Foreword (Full Text)
- I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I want to state this on the first page, so that no one can mistake my meaning, or accuse me of disbelieving this central fact of the Christian faith.
- I don't object to being told that my understanding of the resurrection is different from someone else's. I don't object to being asked, ‘Yes, but in what does the resurrection consist?' — because that is precisely the question this book is concerned with. But at the end of the day I wish to stand with St Paul, who launched Christianity into a pagan world with the bold statement, ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless, and your believing it is useless' (1 Corinthians 15:14). If I did not make that statement my own, I could not write as a Christian.
- What I do object to is the suggestion that in this book I am using resurrection-language without really believing in the resurrection at all. That is equivalent to saying, ‘Only my idea of resurrection is valid.' This is a presumptuous presumption, if I may put it like that. The opinion of recent theologians is more varied than many would imagine. The purpose of this book is to make their thinking available to a wider public than it generally reaches. I am convinced that this can do nothing but good. It may help the faith of many to grow, as it is meant to, from childish naïveté into adult understanding.
- I feel that of the books in this series1 the present one is likely to cause the most misgivings. Many people think of the resurrection as a kind of longstop. I have in mind those who, at the beginning of this century, grudgingly allowed scholars to turn their critical attention to the Old Testament, ‘as long as they don't touch the New Testament' and then later reluctantly allowed them to trespass on the New Testament, ‘as long as they don't touch the miracles', and later still under protest allowed the critics to make new appraisal of the miracle stories, ‘as long as they don't touch the resurrection'. In the 1900s the pioneer Roman Catholic scholar Lagrange was removed from the then tricky field of Old Testament studies and steered into the ‘safer' area of the New Testament. But the wishful thinking behind this move was not essentially different from the wistful thinking of a recent scholar who concedes that one can question the miraculous nature of every single work of power attributed to Jesus, but then concludes, ‘Was the resurrection the only miracle?' The New Testament is the Old Testament's, longstop, and the resurrection is the longstop for its miracles. Interfere with the resurrection, they seem to say, and we shall all be in trouble!
- In a sense these people have been right. They were wise, after their own fashion, to put up such a strong resistance over every inch they were forced to cede. At least they were more logical, and certainly more perceptive, than the liberal scholars who were so enthusiastically engrossed with the scientific task in hand that they never bothered to consider the consequences. The conservatives knew that the critical approach to the Bible could not be confined to the Old Testament, nor the investigation of the New Testament avoid the miracle stories, nor a discussion of the miraculous exclude the resurrection. Anyone who fears the journey's end should never start on this particular journey. It is naive to forbid awkward questions on the resurrection once they have been posed. Far better scotch the questions at root, and forbid scholars to meddle with the scriptures at all. Indeed this has been the declared policy of fundamentalists during every age of the Church's history.
- But of course these people have also been profoundly wrong. Their attitude, for all its logic, is based on the assumption that critical research erodes people's faith. Certainly, if it does, one would have to ask what sort of faith these people had. But it is sheer silliness to make bogeymen of all scholars, and to imagine that they are either agents of Satan infiltrated into the Church to undermine its faith from within, or at best deluded fools who do not know the damage they are doing.
- Of course, the demands which scholarship has made on the Christian community, have always been painful. To reassess one's past understanding and reintegrate it into a new one is never easy. But the long-term result has always been an enrichment, never an impoverishment. Thanks to the work of scholars, the religious insights of the Old Testament can today be more readily appreciated than in the days when our only concern seemed to be to defend the historically and morally indefensible. The gospel too speaks more clearly, now that biblical theologians have helped us to distinguish between its timeless message and the time-bound context in which it was written. The New Testament miracles, perhaps for the first time in years, are again taken seriously by secularized readers whom the exegesis of experts has taught to ask questions appropriate to the stories and relevant to their lives. Finally our own decade, which has seen more scholarly work devoted to the resurrection than any other age in the Church's history, has allowed a 'remythologization' which has liberated many who, without it, might have felt compelled to abandon their Christian faith.
- The word ‘demythologization' is in vogue. For many people it has a sinister ring. They associate it with watering down and debunking. They could never use the word ‘myth' of the resurrection because that for them would put it in the realm of fairy stories and fantasy. ‘The resurrection is not a myth, it was an event', they say.
- They need to be reassured. To call something a myth is not to dismiss it as a legend. There is nothing more real, or more true, than a myth. Myths are in fact what we live by. They are the symbols in which we express our deepest insights about ourselves and our universe. They are the poetry in which we express what we are2 and what we hold most dearly. The truths we live by, the values on which we base our lives — these can only be expressed inadequately, and in an indirect and symbolic way. Our most profound hopes and fears, the things we most yearn for and the things we most dread, our attitude to the ultimates in our lives — God and the world, life and death — these are not subject to mere logic and scientific analysis. They cannot be spoken of except obscurely through the medium of myth.
- This means that no one can ever 'demythologize' tout court, as if the reality embodied in the myth can be held or expressed ‘neat'. All that a 'demythologizer' can do is to make sure that the myth is recognized as myth, and not mistaken for a pedestrian scientific description. But what the myth speaks of will always need to be fleshed out in one form or another, and any attempt to ‘take off the wrapping' necessarily entails providing another one so that the mystery can be handled.
- ‘Demythologization' therefore would more accurately be spoken of as ‘remythologization'. Only it is important that the truths we live by should be expressed in a myth which is meaningful to us. To continue to express them in a myth which has gone dead on us means that the reality itself is in danger of dying on us.
- That is why scholars have recently been turning their attention to the resurrection. It3 did not occur to past generations of Christians to ask awkward questions about the traditional stories of an empty tomb and a dead man coming back to life to walk and talk with his friends. The stories ‘found' them where they were, and spoke deeply to them. The Christian of today is not always in that situation. The secularized world in which he has grown up, and the world-view he has inherited, seem to relegate the resurrection stories to a never-never land which has nothing to do with his everyday life. Does there need to be this dichotomy between his faith and his living? Is it possible to express the meaning of the resurrection in terms of the world as he knows it, not of some other world?
- What is the resurrection concerned with anyway? What is the underlying reality to which it refers? To say that the resurrection is real does not say enough. The question is, What sort of reality are we dealing with? What exactly does a Christian commit himself to when he says of Jesus that ‘on the third day he rose again from the dead'? Can the underlying reality be remythologized, reformulated by us without our betraying the faith of those who handed it down to us?
- These are the questions to which recent scholars have addressed themselves. This book, like the others in this series, presents their deliberations and conclusions. These may sound strange to those who are coming across them for the first time. I hasten to assure them that my purpose is not to shock or destroy, only to inform and build up. The questions which are being asked of the resurrection today may shatter some of our most treasured assumptions, but they can also lead us away from superficialities to the heart of the matter. Nor may we escape these awkward questions by dismissing those who pose them as ‘second-rate scholars': I have gone only to the most serious and respected, and wish only to act as their reporter and popularizer.
- And if I am asked why I should wish to enter into such a controversial area, I can only reply in the words of G. K. Chesterton: ‘I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean'.
Footnote 1: See H. J. Richards, The First Christmas: What Really. Happened? Fontana, London 1973; The Miracles of Jesus: What Really Happened? Fontana, London 1975.
Footnote 3: The rest of this paragraph constitutes the book’s “Cover Blurb”.
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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