The Resurrection Didn't Happen
Updated: Aug 15
A couple of months ago I spent a very stimulating hour watching YouTube with a glass of whatever white wine had been on offer at the shop earlier that evening. I was glued to a discussion of religion between Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the wonderful Bible scholar; Adam Rutherford, a science writer and broadcaster; and Giles Fraser, the vicar of St Mary's, Newington. London Thinks: A Scientist, an Atheist Biblical Scholar and a Vicar Walk into an Ethical Society is its title. The humour of the debate along with the genuine humility of the three speakers resulted in one of the best, most interesting discussions of religion I have ever heard. It ranges from cultural expressions or religion and cultic ritual to the supposed war between science and religion.
As is typical of these events, a long Q&A made up the second half. At one point in the discussion Giles Fraser agrees with a speaker from the crowd who says that, in a sense, the resurrection is both ‘true and not true at the same time.’ Much to Adam Rutherford’s disgust (‘It is either true or it isn’t,’ he says with frustration), Giles responds ‘Yes, of course it is both true and not true.’
I was, at the time, slightly baffled. But I kind of loved that. I’ve red my fair share of postmodern philosophers, even enjoyed some. In fact John Caputo is one of my favourite writers, in ever sense. But I could make neither head nor tail of a statement like this. And why was one of my favourite clergy endorsing some kind of Schrodinger's Jesus? There was thinking to be done.
This moment in the discussion was a lovely, little economic demonstration of what seems to be a common religious / scientific fault line. Science wanting to hold up the testable and the religious retreating into poetry and riddle. But it isn’t as clearcut as this. In reality, taken in isolation, most Christians would side with Rutherford here. The resurrection either happened or it didn’t. And it did, they would say. In this sense, most Christians are allied to a realist notion of religion: it is based on truth claims, hypothetically verifiable. If only we could return to Calvary for a minute or two, then we’d all see.
But let’s face it. The resurrection exists on two separate not mutually exclusive levels.
The historical and therefore hypothetically verifiable level.
The symbolic, resonant, lived level.
Don Cupitt in his now under-read The Sea of Faith, discusses the different levels of knowledge and belief can operate at. ‘Does this man believe in God?’ we might ask of a person. But Cupitt writes that this is ‘a question that narrows and deforms the issues.’ For Cupitt we ought to ask a kind of question befitting of the humanness, and by extension, nuance, of the subject. In his hands this ‘realist’ question becomes, ‘What job does God do, what part does he play, to what use is the idea of God put in this man’s thought?’ This non-realist view of faith implies that a person who has faith in God is someone for whom ‘the idea of God does some real work and plays a constitutive part in his thinking and in shaping his way of life.’
Here ‘faith’ is not dependent or really all that firmly connected to a verifiable truth or set of propositions. Rather, a belief is ‘made true’ in its embodiment — in how the implications of belief settle in action, perspective and paradigmatic shifts. By their fruit shall ye know them, Jesus warned. And this is pretty much what Cupitt is talking about here. William James said something similar:
don’t listen to what people say they believe - they are usually wrong - instead watch what they believe.
So with the resurrection in mind, we can see how a more cerebral faith might police the first level of meaning. But for the resurrection to mean anything, faith must graduate from a sophomoric yearning for tangibles, and believers must discipline their natural impulse to control. To let a belief inhabit our bodies is to participate in Jesus’ vision of the blessed who have not seen but believe. And this not some blind faith, but a worldview embodied.
The resurrection happened and it did not happen.
To learn to live in faithful commitment to this ambiguity is to bravely face reality. We do not know. The fabric of Christian experience is fidelity towards an event that no one knows happened for sure. To live at the realist level all the time is unthinkable; it will lead either to a well-earned atheistic rest or to head in the sand evangelical dogmatism.
But a higher calling is also a deeper calling. To claim ‘Christian’ as a label is to pin your colours to a mast of ultimate and creative ambiguity. And the only way to live in ambiguity is to allow faith to move from head to body. In this way I can affirm the resurrection.
If Christ has not risen, then our faith is in vain, Paul writes in Corinthians. But if Christ has not risen then is not everything in vain?
And yet we know by intuition that all is not in vain. We feel it in our bodies, with every act of un-ushered grace. In this way, simple and ordinary human kindness (which is really an everyday synonym for grace) makes a mockery out of every denial of the resurrection’s truth.
Foy Vance, one of Ireland’s most brilliant songwriters, captures this in his ‘We’re Already In Heaven’.
Everything is meaningless
There’s neither rhyme nor reason
To the order or the mess
Yet that sparkle in your eye.
We live the resurrection, fully aware of the folly and the risk. Yet eyes still sparkle and pints are still shared.
The resurrection didn’t just happen. It is happening.
Andrew Cunning is a theologian working in Belfast. His first book Theologian of the Ordinary is out with Bloomsbury in late 2020.