Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Quest for the Mythistorical Jesus (Part Two): The Witness of the Empty Tomb

Christians do not believe in the empty tomb, but in the living Christ. This does not mean, however, that we can believe in the living Christ without believing in the empty tomb. Is it just a "legend"? What matter? It still refers to the phenomenon ensuing the resurrection, to the presupposition of the appearance of Jesus. It is the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding. It cannot, therefore, but demand our assent, even as a legend. Rejection of the legend of the empty tomb has always been accompanied by the rejection of the saga of the living Jesus, and necessarily so. Far better, then, to admit that the empty tomb belongs to the Easter event as its sign. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2)
(Note: Barth employs the term "legend" in the sense that this article employs "mythistorical." Click HERE to read Part One.)

In 1924, Karl Barth (1886-1968) published a small treatise entitled The Resurrection of the Dead. Little did he realize at the time just how misunderstood this aspect of his overall theology would become and just how tenacious the ensuing controversy would prove to be. This was not helped by the fact that Barth's early writings on the resurrection seemed to diminish the importance of the empty tomb. For Barth, a preoccupation with the empty tomb took the focus away from the true object of our faith: the resurrected Christ.  Yet to his detractors, especially evangelical theologians like Carl F. H. Henry, Barth's position sounded like an outright rejection of the gospel accounts, which in turn sounded suspiciously like a denial of the resurrection itself.

In time, however, Barth's growing concerns with the demythologizing project of Rudolph Bultmann would cause him to change his tune. Bultmann had regarded the resurrection as "a mythical event, pure and simple," grounded not in objective event, but rather in the subjective experience of the disciples. Increasingly alarmed that Bultmann's radical existentialist approach had stripped the resurrection of Christ of any objective significance, Barth in his later writings began to place considerable emphasis on the empty tomb as "the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding."

This change in emphasis did not represent in Barth a fundamental shift in his theology of the resurrection as much as it did a development in his hermeneutical treatment of the gospel accounts. Barth had never held or insinuated that the resurrection of Christ had been anything but a physical resurrection or that the Church's faith in the resurrection was rooted in anything less than historical event. Barth's earlier statements that seemed to dismiss the "empty tomb" were not about denying the existence of a grave or a sepulcher located somewhere in or around Jerusalem, but rather about the legendary character of the resurrection accounts found in the gospels -- stories that differed greatly from one another in their details. Naturally, a physical resurrection would include an empty grave of some kind in its actualization in time and space.

Yet even if the tomb of Jesus could be located and identified this would in no way constitute historical verification of the resurrection, as there could be many possible explanations as to why the tomb was empty on the first Easter morning. Rather the resurrection of Christ could only be verified through the experience of the disciples and continuing faith of the Church. This is why the legendary character of the gospels posed no difficulty for Barth. Their stories of the empty tomb did not constitute actual eye-witness accounts, nor were they in any other sense historically verifiable, yet they bore witness to the Church's faith in Christ's resurrection in all of its objective significance, and thus the empty tomb stood as an indispensable sign that cannot "but demand our assent."

Naturally, such a nuanced position was bound to be misunderstood by fundamentalists and liberals alike. Generally speaking, in Barth's day there were but two ways of looking at the gospels: either in good literalist fashion as entirely historical accounts or as imaginative stories (more or less) crafted in the minds of the early disciples to explain the significance of their crucified master and/or the continuing experience of the "living Christ" within the early Christian communities. This is where Barth stood out as representing a via media or "middle way." Barth conceded that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb were not historical, per se, but rather were legendary in character. This did not mean that they were entirely fictional, but only that the stories bore the character of  imaginative responses appropriate for their time and culture. However, the living Christ to which they testified was the resurrected Jesus of history, not some otherwise existential figment of faith.

Barth's via media points the way forward in dealing with the gospel accounts as a whole. The true referent of the legendary witness of the empty tomb is the resurrected Christ, not the actual empty tomb itself or any of the other literary details of the different resurrection stories as they unfold in their telling. Hence, it stands to reason that we should not allow ourselves to get bogged down with attempts to explain other differences between the gospels: e.g. discrepancies, contradictions, different emphases, theological assumptions and the like. Such issues would be significant if we were dealing with competing historical accounts. But they do not matter in dealing with "mythistories." All that matters are the stories as stories and what they reveal to us about the Christ of faith. So, for instance, the question of whether Christ was entering or exiting Jericho when he encountered blind Bartimaeus, or whether two blind men met him there or just one (cf. Mark 10, Matthew 20, Luke 18), constitutes an unwarranted diversion away from what the "story-tellers" (i.e. the evangelists) actually want to tell us about Jesus, turning our attention instead towards fruitless considerations about the trustworthiness of texts erroneously regarded as historical accounts; as if to say that our faith was founded on a book (a Christian "Koran" if you will) rather than on the living Christ.

In the final analysis (as this post-catholic thinker sees things), Barth's via media rescues our faith both from the tyranny of textual literalism and from the relativism of radical demythology. The stories of the empty tomb are grounded in the resurrected Christ of faith, not the resurrected Christ of faith in the stories of the empty tomb. Likewise, the gospels are relative to the Church's faith in Christ, not the Church's faith to the gospels. Considered thus, the Bible assumes the nature of a truly revealed word from God en-fleshed in the words of its human authors.

Part One: The Problem Stated
See also: "Mythopoeia: Ancient & Modern"

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Babel-Fish & ID: My conversation with a proponent of Intelligent Design

(Note: Attempts to prove the existence of God empirically, like the arguments proposed by the Intelligent Design movement, I like to refer to as "Babel-fish" proofs, from Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

Let's just say for the sake of argument that I believe in an "Intelligent Designer" (even though this description has a deistic feel to it). Let's also say that I believe that this "Intelligent Designer" is the God and Father of Jesus Christ (which I do happen to believe). What I cannot concede is that the existence of this "Intelligent Designer," or any other supernatural designer, can be proven scientifically (i.e. through empirical methods of investigation). That's where proponents of Theistic Evolution differ fundamentally with proponents of  Intelligent Design, even if the latter concede that attempting to prove that this "Intelligent Designer" and the God of the Bible are one and the same is taking their position too far.

Here's my position in a nutshell, using the seasonally appropriate illustration of the empty tomb. The empty tomb is no more proof that Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter morning than is the existence of an empty coffee cup in my sink proof that I had coffee this morning. (I actually had tea, it was yesterday afternoon, and I just hadn't gotten around to doing the dishes.) There are many reasons why the tomb of Jesus might have been empty on the first Easter morning. His resurrection is simply one of the them. But it just so happens to be the explanation that Christians believe. It is also, in my opinion, the best explanation given all factors (including the empirical testimony of an empty tomb). But I cannot prove the resurrection ever happened. The empty tomb stands as a witness to the faith of the Church in the resurrection of her Lord, and thus as a sign and a testimony to all who will hear the good news.

Similarly, the intelligibility of the created order calls out for an explanation. I believe, after all factors are taken into consideration, that an "Intelligent Designer" (better yet -- a "Creator God"!) is the best explanation. I believe this. But I cannot hope to "prove" it, empirically speaking.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Karl Barth & the Empty Tomb: The Intellectual Futility of Van Tillianism

From Louis Smede's autobiography:
I was mesmerized for one semester by the boldness of Van Til’s thinking, but by the second semester I began to suspect that he was stretching a defensible theory of knowledge to the borders of absurdity. If true, it would mean that unless any two people had correct beliefs about God and about the world they could not have a genuine conversation about anything. How can two people talk respectfully together about interesting parts of reality — the economy, for instance, or the possibility of life on Mars — if one of them assumes that everything the other person says about anything is doomed to be dead wrong?
Van Til was convinced that if anyone’s assumptions about God are wrong, she cannot be trusted even when she says that she believes the gospel truth about Jesus. He wrote a book called The New Modernism in which he contended that the star theologian of the century, Karl Barth, was a modernist because, in Van Til’s view, he denied that Jesus was God in human form and denied as well that he had risen from the dead. The hitch was that Barth had affirmed these things over and over and, in fact, was largely to be credited with bringing the gospel back into the churches of Europe. But Van Til said that even if Barth shouted from the tower of St. Peter’s that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not believe what he was saying. His philosophical presuppositions would not let him.
Several years later, after I had finished my graduate studies in Amsterdam, I had occasion to put the question to Barth himself: “Sir, if you will permit me an absurd anachronism, let us suppose that a journalist carried a camera into Jesus’ tomb about eight o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and took pictures of every inch of the tomb, what would have showed up on his film?” Barth sighed. This again? He had been asked questions like this by every skeptical evangelical who got within shouting distance of him. But he was patient: “He would have gotten nothing but pictures of an empty tomb. Jesus was not there. He had walked out of the tomb early that morning.”
I told Van Til about this conversation. His answer was, for me, a final exhibition of intellectual futility. “Smedes,” he said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed. Conversation finished.
[pp. 68-69]
For more on Karl Barth's understanding of the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb read "The Quest for the Mythhistorical Jesus: The Witness of the Empty Tomb".

Hat tip to Kevin Davis.