In the summer of 1979, I left Harvard for the priesthood. I was twenty-four years old, newly married, and had been a first-year graduate student working towards a Ph.D. in American History. I was a restless student, less interested in history than I had thought I'd be. Something else was pulling me.
I had been raised in church. My father was a bishop. Now I wondered if God was calling me to ministry. Not knowing quite how to sort that out, it occurred to me to sit down and read the New Testament, which I had never done before in one sitting. Of the gospels, it was the Gospel according to St. John that struck me. Scene after scene, it invited belief that in Jesus Christ the world was face to face with God.
I wanted to believe that. My heart said yes. But now my head was bothered by a question. These things the Bible said concerning Jesus--were they true? If so, why weren't we discussing them at Harvard? In history seminar, Christ was seldom mentioned.
A little anxious, I began to poke around the Cambridge book stores, sampling scholarly perspectives on the history of the gospels. The results were mixed. Randomly, I opened a book by Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels, which fueled my doubts. A Harvard friend recommended Hans Kung's On Being Christian, which I found reassuring. Then I revisited C.S. Lewis, who so confidently reinforces St. John's message. Lewis readers are re-invited to believe that in Christ the Lord above had visited our world.
I decided to accept that invitation: I believed. This was a leap of faith, because the evidence was inconclusive. Belief in Christ seemed reasonable enough, historically, but a reasonable person, or institution, could also choose to disregard him. Evidently, that's what Harvard had decided. Originally, Harvard's university motto had been Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesiae, "Truth for Christ and his Church." That had long since been clipped to Veritas: "truth."
In faith, I was pressing forward, where Harvard had stepped back. And now as Harvard went, so goes our country. Church attendance is shrinking and polls show that unbelief is on the rise.
My ministry has been a thirty-five year swim against that tide.
There is a suggestion going around the church that beliefs are not especially important, because what matters is practice or behavior. I think that's nonsense, because beliefs themselves are consequential. Christian belief has played no small part in the history of our nation. Pilgrim settlers, Yankee abolitionists, and Southern pioneers for civil rights were acting on their creeds, to name just three examples. Erase Christian belief from American experience and the change would be dramatic, just as if one could magically replay our history with belief in liberty and rights extracted. We can prove that by just one man: Martin Luther King. Take away his Christian faith or his belief in the U.S. Constitution. Either way, we are left with a different man--and an altered history.
So beliefs are important.
In the Apostle's Creed we say that we believe that Jesus' painful death was followed by a miracle.
We believe in God the father almighty. . .We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. . .He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day, he rose again.
I do believe it. If I didn't, I wouldn't swim against the tide.
It seems obvious to me that for the truth of Christian faith the resurrection is decisive. It either happened or not. If not, my vocation is misguided and almost everything I preach and teach is wrong. On the other hand, if God truly raised Jesus from the dead, then by its change of motto Harvard was moving counter to a force far stronger than the tides. So either Harvard goofed or I did.
To the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that if the resurrection is not true, then Christians are, of all people, "the most to be pitied." On that small point, I disagree with Holy Scripture--and again I point to Dr. King. His resurrection hope impresses me as admirable, not pitiful--even if it were mistaken. I agree with Blaise Pascal: faith is a good bet. What we might lose by being wrong is less that what we gain by being on the money. With Dr. King in mind, it seems to me that, even were we wrong, we may be the better for it.
What is this resurrection and why do I believe it? We will start with "what" then turn to "why."
The Bible and creeds inform us that in Christ God himself was crucified. Good Friday is God's descent into our darkness, and Easter is Jesus' rise out of darkness into light. God descends that humanity may rise. This is an old, old Christian doctrine.
As a parish priest I have had a front row seat to faithful people's sins and struggles. That old doctrine bathes these problems in hopeful light. In Romans, Paul portrays baptism as a kind of death and resurrection. "We have been buried" with Christ, he writes, "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." There is a dying and rising rhythm to Christian life. The sins and struggles, which are expected, are prelude to something similar to resurrection.
I say "similar" advisedly, because Paul is using an analogy. He speaks of our dying and rising in relation to its source in Christ, which is a dying and rising of a higher order. Sometimes I hear colleagues speak as though our ethical or existential changes are the "what" of Easter, and this upsets me. Such talk collapses Paul's analogy, losing sight of its source in the miraculous event that changes everything: Jesus was dead and then he wasn't!
I understand this to have been an actual, factual, I dare say "literal" occurrence.
Keith Ward, the Oxford philosopher, agrees, and insists that for humankind the nature of this truth is pivotal. Ward writes:
"It is only if the resurrection is actual that the life of a crucified man can show not just that self-sacrifice has a certain tragic, useless nobility, but that Being itself is to be trusted, since death, however cruel, is not the end."[i]
I believe that. Why?
Part of it is history. I do understand the resurrection as an "historical" event, though some fine historians will say otherwise. Diarmaid MacCulloch, for example, has written that the resurrection "is not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or statement about truth." [ii]
Yes, it is a different sort of truth, but it is a truth that is said to have once appeared in history. Borrowing the phrase from T.S. Eliot, the resurrection was a moment "in, and out of time." Raymond Brown, the great catholic biblical historian, said that this is why scholars should investigate it. Brown did investigate it, deciding, as he put it "that the biblical evidence, even when re-evaluated by current scientific methods, continues to favor the idea of a bodily resurrection.[iii] Brown wrote that in 1974 in a little book titled The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. More recently, important books by NT Wright, Craig Keener, and Christopher Bryan have come to the same conclusion. The Christian claim that Jesus' resurrection was an actual event needs solid historical support--and it has it.
So history is important. But the reasonableness of Easter faith also draws from non-historical material, which is important too, because all knowledge is connected. Truth isn't like a box of straws: one isolated tube for science and one for math and another one for history. It is like a spider web--each segment connected to the others in a complex pattern. Belief in Easter fits within this wider web of belief and knowledge.
To illustrate that point, I am thinking now about America, beginning with Thomas Jefferson and John Adam's founding faith in a purposeful Creator, to whom the rights, liberty and happiness of human beings is important, and Abraham Lincoln's conviction that for the wrong of slavery the United States had fallen under divine judgment, and Martin Luther King's trust that "the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice." Let's connect some dots. Given the founders' Creator and Lincoln's Judge, King's belief in history's moral bent is logical, and it is no great leap to faith in Jesus' resurrection. It is the kind of intervention we could expect from a morally concerned Creator, whose eye is on the happiness of humans and who keeps a hand on history. Philosophers call this "holistic epistemology." One belief is supported by the others, and all are strengthened by the whole.
The support is mutual. Christ's resurrection validates our noblest American convictions, proving that our founders' revolutionary dreams were more than power plays or wishful thinking. They were truly on to something, as was Lincoln when he asked the crowd listening to his famous Cooper-Union speech to trust that "right makes might," and in that faith to dare to do their duty. With Christ in mind, we see the dying and rising rhythm in our national life. We expect the sins and struggles as prelude to something similar to resurrection. As we saw with Dr. King, Easter faith builds hope for American renewal.
Many and varied then are the reasons to believe in Jesus' resurrection, and they come at us from all directions. When I was young and considering the priesthood, I didn't see this.
Thank God, I didn't need to. My heart was hopeful and for me that was just about enough convincing. It still is. As Karl Barth said, "God doesn't convince us to believe by arguments; rather, God persuades by giving us joy; he gives us joy by being beautiful."
From my childhood until now, I've never doubted that the Easter gospel is a thing of beauty. John shows us Mary at the tomb, disconsolate. To a stranger standing there she whimpers, "They've taken my Lord and I don't know where to find him." Mary stands for everyone who was ever hopeless. Though she doesn't know it, she is face to face with God. The stranger answers, "Mary," and her eyes are opened.
Who imagined truth would be so beautiful?
Almighty God, who through your only begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life, grant that we who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord's resurrection may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
[i] Keith Ward, Religion and Revelation, 252.
[ii] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, Kindle edition, page 93.)
[iii] Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973),125-132.