Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 8/12 Post

The resurrection, and it's various implications, provoked tension within the early Christian movement, both while it was contained within first century Judaism and later as it spread and came in contact with ancient religions and philosophies. Within early Christianity, for example, some came to see it as the means through which God elevated Jesus to the status of unique Son of God and Lord. Others, who eventually became the majority, saw the resurrection as confirmation of the Son's preexistence as a member of eventually came to be called the Trinity. Obviously, I've oversimplified a complicated story, but my only point is that historically the resurrection tends to generate rather intense debates.

With regard to science, my hunch is that we may be misunderstanding one another. When I say the resurrection is beyond the scope of science, I mean something quite specific: the classic scientific method. The scientific method, as you know, requires the formulation of theories. Theories must be subject to experimental test. Furthermore the results of such a test must be repeatable in order for the theory to be accepted. The resurrection, on these terms, is not available for scientific verification.

The most we might do is state that the content of current knowledge makes such an event unlikely to the nth degree. Even here a bit of caution is in order. A given theory may be overturned or revised by new data and new experiments. In some cases, perhaps most often in physics, we sometimes find that new theories and experiments require that we expand our picture of the universe to accommodate realties that do not seem to mesh well (think of the classic problems posed by a universe that seems to make room for Newtonian, Einsteinean, and quantum physics).

So, for example, Einstein's understanding of the universe cannot allow for instantaneous communication between twin particles separated by enormous distances (the old speed of light limit). As it turns out, though, quantum theory plus experimentation confirms that at the quantum level, reality works that way. Why? After decades of multiple theories, it seems to me no one quite knows why. At this point in time, we simply know Einstein's theories work at the macro level and quantum physics theories work at the quantum level. As one writer put it (more or less): It turns out that the more we discover about the universe, the weirder it becomes.

I do not believe the current state of science encourages a return to the "God of the gaps" approach, but I do think it encourages a rediscovery of humility before the mystery of reality. As a result, I tend to treat science as an extremely useful tool among several tools I use to understand and make sense of the universe, including human life.

Being a theist, my worldview posits God the Creator who remains at work within and from outside his creation. We, of course, differ with one another at this point. Given my perspective, I do not so much "take refuge in God" as assume God may work in ways beyond my current comprehension. The resurrection falls into that category. By the way, such an assumption does not stop me from trying to expand our understanding of how the universe works. In fact, it rather pushes me to try to learn more.

All of the above is quite general, but it seemed to me that our conversation required it.

Changing gears, some Christians would argue vigorously that the resurrection understood as an event within history changes the entire equation of history, serving notice to the "powers" that they may not claim it as their realm and that their days are numbered. Those who take such an approach believe that any other approach to the resurrection robs it of such power.

I do not agree. I've known too many people who take the approach you advocate and who are empowered by it to follow the way of Jesus. My hunch is that God makes good use of either approach to advance his way in the world. Personally, I find the two approaches enrich one another as they play out in my mind, heart and imagination.

If you like, we can continue this particular conversation. Otherwise, I'll move on to the next portion of the Sermon on the Mount.


MaryAnn said...

Mike, I'm sorry you never directly addressed Rami's original question -- what would Christianity look like if the resurrection were not part of it. Both Aaron Herschel and Rami reiterated the question and you still didn't seem to hear it. Your response was well worth reading, but skirted the issue entirely.
I think perhaps your belief so deeply embraces the resurrection that you can't even conceive of Christianity without it, which is a very profound answer in itself.
This has been a very interesting exchange. Thanks to you both.
Rabbi Rami, we are delighted that you are now our scholar in residence at Micah!

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. Maryann, I've not understood Rami to be asking that question, but I'll be glad to try and address it.

I rather doubt we would be discussing Christianity had there (a) been no resurrection, or (b) had the first disciples not believed resurrection had occured. Belief in the resurrection fueled the emergence of the Christian movement. Without that belief, I think it likely the first disciples would have faded away. Jesus himself might not be much more than a footnote in history.

Let's assume, though, that a form of Christianity managed to emerge and last without a resurrection. For the sake of the discussion, let's also assumed that a body of literature emerged, consisting primarily of the teachings of the Jesus, but little else.

My best guess is that Christianity would have evolved into a wisdom movement. I do not think an organized "church" would have emerged. Instead, teachers would have played a primary role in instructing those interested in learning the way of Jesus.

For what it's worth, I suspect this general model is attractive to a fair percentage of modern Christians, and capable of intersecting any number of cultures.

Brief as this note is, I hope it starts to address the question you raise.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. First, thanks for the welcome, Maryann. Second, I think Mike is right. Without belief in the resurrection and all that goes with it, that is without belief that Jesus is more than a mere human and is in fact the literal Son of God, the Jesus would have been one more liberal voice in the Talmud and Midrash.

You can see what happens when the resurrection is removed from the picture by looking at Unitarian Universalism for example. As belief in the literal Son of God waned UU began to see itself as post-Christian, and, for many UUs, nonChristian.

I myself cannot imagine a vibrant creative Christianity without the resurrection, I just have no need to see it anything other than mythic. But this too may be a stepping stone on the way to losing it all together. Once we begin to read religion as myth, there is no point to restricting yourself to one faith in particular, and we might all end up like Joseph Campbell, conversant in all faiths and committed to none.

Part of me finds this approach very compelling, and I am closer to Campbell than I am to those in my own tradition who read Torah with a literalist and/or parochial eye.

MaryAnn said...

You're right, Mike, I clearly misinterpreted Rami's question, which was "If there were no resurrection, how would your love of Jesus and your commitment to his teachings change?" Quite different from what I was looking for.
I think resurrection is so intrinsic to your belief that it would be unthinkable to imagine things otherwise. There's nothing wrong with that! That's a very profound answer in itself. As Rami says, we Jews are more into questions than answers. Often the answers to our questions turn out to be questions themselves...
John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, writes a lot about Christianity without resurrection and other core elements most Christians take as Gospel. I found myself in agreement with many of his ideas, but I'm Jewish! Minus these things, one probably doesn't end up with Christianity at all, while even without historical evidence of Sinai and the Exodus, the heart of Judaism is basically unaltered.
I, too, am closer to Joseph Campbell. I think God speaks to us in the language we understand best, and there are many stories to choose from.