Monday, 24 March 2008

The oxygen of truth or the dephlogistication of the Resurrection . . .

Wittgenstein mused in 1930:

What inclines me even to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & and we are once more orphaned and alone. And we have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed, – I need certainty – not wisdom, dreams, speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What fights doubt is, as it were redemption. Holding fast to it must be holding fast to that belief. So this means: first be redeemed and hold tightly to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding on to is this belief. So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do.
Ludwig Wittgenstein MS 120, 12 December 1937
Culture and Value (rev. ed.), Oxford 2006, Blackwell Publishing pp. 38-39e

-o0o-

Before coming obviously to my Easter theme I want to begin with something fundamental that underlies everything I am trying to do as a minister. (The first few paragraphs here own a great deal to the work of the American philosopher Paul Weinpahl as outlined in his Radical Spinoza.)

In essence what I am seeking to do here is to help you, in whatever way you can, to grasp that the world is NOT made up of discreet things existing independently but that it is, instead a Unity. This Unity is not made up of entities but IS simply Being and modes of being. So, for example, a tree is an arboreal mode of being and you and I are modes of being - human beings. Additionally we may note that actions, such as Loving can also be understood as a modes of being.

This has many profound practical and ethical ramifications. For example our understanding of our relationship with Nature changes. Instead of seeing it as a separate realm of individual things to be acted up and ruthlessly exploited we realise it is Being itself expressed in an infinite number of modes - and that it includes us. When this Unity is truly realised then we cannot but help act more diligently and compassionately towards each other and the world - sentient or, apparently, non-sentient.

All of the profound practical and ethical ramifications unfold in some way from an individual's recognition of ultimte identity with everything else - we are all modes of being of the Divine Unity. So in a real sense John Lennon got it right in "I am the Walrus" when he sang "I am you as you are he as you are me and we are all together." So too did Jesus when he prayed that we:

. . . may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:21-23).

However, (and slightly in parenthesis today) we need to be a bit careful about inappropriately over doing this. There are times when it is appropriate to distinguish and to understand finite modes of being as different from each other - otherwise we undervalue something about the diverse nature of the Divine Unity itself. Weinpahl wittily points out, for example, when opening a bank account we rely upon having an identity, however, in true loving we abandon it. It takes wisdom to know when to acknowledge distinction and when to experience more fully the underlying unity.

To repeat, all that I am trying to do as a minister is to get you to realise yourself, intuitively and intellectually, that ultimate reality is only Being and its modes - a Divine Unity - and to it you already belong and you always have and will always be.

This is my way of saying that, in so far as you can grasp this truth, you are saved and have eternal life now (I'll be more explict about exactly what I mean by this towards the end of this blog). As a finite mode of this Divine Unity what enables you to be will forever be resurrected into new life. Everything - every thought and every atom - is redeemed in the Divine Unity.

'Cosmic' though this may sound, especially when so baldy and perhaps even dogmatically stated, I needed to summarise it because it roots what comes next although it will feel, in the first instance at least, like a move from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous - but hang in there!

Last week on a great Radio 4 comedy show called The Museum of Curiosity John Lloyd and Bill Bailey met with their guests for the week: Jonathan Miller, Marcus du Sautoy and Philip Ball. The conceit of the show is simple. It is a virtual museum into which the guest can deposit anything they like - real or imaginary - after having talked, entertainingly of course, about them. John Lloyd does the interviewing and Bill Bailey - the museum's curator, provides the music and additional witty comments.

It was Philip Ball's gift to the museum that set me off this week. For those who don't know him Ball is a freelance science writer and a Consultant Editor for the respected science magazine "Nature." Anyway Ball, a chemist, wanted to deposit in this imaginary museum an imaginary element: phlogiston. Brilliant eh?!

For those who don't know in the seventeenth century it was proposed by some scientists that in all flammable materials one finds phlogiston, a colourless, odourless, tasteless and weightless substance which is given off during burning. Substances that contain phlogiston they called "Phlogisticated" and, on being burned, they were called "dephlogisticated." The burnt remains were believed to be the true material substance of the thing itself. This theory was eventually replaced by Lavoisier who revealed the true nature of combustion - oxygen.

The phlogiston theory was wrong but it was posited because, at the time, it provided a plausible answer the question of what was going on when something burned. In what consisted burning was misinterpreted but it can be seen as part of the ongoing scientific inquiry into truth. With further research and reflection a better theory was put forward, tested and found to be a better description of the facts. It is important to realise that supporters of the phlogiston theory such as Becher, Stahl and Priestley were not liars and dissemblers it is simply that, though getting some things right, they got the overall answer wrong. That's the way scientific enquiry unfolds and though those early chemists they were wrong we still honour them for the preparatory work they carried out.

It remains my contention that the Easter story we inherit, though correct in certain respects, as a whole simply doesn't get the overall answer right. What phlogiston is to chemistry the literally understood resurrection is to the philosophy I try to teach here.

Orthodox, traditional Christianity claims that when we die here on earth we do so "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ." This position developed, of course, out of a belief in the literal truth of both the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection (although don't forget that in the earliest texts of Mark there was only an empty tomb and the Resurrection story was added later) and the well known passage by St Paul from I Corinthians 15:12-15a:

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.

But, for all kinds of reasons, like many modern people, I simply cannot believe in the physical Resurrection of the individual man Jesus. Even if I wanted so to believe I don't think it would be possible because I really do understand the world to be of a wholly different nature from that understood by the Gospel writers and St Paul. To put it bluntly I think it can clearly be shown that they were utterly mistaken and consequently their accounts of what they believed occurred are false.

However, like Becher, Stahl and Priestley, this doesn't make them liars or dissemblers, nor does it mean that in their false belief they didn't intuit something that WAS true. In other words it is not quite right simply to say that their faith was in vain, nor does it mean they deliberately misrepresented "God." In fact I think they did intuit something true about the world, it is just that they attached it to something inappropriate - to something that could not, ultimately, truly bear its weight. They attached their insight to Jesus just as Priestley et al. attached their insight to phlogiston.

During the intense final days of Jesus' life, through the arrest, the trial and the execution, through the emptiness of loss of Good Friday and Saturday they clearly thought, prayed and reflected very deeply on the matter of what on earth Jesus was teaching them.

I think there is good evidence to show that it was always something to do with our ultimate identity with God-or-Nature - we were all "his" sons and daughters, God's kingdom was amongst or within us, we were all one with the Father and Jesus, - everything taught us this the ravens, the sparrows, the foxes and the lilies. Can you imagine what a redeeming revelation of this nature would do to you in the depths of such despair and fear? Suddenly realising this unity, this identity with everything, may we not conjecture (though it is impossible to know for sure - for me as much as for any bible believing conservative evangelical) that the disciples momentarily saw through the window - the icon - of Jesus to a vision that somehow nothing, no-thing, is lost - no thought nor any atom - and they understood that everything which dies is always reshaped and made anew? To a vision in which everything is redeemed by the creative Divine power that enables all things to be and which endlessly and creatively reshapes itself according to its own necessary and immutable laws?

Of course you may argue that this is as speculative - perhaps more so - than any traditional Christian understanding of things. But is it really? It is worth noting that some kind of radical underlying unity may be real is not simply being asserted by "head-in-the-clouds" mystics like me across all the world's religious traditions but is also being considered in all kinds of scientific circles including those concerned with ecological issues and quantum mechanics. Time and, on the scientific side good research, and on the religious side, good living, will tell. As Jesus wisely taught: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

So let me be absolutely clear - I think Jesus really did die and decompose in the grave like every other human being who has died before, and since. I also believe that he can be for us only a teacher and, because we cannot meet with him face to face to discuss faith, belief and praxis right here and now, despite the records of his often sublime teaching, it is true he can no longer help us.

For those of us who grew up within Christianity - like Wittgenstein who I am following here - and who were taught that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity and so also God - this realisation can make us feel terribly orphaned and alone and, being presented with, let alone coming to this view oneself, can - and often does - make some people feel that life is like a hell in which, suddenly we are shut out from heaven.

But whenever we intuit and experience directly the Divine Unity we are doing, I think, what Wittgenstein is asking us to do when he memorably says to us to 'suspend ourselves from heaven.' From that eternal perspective - though it is to some degree it transcends all perspectives - then of course everything is different.

So, yes, Jesus died but God-or-Nature itself is always being born anew. The Divine Unity is beyond all final death and when we recognise that we participate in this Divine Unity then we, too, know something of this eternal life. Though we know we, like Jesus, will die one day in another way we are truly resurrected to a new kind of life once we have glimpsed everything under the form of eternity. It is no wonder that with this view in our hearts we can begin to do what we couldn't before which is to live fully in this world as true sons and daughters of God.

Happy Easter.

1 comment:

Frank Du4 said...

I realize this a few months tardy, but just wanted to leave a quick note to let you know how much I enjoyed your 24 March entry on the Resurrection. I have been a member of a UU congregation in Frederick, Maryland for almost a year, and a seeker of spiritual truth for many years longer. Yours is one of the first statements I have found expressing my exact feelings on the truth of Jesus, i.e. his divinity and place in the trinity. I have also experienced a feeling of being orphaned by other Christian believers, but truly feel in my heart the words which you expressed so well. Thank you.