Easter for Unbelievers

In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.

Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.

The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,

Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.

Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.

One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.

But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.

The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.

St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.

I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.

But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.

There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.

But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.

In that spirit, happy Easter to all!

 

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Hidden God

Porphyry, arguing against the resurrection of Christ, comments on the appearance to Mary Magdalene:

There is also another argument whereby this corrupt opinion can be refuted. I mean the argument about that Resurrection of His which is such common talk everywhere, as to why Jesus, after His suffering and rising again (according to your story), did not appear to Pilate who punished Him and said He had done nothing worthy of death, or to Herod King of the Jews, or to the High-priest of the Jewish race, or to many men at the same time and to such as were worthy of credit, and more particularly among Romans both in the Senate and among the people. The purpose would be that, by their wonder at “the things concerning Him, they might not pass a vote of death against Him by common consent, which implied the impiety of those who were obedient to Him. But He appeared to Mary Magdalene, a coarse woman who came from some wretched little village, and had once been possessed by seven demons, and with her another utterly obscure Mary, who was herself a peasant woman, and a few other people who were not at all well known. And that, although He said: “Henceforth shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds.” For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them, and no judge would punish them as fabricating monstrous stories. For surely it is neither pleasing to God nor to any sensible man that many should be subjected on His account to punishments of the gravest kind.

If the argument is that Christ should have appeared to rich people rather than to poor people, or to the government rather than to common people, and it seems that this may be Porphyry’s actual intention, his argument is rather weak, especially given things that Christ says in the Gospels about the rich and the poor.

But on the other hand, if one understands his argument to be concerned with the fact that Jesus appeared to his friends and disciples rather than to others, the argument is significantly better, because this is what we would expect in the case of a fraud on the part of the disciples. In fact, there are many situations where most people would assume the existence of fraud with this kind of testimony. For example, Joseph Smith managed to get eleven people to swear that they saw the golden plates on which he supposedly received his revelation,  but most people remain unconvinced by this, since there is little reason to think that his witnesses are unbiased.

Of course, things are more complicated in the case of Christ, since for example we have the testimony of St. Paul, who was originally not a disciple. Nonetheless, the argument is meaningful and should not simply be dismissed.

In fact, a reasonable Christian response to this argument requires a particular idea of Christ’s intentions. Porphyry speaks under the assumption that Christ wanted to convince everyone: “For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them.” Whether or not this method is sufficient, it is certainly the case that appearing to enough people and in enough ways would have convinced everyone. For that matter, Christ could have stayed on the earth for two hundred years instead of ascending to heaven, in order to ensure that everyone would believe in him, including Porphyry, if that had been his goal. In other words, the implication is that Porphyry was wrong about Christ’s intentions: Christ did not intend to convince everyone.

Given various things Christ says in the Gospels, this is not an unreasonable interpretation of his intentions. For example, he says,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Likewise, he suggests that not all are intended to understand:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” In a similar way, the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection implies the existence of a hidden truth that is, by design, only made known to some.

People arguing against Christianity might suggest that “ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind,” as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it.

And on the other hand, the Christian might suggest that given this position, things that seemed unfavorable to his position, such as the three issues mentioned in the linked post, are now favorable to it. Since the truth of Christianity is something intentionally hidden, such things are just what we would expect.

But both of these arguments, the Christian and the non-Christian, are wrong.

Mary Magdalene

St. John begins to tell us of the discovery of Jesus’s resurrection:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

It is not quite clear what the other disciple believed, given that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” St. Augustine interprets this to mean that they believed what Mary had said:

Here some, by not giving due attention, suppose that John believed that Jesus had risen again; but there is no indication of this from the words that follow. For what does he mean by immediately adding, For as yet they knew not the scripture, that He must rise again from the dead? He could not then have believed that He had risen again, when he did not know that it behooved Him to rise again. What then did he see? What was it that he believed? What but this, that he saw the sepulchre empty, and believed what the woman had said, that He had been taken away from the tomb?

In any case, whether it was this or something else, St. John continues:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

St. Augustine comments on the fact that Mary stayed at the tomb while the others returned home:

“But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.” For while the men returned, the weaker sex was fastened to the place by a stronger affection. And the eyes, which had sought the Lord and had not found Him, had now nothing else to do but weep, deeper in their sorrow that He had been taken away from the sepulchre than that He had been slain on the tree; seeing that in the case even of such a Master, when His living presence was withdrawn from their eyes, His remembrance also had ceased to remain. Such grief, therefore, now kept the woman at the sepulchre. And as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre. Why she did so I know not. For she was not ignorant that He whom she sought was no longer there, since she had herself also carried word to the disciples that He had been taken from thence; while they, too, had come to the sepulchre, and had sought the Lord’s body, not merely by looking, but also by entering, and had not found it. What then does it mean, that, as she wept, she stooped down, and looked again into the sepulchre? Was it that her grief was so excessive that she hardly thought she could believe either their eyes or her own? Or was it rather by some divine impulse that her mind led her to look within?

While St. Augustine finds it curious that Mary continued to look, he gives the explanation himself when he says that she “was fastened to that place by a stronger affection.” If we are looking for something, we will look more and harder to the degree that we care about it more. If we lose something and care about it a lot, we might very well search the same places repeatedly, even multiple times. Of course, this is usually because we think we might have missed it, but sometimes we even search again in places where there is no realistic possibility of having missed it. And in the case of Mary Magdalene, she could believe it possible that she missed some remaining clue. In any case, the very fact that she cared more than the others explains her behavior sufficiently; there is no need to rationalize every aspect of it.

In this account, Mary is the one who announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The Ambrosian rite describes this,

O worthy conversion, that merited to receive so great a gift, that she who was formerly deservedly held fast in the jaws of the ancient dragon, now rejoicing in complete freedom, should merit to be the first to announce the Lord’s Resurrection to the Holy Apostles.

In this way a close connection is made between Mary’s love and the fact that she was the first to recognize the resurrection of Christ. One who cares more about something, is more likely to find it.

Ratzinger’s Response

Ratzinger  begins to respond to the difficulties he has raised:

So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time. Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step. Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect—as a way—the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end—from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is.

After a discussion of the history of Israel and its understanding of creation in relation to that of Babylon, he says:

I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

Here he is referring to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as distinct creation accounts.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.  Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly re-adapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless. We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind—with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images. Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten—this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward—that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source. As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

There were two difficulties that Ratzinger originally raised. The first was, “Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial.” The second was. “If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?”

His response to the first is that it was in fact said earlier, in a way. It is implied in the Old Testament itself insofar as it describes creation in various ways, such as in the seven days of Genesis 1, but also as a single day, as in Genesis 2:4 and elsewhere. And it was implied by Christians insofar as they read Scripture in reference to Christ rather than simply as it is in itself.

This is a good response insofar as it goes, but something more is needed, because this does not explain why Galileo was put on trial, as he puts it. His explanation for this seems to be that people forgot the correct way to read Scripture: “Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten… As a result… there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology…”

There seems to be something true about this, but also something missing. St. Augustine would almost certainly have disagreed with those who condemned Galileo. On the other hand, it was not people of the sixteenth or seventeenth century who came up with the idea that the texts of Scripture should be mostly read in a literal historical fashion, and assumed to be true in that way. For example, I quoted in a previous post a passage where Lactantius says that we know pretty much exactly how old the earth is, because Scripture tells us. And his was not an unusual opinion. So while it may be true that the condemnation of Galileo happened in part because of a lack of theological awareness, it is also true that to some extent “it must have been taught differently at one time.” Even Ratzinger’s reponse, then, can only be understood in the framework of the development of doctrine. Yes, Scripture itself has implications for how Scripture should be read; but it took time for people to develop a fuller understanding of these implications, and this development took place not only during the time of the Old Testament, but also during the time of the New.

This leads right to Ratzinger’s second difficulty, because it is precisely the fact that we modify our way of interpreting Scripture that gives rise to the “disquieting consideration” that theologians might end up modifying our understanding “also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord.”

Ratzinger does not seem to have returned explicitly to this particular difficulty, but he has given a response in an implicit way. In essence, this seems to be that “we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ.” Everything is to be interpreted in light of Christ. Consequently we cannot reinterpret what happened to Christ himself, because there is no light in virtue of which we would be able to do that, but we can reinterpret other things. This gives us a way to say that the cross and resurrection are “absolutely central” and cannot be reinterpreted, but to allow such reinterpretation in other matters.

The problem with this response is that in the end it seems to say little more than, “If we ended up doing such a reinterpretation, we would no longer be Christians.” This may be the case, but it does not necessarily imply that it will not happen. In fact, this is precisely the reason that the consideration is disquieting in the first place.

There is a second part of Ratzinger’s response that implicitly bears on this difficulty, and this is his suggestion that if we read Scripture properly, and in the light of Christ, then there will not be any tension between science and theology:

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

Ratzinger has said that the basic point of Genesis 1 is that God created the world. Here he is saying that if you read the Bible in this way, and without making all sorts of other concrete claims that turn out not to be true, this is a reasonable understanding of reality and does not conflict with science.

The statement here is simply about creation, but if we take this with reference to the second difficulty, the implication is that once we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, all the tension between science and theology will be resolved fairly easily. But something is missing here. “God created the world,” is in fact a metaphysical statement and surely does not conflict with science, as he says, and it is quite reasonable. But reading the whole of Scripture in light of Christ requires, as he also says, maintaining more or less the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection. And saying that Christ rose from the dead is not merely a metaphysical statement. It is also a historical claim, and there is no reason in principle why such a claim could not conflict with scientific knowledge applied to history.

Of course none of these considerations could possibly show that the difficulty is right, and that one necessarily has to end up reinterpreting the idea of the resurrection. But on the other hand, there seems something lacking in Ratzinger’s response. Something more needs to be said.

Scripture on Sin and Death

According to the account of the fall in Genesis, one of the main effects of sin, perhaps the principal effect, was death. God assigns death as the reason that man should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” After Adam’s sin, chapter 3 ends with man’s exclusion from the garden and therefore from the tree of life:

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

If you take Scripture as a whole and ask, “What is it about?”, one reasonable answer would be, “Sin, death, and overcoming them.” Thus we have the account here where sin and death originate, basically at the very beginning of the Bible. And the last chapter of the last book of the Bible begins thus:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The tree of life has ultimately been restored to mankind. St. John adds a final warning:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The worst thing that can happen to you is to be deprived of a share in the tree of life.

It would be easy to show that this theme runs through Scripture from beginning to end. Thus for example Deuteronomy 30 concludes:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Here we see that fidelity to God leads to life, or to overcoming death, while infidelity leads to death. But this is a very imperfect overcoming of death, since at most one can “live long in the land,” and one still dies in the end. Consequently the book of Ecclesiastes complains,

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.

Later, he points out that doing good and doing evil appear to make no difference at all in the end:

Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

In the New Testament, St. Paul gives a theological account of overcoming death:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

One might understand many of these things in reference to a spiritual life, but in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes clear that a true overcoming of death requires a bodily resurrection:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We could many more indications of the same thing. The Bible as a whole can be seen as an account of the origin of death and of how it is to be overcome.

True and False Religion

What does it mean to say that a religion is true, or that it is false? The question is not as easy as it appears at first sight. Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christianruns up against this difficulty. In order to explain why he is not a Christian, he has to know what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

Thus Russell reduces being a Christian to believing in God, in the immortality of the soul, and that Christ was at least the best and wisest of men. Of course there are people who call themselves Christians who do not believe one or more of these things, and do not accept that you cannot call yourself a Christian without them. And other people might well give a different list. Thus for example St. Paul has his own requirements:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Thus St. Paul says that belief in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore in a general resurrection, is required. Otherwise “your faith has been in vain,” which would certainly seem to say that your religion is not true.

Of course, St. Paul is polemically exaggerating the consequences of the position of his opponents. In the first place someone could believe in the resurrection of Christ without believing in a general resurrection. Likewise, even if Christ did not rise from the dead, it does not follow of necessity that anyone’s faith would be entirely vain, but that it would be vain in some respect, since he would still profit from it in various ways, such as by belonging to a Christian community. Similarly, even if Christians have a false belief in the immortality of the soul, there would still be more pitiable people in the world.

We can learn from these two examples. Russell says that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” if you do not accept his list of three beliefs, while St. Paul says that “your faith is in vain” if you do not believe that Christ is risen. There is something common to the two. Some basic belief or beliefs are proposed, such that without these beliefs, it is not worthwhile to count yourself as a believer at all. For St. Paul, this has the form of saying that you should not bother to put your faith in Christ, while for Russell, this has the form of saying that you should not call yourself a Christian.

The basic difficulty is caused by the fact that being a Christian, considered in itself, is not a belief, but membership in a Christian community. Thus saying that “Christianity is true,” or that “Christianity is false,” ought to mean “belonging to a Christian community is true,” or that “belonging to a Christian community is false,” both of which are evidently absurd, since belonging to a community is not the kind of thing which is true or false. But since a Christian community happens to be a community of believers, we identify Christianity as a belief by saying that it is what that community believes.

But the problem is not resolved by this identification, for “what the Christian community believes” is somewhat indeterminate, since Christians believe different things. Russell and St. Paul resolve the issue in similar ways. Russell does so by saying that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” unless you believe certain things, presumably because it is wrong to deceive people about your beliefs. St. Paul does so by saying that your faith is in vain if you think that Christ did not rise from the dead, presumably meaning that it is pointless for you to belong to a Christian community.

Thus both of them are saying that unless you think that such and such is true, it is a bad idea to be a Christian, that is, to belong to a Christian community.

With this analysis we can say in general what it means to say that a certain religion is true, or that it is false. If I say that Mormonism is true, I mean that there are certain true things usually believed by Mormons, which make it worthwhile to belong to a Mormon community, given that I accept those things. Likewise, if I say that Mormonism is false, I mean that there are things believed by Mormons that would make it worthwhile to be a Mormon, if they were true, but in fact those things are false, and consequently it is not worthwhile to be a Mormon. Or more directly, I mean that there are certain things normally believed by Mormons which happen to be false, and the fact that Mormons normally believe these false things, makes it not worthwhile for me to be a Mormon.

Someone might object that this leads to relativism, since according to this analysis, it seems that a religion might be true for one person, but false for another. For example, in an interview conducted by Sergiu Hart, Robert Aumann, the author of the agreement theorem we discussed earlier, explains, among other things, why he accepts Judaism:

H [Sergiu Hart]: So that’s the Center for Rationality. I know this doesn’t belong, but I’ll ask it here. You are a deeply religious man. How does it fit in with a rational view of the world? How do you fit together science and religion?

A [Robert Aumann]: As you say, it really doesn’t belong here, but I’ll respond anyway. Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement “the earth is round.” It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn’t; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. But when you come to think of it, it is a very complex statement. What does roundness mean? Roundness means that there is a point, the “center” of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we canít get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn’t be able to get there. We certainly wouldn’t be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

Don’t get me wrong. We all agree that the earth is round. What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It’s a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people’s minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a “species.” Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say “Bob Aumann” is sitting here? Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I’ll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word “model.” Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite, orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children; you do all kinds of things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That’s the case with religion also. It doesn’t contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those two things coexist side by side without conflict.

Well, it is your way of putting it. Let me enlarge on it. The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society; it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

In short, you can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. In the eighties, copying software was considered moral by many people. The point I am making is that religion, at least my religion, is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society.

In the first part, Aumann is basically saying that science gives an idealized and approximate description of the world, rather than an exact description. In the second part he attempts to explain why he accepts Judaism, and he seems to be saying that it has little to do with the way the world is, and more to do with what is good for people. In other words, to explain it in the way we analyzed the truth of a religion, “Judaism is true” for Aumann because he believes that it is true that it is good and beautiful to observe the Sabbath, true that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws, and so on. And since these things are true it is worthwhile for him to be a member of a Jewish religious community.

You may or may not agree that the Sabbath is beautiful, and you may or may not agree that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws. But even if you do agree with these things, you probably don’t conclude that it is worthwhile for you to convert to Judaism. At the same time, you may realize that these things might well make it worthwhile for Robert Aumann to remain a Jew.

Thus our explanation seems to lead to relativism, because Judaism can be true for Aumann, but false for other people. However, there are several problems with calling this result relativism.

First of all, there was some remaining ambiguity in the way we defined the truth or falsity of a religion. Jews might normally believe certain true things, and given that Robert Aumann accepts those things, it might be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. But it is possible that Jews also normally believe certain false things, such that if Aumann knew they were false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. Thus, for example, a Christian would argue that Jews falsely believe that Christ is not the Messiah, and that if Aumann knew that this was false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, but to convert to Christianity.

Thus we could make our definition more precise by saying that a religion is true if it is worthwhile to belong to that religion even after you know the truth or falsity of all the beliefs that the members of the religion usually hold, and that it is worthwhile by reason of some of the true things that they hold.

However, this does not sufficiently answer the charge of relativism, because it would still be possible that one religion would be true for one person, and not true for another person.

For example, suppose that theism is true, but that no divine revelation has been given. If Aumann realizes this, he might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, and unreasonable to convert to Islam, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Jews and Muslims. Likewise, a Muslim, knowing the same things, might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Muslim, and unreasonable to convert to Judaism, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Muslims and Jews.

The answer in this case is that the situation simply does not imply relativism, because Aumann and the Muslim do not disagree about anything. Aumann may say, “Judaism is true,” and the Muslim may say, “Islam is true,” but when they explain what they mean and why they say it, they do not disagree with each other about any objective fact. This is no more relativism than it is relativism to admit that one person may prefer vanilla ice cream, and another person chocolate.

Thus, it is possible to mean something reasonable when saying that some religion is true, or that some religion is false. But in the end perhaps it would be better to avoid all the confusion in the first place, by following Robert Aumann’s example and simply distinguishing the question, “What is the world like?” from the question, “Is it, or would it be, good for me to belong to this community of believers?” Of course the answers to these questions are going to be related in various ways, but they are different questions.