Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Idolatry of Fundamentalism

There's a conversation I had several years ago with some clergy colleagues with whom I trained for ministry that sticks with me and comes back into my mind every year at this time. I've written about it before, but I think it's worth repeating. (If I'm still struggling with it, I bet others are, too.) At the crux of that discussion was a disagreement between us over the extent to which the hypothetical discovery of the not-resurrected, not-ascended body of Jesus of Nazareth would threaten our faith.

"If archaeologists were to discover the body of Jesus and were able to prove without a doubt that it was the actual body of Jesus of Nazareth, would you still be a Christian?" All of my friends said no, and I was astonished. For starters, let me say that I am a firm and resolute believer in the physical resurrection. I am convinced in my heart and my mind that the tomb was empty and is empty, and I believe in the physical resurrection of the dead at the last day when Jesus returns. (Call me old-fashioned, but that's what I believe.) At issue in our conversation wasn't whether Jesus was raised from the dead--we all agreed on that. What we were discussing was whether one needed to believe in the physical resurrection in order to be a Christian.

This gets to the heart of the issue that I believe is the most important, most substantial, and most controversial issue that contemporary Christianity is struggling with: how do we read the bible? Which parts are literal history and which parts are metaphorical truth? In which passages is the author allowed to exaggerate without defying the inerrancy of scripture (e.g. how many Israelites were freed from Egypt in the Exodus)? In which passages is the author allowed to estimate and not be wrong (e.g. the censuses in Numbers or the feeding of the 5,000)? Which stories were written to be stories, and which ones are we supposed to believe happened exactly as they are told to us? If we dismiss literality of the story of Job as an ancient teaching tool, what do we say about the flood? What about the walking on the water? The raising of Lazarus? The resurrection of Jesus? Where do we draw the line? How do we know what matters? And, most important of all, what happens to our faith if we let go of our literal beliefs?

What happens to Christianity without the physical resurrection? Can Christianity survive? Paul says no (1 Cor. 15:19). Lots of contemporary preachers and theologians say no. My friends, I think, would say no. Me? I'd like to say no, but I'm not sure if I should.

Thomas says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Jesus, of course, calls him out, not even giving him the chance to voice that objection, saying, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." That is enough for Thomas, who without touching the risen Jesus proclaims, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus' parting words are an encouragement to us--to those who live in a world that is governed by proof: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

When reaching out to the un-churched or the post-churched, setting up a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus as a sine qua non for Christianity is counterproductive. "Hi, my name is Johnny Preacher. Have you heard about Jesus?" the misguided evangelist might say. "He's the one who came back from the dead on the third day. Doesn't that sound like something worth believing?"

Likewise, I think we set ourselves up for disappointment, disillusionment, and cultural irrelevance when we internalize the physical resurrection of Jesus as our own sine qua non. If we refuse to consider a Christianity without the empty tomb--if we push that thought out of our heads as an impossibility--then we face the inevitability of the moment when all the proof that is available to us will be insufficient. Sure, we should believe in the physical resurrection. I remain convinced. But to believe that everything would unravel without it is mistaken.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Exactly. We can't see. And we can't ask people to see until after they believe. Beholding the physical resurrection of Jesus is a product of faith--not a precondition of it. We need to stop worrying about a Christianity that is losing its grasp on the literality of empty tomb. If the church is boldly proclaiming the power of resurrection, the world will see that the tomb indeed is empty.

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