How Can We Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Resurrection, Luca Giordano, 1665

Some nights, Cafechurch gets philosophical. Alister's first degree was in philosophy, and it's hard to break early formation! What follows is a pretty dry summary. the actual evening was much more interesting, and conversational, than you might think. For a slightly more narrative, less explicitly philosophical take on this, you might enjoy a sermon I preached at Easter - Practice Resurrection

Next week (14/5/19), we are going to ask the question: What does the resurrection of Jesus mean to me?

What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Jesus? At one level, it is a version of the question that has been preoccupying Western philosophy since Socrates went around annoying the great and the good of Athens: How do you know anything - and how do you know that you know it? How on earth could anyone have a firm belief about something as mysterious and historically inaccessible as Jesus' resurrection? It isn't available to strong empirical proof either way. It seems to come down to a sense of what feels plausible - a more likely fit with the shape of the world. Do we inhabit a world in which the dead rise, or a world in which there are no miracles?

Following Charles Taylor's A Secular Age we posited that what seems likely to me is driven by my parti pris, that is, my prior commitment, both philosophically, but also at many other levels. Which suggests that it might be possible to become someone who can believe in the resurrection by changing one's prior commitments. It's vital to know that what you think is obvious is mainly inherited from your culture, and especially your particular subculture. He refers to this as "the conditions of belief."

While it is possible (if often difficult) to know things accurately, knowledge is corporate, and a lot of what you think you know is handed to you from culture. It's up to you to decide whether to engage with it critically or just swallow it whole. That applies both to people brought up as Christians, but even more so to people who were brought up outside the church (because the sort of people who write the script for our culture - the media, judiciary, and so on - generally buy a non-Christian perspective, so Christian perspectives are less commonly presented.

We then suggested a philosophical approach known as Critical Realism to suggest that, far from being entirely irrational, to believe in the possibility of miracles is to acknowledge that the universe has many levels of possible explanation, and that, if there were a God, it would seem perfectly reasonable for God to be able to work within the natural order in order to bring forth God's purposes.

Having established that as an idea, we then introduced Michael Polanyi's idea of tacit knowledge to begin to ask what sort of knowledge that knowledge of the resurrection actually is. Tacit knowledge is like learning to drive a car (especially a manual.) Initially it's clunky and you're always keeping an eye on the gauges, remembering to look around you, use the indicators, fuss around with the clutch. But soon enough it moves out of head knowledge into a sort of embedded knowledge where the car can feel like an extension of your body. Similarly, the knowledge of the resurrection isn't just an idea - it's something that one lives into.

The second idea from Polanyi was that of the corporate nature of knowing. The primary example of this is science. How do scientists cope with knowing that some things that they believe are untrue - but have no way of telling which ones? The answer is that they are part of a community of practice who hold one another accountable for the truth, and it is this truth-seeking community in which scientists trust. There is a parallel with the Church. Like the un-named disciple Jesus loved in John 21:7 who said "look! It's Jesus!" we are responsible for pointing one another to the truth, practising resurrection together.

Finally we asked: how does one go about practising resurrection? How do we go about changing our parti pris? Humans are story creatures before we are logical creatures, and so the way to do it is at the level of story. How do we immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus and God's work in the world such that Resurrection becomes the sort of thing we might expect of God? The answers are, I'm afraid, boringly old fashioned.

Immerse yourself in Scripture - both through exegetical Bible study, but also through imaginative practices such as lectio divina and imaginative gospel contemplations.

Prayer - both the traditional intercessory and praise prayer you were probably taught about at youthgroup, but also meditative practices, especially scripturally focussed oned. I use Pray As You Go basically every day, and I commend it (its got a website, but also an app for daily prayer.) The Examen is a way of practicing looking out for Jesus in your life (you can use Pray As You Go, or the Reimaginin the Examen app or old fashioned paper book.) Consider getting yourself a spiritual director, and even making the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius

And don't neglect corporate practices - I've already suggested how important they are. The Eucharist, as well as other sorts of worship, are fundamental to geting your parti pris in order. Join in a Holy Week journey (that's the week leading up to Easter), especially from Thursday evening to Sunday to enter into the story as fully as you can.

This approach is fundamentally similar to that of Lesslie Newbigin, as expressed in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, who in turn draws on Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi. I've enriched it with the account of the "conditions of belief" from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Well worth a read, all of them.

Image: Resurrection, Luca Giordano, 1665