I am reading, summarizing and commenting on Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts. Today I want to highlight two related discussions in the book.
First, she connects the resurrection of Jesus to her view of the incarnation as God joining the physical universe. The resurrection does not undo the incarnation. It does not extract Jesus from his human existence and solidarity with the evolving cosmos. It does not turn him into a purely spiritual being.
This is the danger with the metaphor of transformation attached to the resurrection. We cannot imagine the result of the transformation but we most easily imagine it as becoming something non-material. She quotes Ambrose of Milan as saying, “In Christ’s resurrection, the earth itself arose.” With Jesus’ resurrection the corporeal life of the evolving world was lifted right into the heart of divine being.
This is the meaning of the New Testament’s insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was not just his personal vindication but that it predicted the fate of humanity and the physical world. It represented a down payment on something greater. It represented the first fruits of a greater harvest.
When we just consider what happens in biology, we see that new life arises out of death over time. But the cost in suffering, annihilation, and the extinction of whole species is high. The story of Jesus, though, gives hope that out of the pain of life God’s Spirit bears creation forward toward a promise beyond what we can imagine or empirically verify.
The mention of verification brings up the second point. Jesus’ resurrection has a powerful coherence with Christian experience, but it is not provable by science. Also the claims that God created the cosmos and that he will bring it to a life-affirming end are not the results of direct observation.
Johnson says we have to base these assertions on more than hunches and fancies. Her solution is to base the bookends of creation and last things on the insight of the community.
“Borne up by the conviction that God is faithful, the community’s understanding can then be predicated backward and forward beyond time, to where no experience can go” (p. 212).
She points out that this is what Israel did. Through the exodus, the Israelites came to an understanding of God that enabled them to affirm that this God created the world and also that he would redeem Israel in the future. The church’s experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit enable Christian theologians to do the same kind of thing.
“Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future” (p. 212).
I do not necessarily disagree with this. It is not much use in talking to people outside the community who have no such experience, though. There is an old metaphor about stained glass windows. From outside the church, they look dull and dark. But, when the sun is shining, they bathe you in glorious light inside the church. You have to go into the church to experience this.
There are grounds for believing things beyond empirical proof. John Henry Newman, Ian Ramsey, and the great Canadian Jesuit writer, Bernard Lonergan have all made detailed arguments for this. Newman wrote of an “iterative sense.” Ramsey talked about how a culmination of evidence and experience could cause the “penny to drop”. And Lonergan wrote a massive book about insight, which is actually an important theory of consciousness.
Epistemology, however, makes my head hurt. Like most people, I think I know what I know. But I get all tangled up trying to explain how I know it.