JOHN ALLEN: NCR's John Allen really needs to get a blog, as reading his entire weekly column in one sitting has become increasingly daunting. This week he has a follow-up on his interview with the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, debate within Israel's tiny Catholic community (some of whom speak Hebrew), reflections on the 25th anniversary of the election of John Paul II to the pontificate, and evangelizing Catholic youth in Italy.
HE IS RISEN!Camassia has been struggling with the historicity of the resurrection. She’s batted this back and forth a few times with Telford Work, so I don’t know what value my comments will add, but since she asked for help, I’ll give it a go.
I’m not sure the historical evidence for the resurrection is strong enough to convince someone who takes the view that something is false unless proven true by a preponderance of evidence. We are dealing with testimony that is almost 2,000 years old. You can always create plausible alternatives, particularly if you begin from the position that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible, and therefore can’t happen.
But those of us who do believe it aren’t completely naked before the bar of reason. We can ask how was it that a dispirited ban of messianists who scattered in fear after the execution of their leader suddenly returned to lives of public witness, even if it meant persecution and death? We can ask why first century Jewish polemic argued that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, therefore implying that there was an empty tomb that had to be explained. We can ask whether it is plausible that the disciples would proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even be willing to die for this belief, unless they were really convinced it was true?
Something momentous clearly happened. I suppose we can argue about what that something was. Was it a mystical experience? A collective hallucination brought on by religious hysteria? We have the testimony of the Gospels and of Saint Paul that the disciples encountered something that they knew to be the Jesus who they had known. The only compelling reason I find for discounting that testimony is an a priori belief that such a thing could not happen.
But are these the reasons that I believe in the resurrection? No. They are merely reasons why such a belief does not seem unreasonable to me. My belief in the resurrection is inextricably bound up with my belief in the community that proclaims it. I see the power of the resurrection projected over 2,000 years, like the original cosmic explosion that continues to power the growth of the universe even today. I see that the community that believes this truth is able to explain the riddle of our existence, is able to survive and thrive for two millennia, is able again and again, in different times and different cultures, to raise up people who push the limits of what it means to be human. I see a truth proven, not with arguments, but with lives that have become luminous because they have been lived according to that truth.
But couldn’t it still be false? Could the resurrection be no more than a comforting story that allows those who believe it to do extraordinary things, but that has no intrinsic truth in and of itself. But we might ask the same question about concepts like the “dignity and worth of the human person,” a concept that undergirds almost everything we believe about the right ordering of the relationships between human beings. How do we know that what we believe about ourselves is true, particularly after a century where so many political movements and tyrannical regimes seemed to be dedicated to the contrary proposition? I think that in the end, we believe in the dignity and worth of the human person because we have seen the great good that comes from acting as if that belief were true, and the great evil that results from acting as if that belief were false.
Truths are not merely propositions about reality. They are also maps that guide us to a destination and if we arrive at that destination, it is not unreasonable to place our trust in the map.
When I first considered converting to Catholicism seventeen years ago, my Presbyterian sensibilities made me alert to any evidence of Mariolatry. I was living in Zimbabwe at the time, and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the evangelicalism of the church to which I belonged, when every question or struggle seemed to be met by a rather glib quotation from Scripture, or, even more disturbingly, by an assurance that the person I was speaking to was praying for me and had received some special message or sign on my behalf. Why, I sometimes wondered, couldn’t Christ just speak to me direct, the way he seemed to do to everybody else? Paradoxically, this is not unlike the challenge that many non-Catholic Christians pose to Catholics: why pray through Mary and the saints, why not just go straight to Christ?
The answer is that we are part of a communion of faith, in which the dead no less than the living are our friends in Christ, and we can pray with them and ask them to pray for us. This is especially true of those whom we recognise as saints, who in their earthly lives manifested particular qualities, virtues and spiritual insights that make us aware of the transforming presence of God. And if any human being’s life was transformed, graced and sanctified in Christ, that human being is surely Mary of Nazareth, Mother of God.