Tuesday, 14 April 2009

ET and the resurrection: an Easter sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

His initials are E.T., but he wasn’t that ET. He was an earthling, and his name was Ernst Troeltsch. And he’s a good way in to understanding misunderstanding the resurrection of Jesus – which gets us about as close as we can to understanding it! Confused? That’s the point! Let me explain.

Troeltsch was a German sociologist of religion who taught in Heidelberg during the early part of last century. Top of the theological agenda at the time was the relation between faith and history. For a century-and-a-half historians had been fine-tuning their methods over matters of research, evidence, probability, facts, interpretation, and so on, and, inevitably, they had begun to ask questions about the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible. How can we be sure that the events recorded in the Bible actually happened, particularly when miracles are involved? How much confidence can we place in reports that had been handed down by word of mouth and, when finally written down, were far removed from the first eyewitnesses? And what about the inconsistencies that become apparent when comparing different gospel passages about the same incident? Can we base our faith on things so open to question? And even if our doubts could be allayed, how can so-called universal religious truth be based on historical events? And, further, how can what happened way back then and there, in a remote Mediterranean backwater, be relevant to us folk here and now in Swansea?

All these questions came to a head in the resurrection of Jesus, and ET – Ernst Troeltsch – was, as it were, one of the chief consultants to operate on the body in question. And what’s the saying? The surgery was successful – but the patient was lost, cut to pieces with the scalpel of the historical method itself.

But we must give ET his due: Troeltsch grasped that the real issue here for faith is not so much the findings of historical research, rather the real problem is the presuppositions of historical research, the way the whole project works. Because it turns out that the very methods with which historians ply their trade rule out in advance the claims that the church makes about the resurrection of Jesus. Look, Troeltsch said, this is how historians work, how they have to work: they can talk only about probabilities; they must locate events along chains of cause and effect; and events must always relate to other events, they must have analogies.

And it all sounds very reasonable. And it certainly works pretty well when you’re writing a history of the Reformation in Wales, or the rise of the English working class, or the origins of the First World War. But when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, what do you get? You get zilch, that’s what you get. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. On Troeltsch’s terms it is ruled out in principle. For faith claims that the resurrection of Jesus is unique, a one-off; that it happened out of nothing, it has no “previous”; and that, in faith, we know that out Redeemer lives.

But, yes, we must be grateful to old ET, for what he did was to sharpen the resurrection-question for Christians to the point where it tests our fundamental attitude to the modern world. The question is this: Are we to interpret the Easter event in the light of secular convictions about what constitutes “reality”, or are we to interpret secular convictions about what constitutes “reality” in the light of the Easter event? To put it most sharply: Are we going to determine what God can and cannot do on the basis of a given script, written by the Enlightenment, or are we going to allow God to determine what he can and cannot do even if it means rewriting the script? Who is in charge here? Who, in a word, is Lord?

Sceptics who argue that the tomb was empty because Jesus hadn’t actually died, or because the disciples had stolen the body, but also liberal Christians who argue that there probably was no tomb, that the body of Jesus was dumped in a common grave, and that even if there were a tomb it surely decomposed there, but not to worry, the important thing is the awesome visions the disciples had – sceptic and liberal alike view the resurrection of Jesus under the constraints of the historical method, about what can and cannot happen. And even evangelical Christians who try to explain away the inconsistencies and meld the different gospel accounts of Easter morning into a single coherent narrative, while against the sceptics and the liberals they affirm that God raised the dead Jesus, nevertheless in the very way they feel compelled to marshal the evidence, to out-argue the sceptics, they demonstrate that they too are bewitched by the constraints of modern historiography.

But as Dean Inge once famously said, if you wed yourself to the spirit of the age, it won’t be long before you are widowed. So let’s be clear. The church’s Scriptures witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. No, no one observed the raising of Jesus. And yes, there are different accounts of the seeing of Jesus. And no, a consistent harmonised account cannot be constructed from them. But that is precisely the point! If a totally history-friendly account could be constructed, then it most certainly would not be a witness to this event.

Of course everything that happened on Easter morning doesn’t fit together. Of course what has been called the “testimonies of the overwhelmed” (Helmut Thielicke) do not conform to the normal canons of evidence. Talk about astonishment, awe – and confusion! What else when you’re confronted by a reality that exceeds the limits of experience, reason and even imagination, a reality that is, in the strictest sense, indescribable, leaving language in a heap, its speakers tongue-tied. What else when you are hit by an earthquake that shatters the very foundations of human knowing, leaving scraps and fragments, and whose shock waves continue to reverberate and disturb.

The resurrection of Jesus – one can only try and fail to talk about it – one cannot be silent – one can only pray that the failure is a fortunate failure – the resurrection of Jesus is an event in history but not of history, an event with no “before”, a rupture, a fracture, an explosion, a big, bigger, biggest bang. As a new creation it can only be compared – as Paul compares it – with creation itself: “from the dead” with “out of nothing”. It certainly cannot be circumscribed by our so-called plausibility structures, or understood within our everyday frames of reference, rather it subverts these structures and frames and compels us to revise reality itself. Because, in short, as Karl Barth superbly and accurately put it, resurrection, finally, is “a paraphrase for God”, and God is ultimate and irreducible mystery, and the mystery of God is the hidden mystery of history, of the world itself.

“Getting inside the miracle” is a poem by Luci Shaw on the resurrection (the poets are always our best bet here):

        No, he is too quick. We never
        catch him at it. He is there
        sooner than our thought or prayer.
        Searching backwards, we cannot discover
        how, or get inside the miracle.
        …
        Enough. Refrain. Observe
        a finished work…

As sure as (Easter!) eggs is eggs, the resurrection happened, but that it happened is disclosed – Jesus makes his presence known – and it can be known only in faith, which does not answer to historical method but is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So thanks, ET, for the clarification. And thank you, God, for the revelation, transcending time and space, for meeting us here and now in the risen Christ, with the word – because we are so afraid – “Shalom! Peace be with you.” Yes, and thank you that, if still with lingering doubt and confusion, nevertheless without apology, with boldness and joy, we can say this morning: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”

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