A foxhole gospel

How shall the dead arise is no question of my faith. To believe only possibilities is not faith but mere philosophy.”

–Thomas Browne

Easter is not my favorite holiday. It should be, since I adhere to the Christian faith, and the event that this holiday commemorates is Christianity’s central fact and sine qua non. The resurrection of the Christ from death to life, the final impossibility and the signal that we, too, are more than, eternally more than the dust and ash we inhabit in this physical life. It’s the best news ever. He is risen. Hosannah in the highest!

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the fact that Jesus folded his wrap before checking out.

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the delightful fact that everyone raised as a Christian remembers…that Jesus folded his wrap before blowing the grave.

But it’s the very focus on that impossible fact that makes me fidgety. Faith is a strange thing for me these days. I don’t worry as much as I used to about what I call the “mechanics” of Christian doctrine, that part that explains how “the cross” is central to the entire “plan” that God has had in place since the dawn of time. I’m not exactly precisely concretely sure what I do believe anymore, but I know I don’t want or need my belief to be an edifice of logic or some scientifically arrived at construction, where failure in one part of the system means collapse of the whole. So the matter of whether Jesus rose from the dead is not as critical an item as it used to be for me. But the question doesn’t go away. We celebrate the resurrection and have done for two millennia, and we celebrate it not as metaphor but as an event that took place. So what do I believe really happened? Do I believe Jesus rose up from the dead?

Even the doubter has a place in God's kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

Even the doubter has a place in God’s kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

When this question presents itself, part of me answers No, of course not. I don’t believe that because it’s impossible. That answer has frightened me in the past, but I’m learning to accept it. It’s the only answer that a rational creature of earth, which is what I am, can return. The Reasoner in me says, people don’t rise from the dead, not by my experience or by any logic I know.

But I am not ONLY a rational creature, and in fact I consider it likely that my internal Reasoner is the least part of me. I am also spirit and body, and as I mature (if I mature), I become more and more alive to these other aspects of who I am. I think most Christians are able, unlike me, to convert or silence their Reasoner, or at least teach it to relinquish the wheel. A few let their Reasoners become monsters. Lately, my Reasoner is mostly asleep at the back of the bus, but this question is framed in such a way that it can only be fielded by the Reasoner. It’s a question about a fact, so I handle it in terms of likelihoods and probabilities and known data points. The answer that comes back is no, I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done.

And yet I pray to God every day with this same risen Jesus at my side, in the deepest place of belief inside me. I strive to live as though his resurrection secures my own, not only from a someday physical death but from my hundred daily deaths, my cowardices and failures and wrongdoings. I remember Thomas Browne’s dictum and tell myself that it is not necessary that what I believe in my heart be acceptable to my Reasoner. After all, everything physically possible is also merely inevitable; it’s the miraculous that makes the journey worthwhile. But if my Reasoner takes over, I lose my spiritual buoyancy.

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Lego scene by

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Jesus catches Peter as the disciple’s reason interferes with his deeper belief. Image of Brendan Powell Smith’s Lego scene found on Godbricks.com, used without permission.

There are many questions one could ask, and many ways to ask any given question. Since I desperately wish to be a capital B Believer, I don’t often ask myself whether or not I really think that this-and-such actually, factually happened. For all I know, nothing happens and everything I see and hear and think and do are just the eddies bouncing off of Cheerios in a bowl of milk in a dream inside the mind of a giant tortoise in a lagoon at the back of the North Wind. Those questions become increasingly unhelpful.

What is more interesting and more helpful to me is asking, where can I find evidence today of the God that I hope exists? I never have to look very far if I am open. And on Easter, I might ask what am I willing to let go of — what long-held grudge or too-cherished conception am I willing to let die with Jesus on this day, so that what rises up may be a better version of myself, and by better I mean more useful to others, and by useful to others I mean instrumental not toward some idea of their “salvation” in some prescribed way but toward the working out of their God-given journey however and wherever it may lead them.

I like William Bouguereau's vision of the women arriving at the tomb (Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it's spooky as all get out with that angle only half visible, and because the women express not only joy but also...something like worry or doubt?

I like William Bouguereau’s vision of the women arriving at the empty tomb (Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it suggests that even the first ones on the scene experienced confusion, worry, and maybe even doubt?

It may be a small faith and easily overwhelmed by the voice from the back of the bus, but it’s enough to celebrate with.


8 Responses to “A foxhole gospel”

  1. 1 spencer April 22, 2014 at 07:07

    I agree that doubt is a part of what makes us human, and that faith and doubts can coexist. However, I think it is important that the Reasoner remains skeptical of its own skepticism; however surprising the resurrection is from our daily experience, we can’t say definitively that it is not factually correct, and thus there remains room for faith.

    If the resurrection is not factual, then Christianity is no more than an enduring set of mores, no more valid than any other.

    • 2 Matt April 22, 2014 at 10:29

      Thanks for the comment. I LOVE this: “…it is important that the Reasoner remain skeptical of its own skepticism…” And this from a sciency guy. I’m going to pin that up inside the bus (my head).

    • 3 leatherhead109 April 23, 2014 at 18:41

      1 Corinthians 15:17 – 21 comes to mind. I hope I have that right…But it essentially expresses the fact that if we are wrong about this, we above all are to be pitied. I think, not because we would have wasted our life chasing a tale, but that our “hope” is such a victory, such a wondrous thing, that it would be crushing were it not so. It is a hope like none other. In fact, I’m betting on it, …but if I am wrong, I am satisfied with being so. What have I lost?

      Great post Matt! You know that I view it not quite the same, but I see your points and I’m in stride with you.

      • 4 Matt April 24, 2014 at 21:58

        Ben, given that we do each have a slightly different take on such things, your declaration of Solidarność means that much more to me. Thanks. I remember that verse, and you’ve expressed a very positive interpretation of it. (And you’ve said it so well!)

  2. 5 Barb April 22, 2014 at 19:53

    Matthew … Hang in there. Mark 9:24 XO

  3. 7 PCL April 24, 2014 at 16:42

    I like this post. Not being a Believer myself, but not feeling like a non-Believer or even a skeptic either, I like seeing how you frame and reframe things so as to be useful.

    • 8 Matt April 25, 2014 at 06:27

      Hi PCL,
      Thanks for saying. I’d like to see you at a hand-waving Pentecostal revival, just because I think you’d have such a kind, generous, thoughtful and entertaining perspective on it. Good to see you here, always.

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