faith.
I understand the discomfort, for faith is just that, a trust in something that is unseeable.
We Lutherans tend especially to be anxious about belief coming in any way other than faith.
We come by that discomfort honestly. Martin Luther himself was deeply troubled by the idea that we could, somehow, by our own efforts, get closer to God. It didn’t matter to him what sort of effort, though paying God/the Church off really crazy annoyed him.
But be it by confessing, by personal piety, or by good works, Luther didn’t like any whiff of any thing that suggested that we could, on our own merits, come to belief in God, or earn God’s favor.
For some, trying to involve intellect or reason moves dangerously close to working our way to God on our own power, trusting in ourselves rather than God, and, specifically, God’s grace.
I get their concern, and I get why they have it, but…I’m not that kind of Lutheran.
It’s worth remembering that Luther was a professor. He loved learning, and he loved teaching.
His objection to reason wasn’t that he didn’t like thinking, but rather that he didn’t like the idea that our intellectual ability could ever grasp God.
I am, you see, almost certain that I couldn’t count all of the dangers of making our brains off-limits when it comes to believing in God.
That I can’t count very well anyway is beside the point.
We live in the 21st century! We have cyclotrons, we have CERN colliders, we have microscopes and telescopes and rockets and deep-diving subs.
We’ve got physicists and chemists and biologists and all manner of other highly trained experts who have rational reasons to explain, for example, why we don’t fall off the earth, how decomposition works, and how–or whether–a substance can change its state.
They also can explain why water can’t become wine, and why virgins can’t become pregnant, and why dead people can’t become alive again.
And if we want to be intellectually honest, people of faith must concede what these scientists teach us.
They are, in a word, right.
So, given that, how can one be at all intelligent while simultaneously putting an asterisk by these findings to say, “except for when God decides to work inexplicable miracles that seem to come to pass largely in ancient Scriptures.”
It’s a real question.
And a really good question.
And the more that we Christians can address it honestly, can look at the inconceivabilities and the absurdities that lace themselves through our faith, the more we honor both our intellect and the mysteries of faith.
So, let’s take a closer look at the resurrection, and look to see whether there are indeed reasons why reasonable people can and do put their trust in it. By no means, of course, is this an exhaustive reflection. It’s an initial response to a very deep, very good question.
My seminary professor Walt Bouman teased out a few ways of thinking about it. He used NT Wright’s work The Resurrection of the Son of God as his springboard. Let’s take a look at what they offer up.
1. So each gospel has some reference to the resurrection, as does Paul.
And, let’s be honest, they don’t all line up. Each writer has a detail that is added, missing, or changed, one from the other.
Seems to me that there are at least three ways to look at the inconsistencies between these books.
a) Say that somehow, if you smush them all together and squint at the same time, they really do all fit, and those parts that apparently contradict really don’t. If you just look at it sideways and with the sun at just the right angle it’s all good;
b) laugh mockingly at the tradition and show that even our original sources can’t agree on what the story is;
c) figure that the differences point to the story-tellers telling the story as they remember or heard it, instead of conspiring with one another to all get the same story straight.
There’s a paradoxical, breathless authenticity, that is, to the fact that everything doesn’t fall into aligned place.
2. (And this one is my favorite) Women were the first preachers and the first witnesses.
Let’s be clear: women had less than no standing in this ancient Middle Eastern culture.
If you would have wanted to convince people of the radically unreasonable claim that a dead man is now alive, you would have exactly not written that women–whose testimony in court trials, even as victim or eyewitness was not allowed–saw the risen Jesus first…or at all, actually.
So, depending on the text, either “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1) or “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” (Mark 16:1) or “Mary Magdalene, Johanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” (Luke 24:10) or just Mary Magdalene (John 20:1 and 20:11) were the first preachers (which, of course, is a fact worth noting to those who refuse to allow women to serve as ordained clergy, but that’s another blog a’brewing)!
Not the men, but the women.
That, my friends, is no small thing, even yet today.
3. The tomb was believed to be empty.
N.T. Wright points out that not only were there no shrines created at the site of Jesus’ tomb (expected for someone who had generated as much attention as had he), but there are no (extant, anyway) references to the typical second burial rite of the bones left after the flesh had decayed. Both of these rituals would have been expected for Jesus and noted in the texts.
4. Last (at least for the length of this blog), back then, dead people tended to stay dead as often as they do now.
That is, to convince even one person, let alone more than one, let alone those who are not predisposed (for a variety of religious, political, let alone logical reasons) to buy into resurrected people is not easy work.
So while we can’t prove that Jesus actually was raised from the dead, we can prove that first a few, then a few more, than way more than a few more, then hundreds and thousands and millions of people believed that he was.
Their belief was not to their advantage. Not only would it open up believers to mockery, not only would it create ruptured relationships (both religious and personal), but those who believed that Jesus was risen from the dead could lose their own lives for trusting in a religious king other than the reigning political one…and they had no guaranteed resurrection three days later.
Being a Christian, then, was not a choice that gave advantages, a fact which alone should make us lean toward trusting the early believers’ conviction that Jesus is risen from the dead.
But let’s go at it another angle.
Let’s look at it from the point of view of a skeptic: a really intelligent, really witty skeptic by the name of Terry Eagleton.
In his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, he is both critical of those who critique Christianity, and of Christians themselves.
He’s not particularly impressed with any of us.
For starters, Eagleton is bothered by those who say that reason and science is where it’s at, and only where it’s at.
While he’s all for scientific exploration and knowledge (as am I, for the record), Eagleton’s deeply bugged at the habit of not noting where science itself has gone awry, or has holes of reason.
“A belief…can be rational but not true,” and the opposite is also so. So it was rational for centuries to believe that the sun moved around the earth, although that was very false; it is true that the same nuclear particles can go through two openings simultaneously, but that isn’t rational (112-13).
He goes on, “Nobody has ever clapped eyes on the unconscious. Yet many people believe in its existence, on the grounds that it makes excellent sense of their experience in the world….We have faith in the knowledge of specialists. It is also true that plenty of people believe in things that do not exist, such as a wholly just society” (115-6).
In other words, we have “faith” in all sorts of things that either make no sense, or have never been seen or experienced, or in which we must simply blindly trust.
Sometimes, no reason can be given for our trust, such as in the case of love. The emotion and the commitment behind the emotion cannot be proven, but it exists. Others can doubt it, but for the one in love, it is as real as day.
In fact, depending on, trusting only provable facts (facts, he would say with great caution, which are provable only until they aren’t) “is a neurosis….like the man in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations who buys a second copy of the daily newspaper to assure himself that what the first copy said was true.” (124)
In fact, feminists have raised the question about how power and privilege determines the definition of what is true. Now, I’m not calling Christianity oppressed here, but I am saying that it’s important to note who decides what is in, and what is out; what is legit, and what isn’t.
So Eagleton notices that science takes for granted the assumption “that only ‘natural’ explanations are to be ruled in. This may well be a wise supposition. It certainly rules out a lot of egregious nonsense. But it indeed is a postulate [assumed truth], not the upshot of a demonstrable truth.”
In other words, if provable reason is all that “counts,” then something that is not provable reason is dismissed even before it’s invited to the party.
I’ve been reading physicist Richard Feynman lately, and he agrees–though I don’t know that anyone would ever call him a feminist! He says:
…if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it’s dead, or wrong, or stupid. We are not trying to argue that science is somehow good and other things are somehow not good. Scientists take all those things that can be analyzed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean those things are unimportant. They are, in fact, in many ways the most important. (16-17).
His point, in part, is to say that science and religion need not be natural enemies. They can complement each other, even.
But each have boundaries of inquiry and purpose, and yet, I believe he would say, either one left in isolation poses danger.
As far as Eagleton says, if we trust in science exclusively, the discoveries of which presume to lead to progress, then we have what he sarcastically calls “local and temporary setbacks” and “hiccups,” oh, like Hiroshima, apartheid, and ecological disasters. (87).
And then he says this:
An enlightened trust in the sovereignty of human reason can be every bit as magical as the exploits of Merlin, and a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns. There is even a sense in which humanism, looking around our world, seems at times almost as implausible as papal infallibility…As far as reason goes, what are we to make of a capitalist system which is at once eminently rational and one enormous irrationality, accumulating as it does for accumulations sake and generating vast amounts of waste and worthlessness in the process? (89)
In other words, we place our trust in the irrational all the time, and yet have the crazy notion that somehow it is more reasonable than a story which identifies with the down-trodden, the ill, the forlorn, the forgotten, and offers them communal hope.
THAT SAID, Eagleton lodges a head-on critique of Christians as well.
He says, rightly, that we have abdicated our story for simplistic pietistic moralities and a cozy relationship with power and success.
Here’s an uncomfortable rant that’s worthy of an extended quote:
This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of a female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image–a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessive God with a special regard for that ontologially privilged piece of the globe just south of Canada and north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tracless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burn offerings stink in his nostrils…The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, sanctimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom…
In the light of all this, the bellicose ravings of [Christian critics] are, if anything, too muted. It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion. (55-57).
If you want a reason, in other words, not to believe in a raised-from-the-dead Jesus, it’s those who call themselves by his name and don’t act in it.
Scripture and tradition have so many nuances: historical, textual, cultural, geographical.
Faith–in anything–has so many imperceptibles.
To simply dismiss Christian faith because it is unreasonable dismisses the complexity of all of the above; forgets our blind trust in the unreasonableness of that which we assume to be the routine of “daily life;” and ignores our routine trust in science’s discoveries…until something else is scientifically discovered.
However, to dismiss Christian faith because of Christians who have not lived in the light of the empty tomb in which they say they believe, who do not see that that Easter act reveals God’s agenda not just for the future but for the now, who are more concerned with preserving their lifestyle than offering their lives as Jesus bids them to do, well, that makes reasonable sense.
As even the skeptic Eagleton says, “If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.” (27).
You have some explaining to do, not least of all to those who are peering into the Christian mindset, the Christian world-veiw, and into the reasonableness, the trustworthiness, of the Gospel that Jesus is risen.
The paradoxical point, the one that Luther got, was that the Christian story makes no sense at all. It is terribly unreasonable.
Come, follow Jesus, and die.
And that’s good news (!?).
Come, follow Jesus: feed, forgive, heal, house, clothe, and so do not because you have to, but because you are freed to. You are freed to offer up your security; in fact your very lives, in trust to the eminently unreasonable promise that despite all evidence to the contrary, life wins.
You can trust that more than death.
I know that it makes no sense.
But that doesn’t make it nonsense.
Faith in the risen Jesus is something more than just reason (though there are reasons for it), and more than just intellectual agreement (though Jesus’ life resonates far more with my view of the world than does US capitalism, for example).
Faith in the risen Jesus is trust in mystery, in hopes of an upside-down-world righted, in the power of promise over lived experience.
And that, by the way, is also why I’m a Twins fan.
I was blessed to know a woman in my last church who was a detective with the homicide division of the city police. She was also someone who lived out her faith in ways that made me proud to be her pastor. She always told me that the inconsistencies in the resurrection stories always confirmed her faith, because in case after case, as she interviewed witnesses, people who saw the same thing rarely reported it in the same way. She told me she learned to be suspicious of people who told her the exact same story in exactly the same way. Thanks, Anna, for another wonderful, thoughtful piece of work.
Rock on, Anna! It also explains why I’m an Astros fan . . .
Just read this this morning: “Faith is a state of the mind and the soul… The language of religion is a set of formulas which register a basic spiritual experience. It must not be regarded as describing in terms to be defined by philosophy, the reality which is accessible to our senses and which we can analyze with the tools of logic.” Dag Hammarskjold – from the forward to Markings.
Also – you should probably be a Cubs fan.