Hallelujah!! And hmmmm...
Easter is a mixed bag for me as a Holy day. It is theologically...complex. If you dig into the Easter story of betrayal, crucifixion, death, and resurrection, you can tease out pretty much every important theological concept in Christianity. What is the nature of God, Spirit, and Christ and how do they interact with humanity and the world? What is the nature of humanity? How do we relate to each other? How do we relate to God, Spirit, and Christ? What is important about our bodies? Who was Jesus and what did he want us to learn from him? Is there a purpose in suffering and, if so, what? What is the meaning of Jesus' death? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead? with a fully intact body? If so, what does that mean? Is it possible we could also be resurrected? What does love, forgiveness, and grace add to the mix? Where does the ultimate power lie? I could go on...but you get the idea: it's all there in Easter.
As a person who studied some science, and who tries to stay up on scientific development, I have had little conflict in my progressive faith and science. They work together for me, rather than seeming in conflict, or as mutually exclusive systems. The exception to that is that it has always been difficult for me to embrace the idea of a resurrected body. This one seeming conflict has made me question and reevaluate what I believe about the nature of God. Could God somehow do this magic trick of intervention after death, but allow great suffering to continue during life? But without the magic of bodily resurrection, what happens to us? Is there no afterlife? Are there no second chances to do things better, or experience a better life? What about all the people who die young, die tragically, die from injustice? Or the people who live long but suffer greatly from illness or oppression? They are just stuck with that one life? Or if there is a bodily resurrection, what about all the people whose bodies caused them suffering? That doesn't seem just, or loving. So what, then, are we to assume about the power and nature of God?
At some point in seminary, I decided to set aside the very pesky issue of the "how" of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and focus on the "why" of it all. It seemed a more satisfying and meaningful theological inquiry, and one that would be more practical in doing ministry. And, after all, there is plenty there to sift through as well. Substitutionary atonement? Some other form of atonement? The inevitable conclusion of living a life of social and political rebellion in the name of God? This invited me to look for meaning in Jesus' life and death, and to see meaningful symbolism in a story about resurrection. This seemed relatable to human life in all situations and across all times. But that also made it appealing to continue to ignore the "how" of the resurrection. It's a mystery.
That seemed satisfying enough. After all, there's always a point in doing theology where one inevitably must declare "it's a mystery!" because none of really knows anything for sure in theology. We may have ideas - great ideas even - and ways to make most of the great ideas seem congruent with each other, but in the end, if you press even the most lauded, experienced, and published scholars, they will eventually admit that they don't really know anything for sure. It's all a combination of reason and faith. People who find that too discomforting tend to gravitate to those churches, pastors, and theologians who seem most certain that there is one right answer, but there is a cost involved in that.
One of the most important things I've learned from my theological education is that we all make choices about what to believe, what to preach, what to teach. And in making those choices, we much ask ourselves, what are the consequences? Might someone, or a group of people, be harmed in promoting these ideas over others? And if you believe that love is the ultimate guidepost, then choose the ideas that do the least harm, or those that can liberate people from suffering and oppression. Err in the direction of compassion, even if that leaves some ambiguity. If we are truly afraid that God will somehow fault us if we are wrong in some way, then we don't really trust love and grace anyway.
So, what are the consequences of setting aside the "how" of resurrection? Well, nature abhors a void. Without realizing it, that hole was filled in with ideas that went largely unexamined, because I was avoiding it while focusing on the "why." That may be fine for a while, but eventually, all those unexamined ideas poke through and start becoming relevant in unexpected ways.
After I began to examine what had filled the void for me, I realized that I was relying a lot on ideas that require a dualistic understanding of spirit/soul and body. I was comforted by the idea that my body could die and decompose as I know from science, and my soul could continue on to a life in God, or maybe even a new life on earth in another body. And dualism seems like it could easily be a built-in part of the system of life and death in creation. Something that happens automatically, without needing special intervention from God. But then what of Jesus's body? Did those on the road to Emmaus encounter a ghost? Or have a group hallucination? Or is part of the story made up in order to convey meaning? Or was Jesus so different from us that his body could be resurrected? No one really has the answers, but what makes sense based on what we do know about human bodies? And where can we place our faith that is most affirming of ALL human life and experience?
There are many theological traditions that support the ideas of dualism, both within Christianity and in other major religions. Understanding our souls as somehow separate from our bodies has become part of the cultural zeitgeist, even for people who aren't religious. If our souls or spirits are eternal and can be separated from our bodies, what does that mean for our bodies? What value do we place on bodies during our lifetime if we place our faith in leaving them behind? Especially for those whose bodies aren't healthy, or whose bodies are considered less acceptable and less valuable in our society (women, POC, transgender, fat, differently abled, etc.)?
Can we fully embrace our bodies - our own and those of others - if we believe they are just a temporary vehicle for our souls and therefore not truly part of what makes us, us? Does not the human experience require embodied life? Some would argue that God came to live with us in Jesus to experience the embodied life of being human. And if bodily experience were not necessary to understanding what it means to be human, could God not just have known us by relating to our souls before or after our time in our bodies? Others believe that all of us are part of the body of God. We are all part of the Divine Incarnation, and therefore, not only are our bodies necessary to us being us, they are also necessary to God being God. Either way, bodies seem essential to being human, to being us. Each individual body seems essential to being a unique individual person. That seems pretty important to how we view and treat our bodies, doesn't it?
What if we were to truly embrace that our bodies are us? We are our bodies. How might we treat ourselves differently? How might we treat others differently? And that's the rub with dualism. I want to err on the side of compassion for bodies - every body that exists. I want bodies treated well, treated lovingly, because I want people treated well and lovingly. But if I let go of dualism, and want to keep my scientific understanding of bodies intact, then I don't have answers for "how" resurrection really works. I have to go back to my understanding of the character and power of God...and mystery. And then my brain hurts.
I don't want to go back to setting aside the question of how, because dualistic ideas are persistent in our culture, so very likely to fill the void, and there's a powerful case to be made that those ideas are harmful to our sense of worth and worth of others. And even to the way we value all creation - but that's a post for another time. So, here I sit on Easter, celebrating the idea and meaning of resurrection, while also longing for some better resolution for myself about how. Hallelujah!! And hmmm....