30th April 2017
In first Century Palestine, Messiahs were not seen as divine figures, but as human liberators. If there’s one thing they all promised, it was strength and stability. Strong and stable leadership needs three things: strength, stability, and a message of strength and stability. That’s what people want from a Messiah. But what they got was Jesus of Nazareth – who was clearly reluctant to accept the title Messiah – because he provided neither strength nor stability, nor a message of strength and stability.
He didn’t seem to provide strength, because that was the job of one man and one man only: the Chief Priest, and King Herod, and Pontius Pilate and ultimately, the Roman Emperor. He certainly did not provide stability… at one rally, his speech included the manifesto pledge, ‘I have not come to bring stability, but division.’ (Lk 12:49-53). He stood in front of one of the planet’s most ancient, strong and stable institutions, and promised it would soon be reduced to a heap of smoldering rubble (Lk 21:6) And he told his devotees they should de-stabilize themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Lk 9:23). And of course, we know where the story goes. Jesus said ‘follow me’, and marched straight to his own downfall, trial, and death. Not much in the way of strength, or stability, or leadership. The. End.
The death of Christ, meant not only the demise of a would-be revolutionary dissident from beyond the boundaries of acceptability. For those who had followed him, it was the death of God himself. Not just the little bit of God that was incarnated into the person of Jesus – but the God of the up there, and the beyond and the ultimate. This way of reading events, was part of the "Death of God" Theology popularized in the 1960s and undergoing something of a revival today. It didn’t quite mean that the death of Jesus meant the death of the whole of God – because God is replaced with the Holy Spirit, the social glue that holds humanity together – so that God is reduced to interpersonal relationships: to the church, the collective, the nation etc. If God is alive, it’s in the same way that John Brown is alive – John’s brown’s body lies a-rotting in the grave, but his soul goes marching on … each time people get together to fight for justice. God becomes a way of describing human interaction…
The trouble is … when you read the resurrection accounts within their narrative context, an entirely different story emerges. Sure – we can say that the whole of God, the Big Other, the power up there in the sky that confers meaning upon our lives is dead. But being left with the Holy Spirit is not the same as being left with the human Spirit. For this "Death of God" crowd, the resurrection is just the wishful thinking of a bunch of unreflective, gullible and moronic peasants who could not adjust to the new reality. But that inability to accept uncomfortable realities is today, regarded as an evolutionary survival mechanism.
In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones. Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.
As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.
In the final phase of the study, after the deception was revealed, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.
The authors concluded that ‘even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted.’
What does resurrection have to do with this? The phrase, ‘Christ is risen’, is perhaps the most decontextualized and misinterpreted phrase since the unfortunate command, ‘Smell my Spaniel.’ Heard in context, resurrection does indeed mean a little more than a conjuring trick with bones.
The ‘Death of God’ philosophers today, are quite keen to point out that the God who died on the cross of Christianity is not only the Christian belief in the God up there beyond the skies. It’s every human conception of a ‘Big Other’ that helps us feel secure about our place in the universe. That Big Other could be the Christian God, or it could be Science, or Nature, or Meaning or Purpose, it could even be the Great Absence of God which is every bit as much a projection as the existence of God. Christianity, it is argued, is distinctive because in the cross – it deprives us of any Big Other, any great figure, or overarching metanarrative, or eternal truth. Everything, all of it, anything that grants us stability or certainty or security is destroyed, leaving us with the horrific sense of utter absence and loss.
Unfortunately, and all-too-quickly, Christians interpret the resurrection story as God waving a cosmic magic wand to provide us with the make-believe assurance that it’s okay, everything is alright, God is not dead and there really is stability and purpose and truth after all. Yes, the crucifixion was a terrible thing – but it’s okay because the delay between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is only about as long as waiting time in A and E, – that way you don’t have to wait too long for a Happy Ending, isn’t that Good News! The trouble is none of that takes the cross seriously. I remember a book called, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Comin’.” That is, it’s bleak for a while, but don’t worry about the death of Christ, it’s just part of a transaction, and God will soon be back in charge. Hence we go and celebrate Easter. As I saw in one church magazine this year, Holy Week climaxed with an event called, “Easter Fun.” Easter. Fun. Probably not a sentiment expressed by anyone who experienced that first Easter event!
No, resurrection was not a secret antidote to the death of God. Resurrection offers no short cut around the horror of loss, no happy ending, no comforting restoration of strength and stability. No – resurrection is something far more disturbing. Resurrection is the climax of theme running through the entirety of the biblical narrative – that of Israel being broken and remade differently. At the personal level, at the national level, and now at the divine level – being broken down and radically reconstituted. Suffering and vindication, destroyed and reconstituted, broken and remade. In Christian Theology this pattern of death and resurrection is the business of the Holy Spirit.
So, if the death of God leaves Christians only with the Holy Spirit – it means that the Holy Spirit becomes the only source of strength and stability. But the Spirit of resurrection is a spirit that pulls the rug from beneath your feet – a spirit in the business of breaking and remaking. The studies from Stanford have since been confirmed by countless other studies around the world, which tend to conclude that group-think is natural, that confirmation-bias is a universal human trait, that basic tribalism is a characteristic found in every walk of life, rich and poor, no matter how well or poorly educated we are.
The resurrection is the break up of our certainties, our group think, our tribalism. It is perpetual and radical exposure to human vulnerability and fallibility – and experiencing God within that. According to the New Testament, Christians have the capacity to be broken and remade, to be exposed to the resurrecting work of the Holy Spirit. It is clearly for this reason, that Christians have such a stunning reputation for humility and openness…
I can’t help thinking of the question, ‘How many light bulbs does it take to change a Christian?’ How many times do Christians need to be exposed to holiness, in order for their view of God and the world and the self to be transformed?
To say ‘I believe in the resurrection’ is to claim that you have the capacity for your worldview to be broken down and remade.
To say, ‘I believe in the resurrection’ is to claim that you can escape your natural desire for confirmation-bias.
To say, ‘I believe in the resurrection’ is to abandon all desire for strength and stability, to abandon the message of strength and stability,
and to seek God in the midst of instability and nothingness,
to seek the still small voice of God in the midst of the noise and the shouting and the chaos of rival bids for power,
to cultivate an attentive disposition so that the divine voice may be encountered in unexpected ways, amidst unexpected circumstances, from unexpected people.