Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Meaningful Easter (Part Two)

Crossan and Borg move on from the Passion to a discussion of the resurrection.  They view the resurrection not from the Gospels’ scenarios, but from Paul’s perspective, “without presupposing the gospel accounts.”  They cite Paul’s primary resurrection testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8:

He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.   Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

The authors identify what they call “three surprises” in this passage:

1)  Paul claimed that his conversion experience on the road to Damascus occurred at least several years after the forty days of appearances reported in Acts.  This proves that Paul thought that such experiences of the risen Christ were continuing instead of being limited only to that brief time period.

2)  Paul’s descriptive language concerning the resurrection is associated with visionary phenomena:

“He repeatedly uses the verb ‘appeared’ not only for the experiences of Peter and the rest, but also for his experience, suggesting that they were in this sense similar… they were not the kinds of experiences that could have been photographed, as a literal-factual reading of the gospel stories would suggest.  To call them visions is also not to demean them, as if they were ‘only’ visions.  Nobody who has had a vision would ever say it was ‘only a vision.’  Rather, Paul’s experience of the risen Christ carried the conviction that he was real and could be known – but real need not mean a transformed corpse whom others would have seen if they had been there.”

Thus, Paul’s conviction that God had raised Jesus was grounded in his personal experience.  For Paul, the risen Christ was an experiential reality.

3)  Although Paul thinks that the resurrection somehow involves bodies, he also insists that the “resurrection body” is not simply the pre-death body resuscitated:

What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

“The resurrected body – including the body of Jesus – is a spiritual body:  raised imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power.  Clearly the resurrected body is not simply a physical body restored to life.  Then Paul adds:  ‘It is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit (15:45).  The risen Christ is a life-giving spirit, in whom we might “live and move and have our being”.

“…Resurrection is not about coming back to life in a form similar to one’s form before death.  Rather, the difference is as great as the difference between a seed that is sown and the full-grown plant that emerges.”

Hence, Pauline resurrection is not dependent on a tomb being empty on Easter morning, or on what may have happened to Jesus’ corpse after he died.  Like Jesus’ redemptive death, his resurrection is a parable of God’s love for humanity, and it is based not on physiology, but on spirit – which is “life-giving”.  It is also about God’s distributive justice, not his retributive justice:  raising Jesus up was God’s response to the oppressive domination systems that killed Jesus.  Jesus’ resurrection is a parable about the indominatability of the Kingdom  that he preached during his life, its Spirit-nourished resiliency now  transferred to the believer.

For Paul, life in the risen Christ – similarly to life in the dying Christ – is overwhelmingly spiritually transformative. 2 Corinthians claims:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another: for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (3:18)

We do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. (4:16)

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. (5:17)

The parallels to Paul’s presentation of Jesus’ death as a participatory sacrament are obvious:

“…Paul’s understanding of sacrificial atonement must be emphatically distinguished from Anselm’s interpretation of it as substitutionary sacrificial atonement.  Indeed, Paul’ls own interpretation of Christ’s execution was as a participatory sacrificial atonement.  That is why, in Romans, having mentioned ‘Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood’ in just one verse (3:25), Paul does not develop that further, yet spends a whole chapter on our participation in Christ (6:1-23).”

Paul’s entire soteriology is centered not in “belief about” Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Rather, it is centered in an active, inward, sacramental participation in Jesus’ dying-and-rising.  Jesus’ resurrection is not an event that happened “back then” and “over there”.  Resurrection-conviction is not a mere “belief about” something that happened once to only one individual.  It is a continuing, living reality which  participants have experienced and engaged in, from Paul’s day up to the present.  It involves acting on Jesus’ “Way” of dying to an old self, identity and way of life, making his dying-and-rising our own,  and being born into a new self, identity and way of life.  It satisfies the “Way” of ego-surrender and transformation found in all spiritual traditions.

Easter, therefore, with its celebration of the risen living Christ, is equally a celebration of humanity’s spiritual transfiguration from an old life centered in the anxious, grasping “egoic” self into a new life centered in Spirit and lived out in God’s Kingdom.  It is not an otherworldly superstition or burdensome myth.  It is a partaking in God’s own life, and a participation in God’s own nature, as described in 2 Peter 1:3-4:

His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life…through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power.  Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.

A Meaningful Easter (Part One)

This post will explore the contributions of New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan toward an appreciation of Passion Week and Easter, as recently expressed in The First Paul (Harper Collins Publishers, NY 2009).

It could be argued that Christianity, inasmuch as it claims to be based on the supernatural event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, is based on magic or superstition. Unlike Buddhism, for example, which is based on the Gotama’s teachings and a meditative practice designed to awaken or “enlighten” the practitioner, to the extent that Christianity places the resurrection center stage, it is often viewed as an impractical flight into otherworldly realms rather than a concrete set of testable and realizable spiritual claims.  Borg and Crossan challenge this idea through an exploration of New Testament (NT) resurrectional claims, especially as refracted through the prism of (Saint) Paul’s writings.

The authors point out that in the NT, Jesus’ death and resurrection are inseparable, as are the metaphorical and inward “death” and “resurrection” of the Christian believer.  Paul in fact intimately links Jesus’ death and resurrection with a similar process of “dying and rising” in the believer.  So we begin with Jesus’ Passion and Death before going on to consider his resurrection.

The authors start with a common, widespread Christian misunderstanding of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Most Christians seem to think that the Cross means that Jesus died for our sins; that Jesus is the sacrifice for sin; that Jesus died in our place (“substitutionary atonement”); and that Jesus is the payment for sin.  However,

“But this understanding is less than a thousand years old.  It first appeared in 1097 in a theological treatise by Anselm of Canterbury.  Its Latin title, Cur Deus Homo?… ‘Why did God Become Human?’ states its purpose…:

“Because of our disobedience to God [according to Anselm], we are all sinners .  Forgiveness requires that compensation be made… But our debt to God as an infinite being is infinite.  Therefore, no one who is finite can pay the price.  Only an infinite being can pay an infinite debt.  Thus the necessity of Jesus.  As the incarnation of God, he is that infinite being whose death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin pays the price of our disobedience.  Therefore [according to ehe operating processes of this system] we can be forgiven.”

The authors respond to and reject this common view:

“The problem is not with Anselm’s argument – its logic is impeccable.  The problem is that it is not what Paul meant when he made ‘Christ crucified’ central to the gospel.  Substitutionary sacrifice was foreign to his thought..[and] is bad history because it projects back onto Paul an understanding of the death of Jesus that did not exist in his time.”

Crossan and Borg group Paul’s understanding of the Cross into three categories:

1)  The Cross reveals the character of the Roman Empire.  Roman crucifixion was applied to two groups of people, those who challenged imperial rule (whether violently or non-violently) and chronically defiant slaves.  Common to both groups was rejection of Roman imperial domination.  “To proclaim ‘Christ crucified’ was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel.  The Empire killed Jesus.”

2)  The Cross reveals the “Way” of participatory atonement as a metaphor for the “Path” of personal transformation, involving an internal death and resurrection, dying to an old identity/way of life, and “rising” into a new identity/way of life.

“Participatory atonement does not mean Jesus died for us, and therefore we don’t need to.  Instead, it means we are to die and rise with Christ.  It is metaphorical language for a process of radical internal change… This was Paul’s experience….  About himself, he writes, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:19-20)…  Its metaphorical meaning, its more-than-literal meaning, is clear:  Paul had experienced an internal crucifixion, an internal death.  The old Paul had died, …[but]  a new Paul had been born.”

Paul identified one primary method of  receiving this kind of “spiritual heart transplant” in the sacrament of baptism, which he claimed meant dying and rising with Christ:

“All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).

Paul writes of this internal, participatory transformation using the language of sacrifice:

“I appeal to you therefore…to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God , which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

3)  The Cross reveals God’s character, inasmuch as Paul’s view conceives of Jesus as God’s decisive revelation; the authors succinctly state that for Paul and early Christians generally, in “Jesus, we see what can be seen of God in a human life… the death of Jesus – Christ crucified – reveals God’s character as love. God’s character is not wrathful, as if he needed to sacrifice Jesus instead of us.  Jesus’ sacrifice was not substitutionary.

“Dying ‘for’ someone and ‘sacrifice’ do not in themselves imply substitution.  This is true in ordinary language and also in the Bible.  In ordinary language, when people talk about somebody dying ‘for’ somebody, they seldom if ever mean in that person’s place.  Rather, they mean for that person’s sake or benefit. A parent risks her life and dies in order to save her child from a burning house.  A soldier leaps on a grenade… to save… his buddies….  One might say that the mother and the soldier died instead of the child and the buddies, but one wouldn’t mean as a ‘substitute.’  Rather, they gave up their lives for the sake of others.  They died that others might live.”

The authors point out that the term “sacrifice” is derived from the Latin sacrum facere, ” to make something sacred by offering it to God.  Hence most sacrifices in the ancient world were gifts to God.  They were not usually or primarily appeasements or tokens of propitiation.  Religious sacrifices served the purposes of making thanksgiving, where gratitude alone was the motive; of petition, as for instance in times of community peril; as reconciliation, a means of repairing or overcoming a breach in the community’s or the individual’s relationship with God.  This crucial issue – that sacrifice was not normally about substitution, is explained:

“When an animal was sacrificed, the notion was not that God was punishing an animal instead of a person; it was not about an animal suffering and dying instead of a human being….  Paul’s language about Jesus’s death as a dying ‘for us,’ as a ‘sacrifice,’ does not in itself mean that Jesus was being substituted for us.  Indeed, we need to make the statement stronger.  To see Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin is to import into the notion of sacrifice a meaning that it did not have in the ancient world, including the world of Paul. Indeed, substitutionary atonement theology is completely counter to [Pauline] thought…  ” (blogger’s italicization).

(The present writer agrees with this assessment as far as it goes, but finds it surprising that no mention is made of that famous paradigm of ancient Hebrew sacrifice, the scapegoat.  This unfortunate animal does seem to embody the sins of Israel and its “shunning” and driving away into the desert do seem to require at least a modest idea of  substitutionary sacrifice.  Perhaps the authors will address this issue in future editions.)

And again:

“A caution: this passage [2 Corinthians 5:14-21 / par. Romans 8:31-39] uses the language of God’s ‘agency’ in the death of Jesus – God ‘gave him up.’  The language should not be literalized.  When it is, it suggests that the cross was part of God’s ‘plan’ – that it was God’s will that Jesus be crucified.  To think this is strange and [it] leads to a strange theology.  What kind of God would would require the death of this extraordinary human?

“The passage is not about divine causation, as if God willed the death of Jesus.  Rather… the use of a parent-child metaphor emphasizes the depth of God’s love:  God was willing to give up ‘his own Son’ for our benefit.  That is how much God loves us.  The death of Jesus as God’ s Son is a parable of God’s love for us.  And a parable should never be literalized – to do so would be to miss the point.”

And finally:

“… we come to the phrase ‘a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.’  If it does not mean substitutionary atonement, what does it mean?  Did Jesus sacrifice his life?  Yes….  Did Paul think [Jesus] died as a substitute?  No.  Did Paul think his death on a cross had atoning significance?  Yes.”

Considering Borg’s and Crossan’s Passion thesis, it becomes clear that Paul intended Jesus’ sacrifice-atonement to be not a substitutionary killing, but rather, a participatory sacrament in which Christians partake of Jesus’ 0wn death.  Baptism is one way of participating, and there are others.  Christianity claims that Jesus is “the Way”.  As Borg points out elsewhere, a way is a road, a path. The NT exhibits Jesus’ “Way” as a dying-and-resurrection.  And this concept is not confined only  to the crucifixion-and-resurrection narratives, but is a pre-crucifixion theme in Jesus’ own teaching.

Jesus makes an analogy to seeds in this regard:

“…unless a grain of what falls to the ground and dies, it remains just  a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and however hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).

Luke puts it like this:

“…”If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24).  Luke views death-and-resurrection (“saving” one’s “life”) as a gradual, even a daily process – a “way of the Cross” enacted and partaken of over time.

Paul says:

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me… the Son of God who has loved me and has given himself up for me”  (Galatians 2:19b-20).

Regarding Jesus’ death, the NT does not rely on magic or superstition.   But it does rely on a mysticism in which the Christian is said to actively but inwardly participate in Jesus’ self-giving/life-giving death.  Part Two will explore how the NT also applies this pragmatic mysticism to the redemptive meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.