More than a Parable? (Bruce Epperly)
Bruce Epperly returns today with reflections on the Resurrection. This essay follows up on a statement made earlier that unlike many Progressives he affirms a physical resurrection. As one who also affirms the same, I asked Bruce to flesh this out. In invite your thoughts and questions. I appreciate as well Bruce's willingness to share his insights with this audience.
MORE THAN A PARABLE?
Bruce G. Epperly
Last week, I spoke about miracles without supernaturalism, asserting that there is a deeper naturalism that opens the door to transformative acts of divine power, grounded in the divine- human “call and response,” that can change bodies, minds, spirits, relationships, and the planet. I asserted that if “we live, move, and have our being” in God’s dynamic presence, there is no reason to see divine activity as supernaturally breaking into our world. God is already here, acting in each cell and thought. Bathed in God’s presence, the world is more wonderful than we can imagine. Indeed, I believe the naturalistic theism that I suggest is more hopeful and transformative than the popular Christian picture of God acting supernaturally from the outside, sometimes healing and sometimes not. In the dynamic synergy of divine action and creaturely response, acts of power may occur, revealing deeper possibilities within the realm of cause and effect than we had previously imagined.
When I suggested that even Jesus’ resurrection could be seen as a deeper reflection of the interplay of God’s action and human openness, understood perhaps in terms of an energetic body, lively enough to be liberated from typical physical constraints, I took a rare stand among progressives, asserting that the resurrection may actually have occurred in space and time, and might even, in the words of Borg and Crossan, have been videotaped or captured on a cell phone photograph!
Now, I am appreciative of the insightful work of Borg and Crossan and find their text,The Last Week, a spiritual and theological gem. Yet, I wonder if there indifference to factuality of the resurrection narratives testifies to an Enlightenment and Modern, rather than Quantum and Post-modern understanding of reality. While I do not the mechanics of Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that in an energetic, multi-dimensional universe, it is entirely possible that Jesus, to quote Borg and Crossan, “really did appear to his followers after his death in a form that could be seen, heard, and touched.” (The Last Week, 191) Although Borg and Crossan agree with Paul’s recognition that without the affirmation that Christ has been raised, our faith as followers of the Way is in vain, they “do not think that it intrinsically points to the historical factuality of an empty tomb” or the resurrection appearance stories. (191) Borg and Crossan believe that the Easter stories are parables, meaningful truths, that assert that Jesus lives and that his mission has been vindicated personally and politically.
I agree with Borg and Crossan that meaning is at the heart of the Easter stories, and while we cannot prove the factuality of the resurrection from proof texts or eyewitness accounts, I affirm the likelihood that Easter is more than a visionary experience, though it surely falls into the realm of the mystic, paranormal, and miraculous (as understood naturalistically). If visionary experiences occurred in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, I contend they may have reflected God’s movements in the life of Jesus and in the lives of those who had visionary experiences! (Visionary experiences can reflect divine guidance and initiative.)
Something happened that radically transformed the lives of Jesus’ first followers – something that was more than a parable, but was embodied meaning. While I see scripture as inspired rather than infallible, I believe that the resurrection and post-resurrection testimonies of the gospels, odd and diverse as they are, point to an encounter with the Holy that gave new life to Jesus’ frightened and hopeless followers. Could Jesus really have breathed on his followers? Could they have felt a gentle wind or a healing touch? Could his life energy have materialized in a way that enabled Mary of Magdala, the disciples at the seashore, and Paul on the way to Damascus to “see and touch” the Risen One?
Now, I recognize that I have said too little for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals and too much for Enlightenment-influenced progressives. But, I hope I have something that will nurture faith that Christ is alive and can still move through our lives today. Our visionary experiences today are not merely personal in nature, but may emerge from God’s touch in our senses and psyche.
The tradition of mystical theology asserts that every discussion of divine action must take into account the interweaving of the kataphatic and apophatic understandings of reality. The kataphatic, “with appearances,” proclaims that the world is sacramental and that, in the spirit of Borg and Crossan, “Emmaus always happens.” (201) Kataphatic theology truly sees Jesus on the road and at table. Apophatic, “without appearances,” proclaims that the Risen One is always more than we can imagine and can never be pinned down in space and time. Apophatic theology finds its inspiration in Jesus’ words to Mary of Magdala in the Garden, “don’t hold onto me.” Jesus is not localized, not tied down by embodiment, but is everywhere.
Borg’s and Crossan’s recognition that the resurrection appearance stories are “the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death” (198) points to the “fact” that something happened, more than just a “parable,” in the lives of the disciples. The testimony from John’s gospel that “Jesus did many signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30) points to the recognition that Jesus is always more than we can imagine and that we may, in fact, live in a world in which lively, energetic, transformative, and meaningful resurrections are possible, and that in ways that we can’t fully encompass Jesus “met” his first followers and meets us today.
Could it be that many progressives are simply too “conservative,” too caught up in the limitations of the modern world view? Perhaps, we need to open the doors of our imaginations so that we might experience nature, in Blake’s language, as “infinite,” holding within the causal relatedness of life unexpected possibilities, resurrection events, and healing power.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary; pastor at Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA; theologian and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)