Monday, April 06, 2015

The Walking Dead Meets the Resurrection

By Nik Ansell

The following piece comes from a chapel talk I gave at ICS on April 10th, 2012—almost exactly three years ago. The theme, echoed in the title above, was designed to appeal to fans of a certain TV series on AMC, The Walking Dead (the sixth season will air later this year), and to serve as a backdrop for some thoughts related to Easter.
Just before I spoke, we watched a clip from Season 1, Episode 6. Here our band of survivors find temporary reprieve from the Ultimate Zombie Apocalypse by entering the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA: the perfect place, one might think, for analyzing the disease and finding a cure. Needless to say, although the men and women in white coats are still on site, a cure is not forthcoming—indeed it turns out the basement generators are about to run out of fuel; for the characters in this show, reprieve is only ever temporary! Nevertheless, they (and we) do get some scientific analysis, courtesy of a computer playback featuring TS-19—a former scientist-turned-test-subject who, despite being infected by a plague that had already reached ‘ep(idem)ic’ proportions, still had the foresight to ask his colleagues to record What Happens Next. . . !

And so, on a screen within the screen, complete with a commentary from a certain Dr Edwin Jenner (the character is named, with not a little irony, after Edward Jenner, the developer of the smallpox vaccine), we get to see a brain with “ripples of light” running through its “organic wiring” before the synapses stop firing and it all fades to black. At which point, a technician is asked to scan forward to what is called the “second event.” Although in reality this occurs precisely “two hours, one minute, and seven seconds” later, in principle, our commentator tells us, it could have taken place anywhere between “three minutes” and “eight hours,” as what he calls “the resurrection times” “ vary wildly.”

So what happens in this second event, this “resurrection”? Although some of the lights come back on, the contrast is striking as we can see that the virus (or whatever it is) only restarts the brain stem, not the brain itself.  As our commentator explains, “Basically, it gets them up and moving. [But] it’s nothing like before. Most of that brain is dark. Dark, lifeless, dead. The frontal lobe, the neocortex, the human part—that doesn’t come back. The ‘you’ part. [Now it’s] just a shell driven by mindless instinct.”

In this particular case, the return from the dead is (in Hobbes’ phrase) “nasty, brutish, and . . . ”—thanks to a doctor-assisted bullet-to-the-brain—“short”! After all, the Hippocratic Oath does not extended to zombies. Other victims of the plague, however, will be “up and moving” for some time . . . !

Immediately after this very visual account of the “resurrection” of TS-19, we then listened to the long resurrection account that brings Matthew’s gospel to a close. You can read Matthew 27:62–28:20 (NRSV) here. What follows is the script that I prepared for my meditation. Whether you are a fan of The Walking Dead or not, and however you currently make sense of resurrection, I hope you find it helpful as a way of thinking through what we might call the ‘im/possibility’ of Easter.
AMC's The Walking Dead
A few years ago I was in a mainstream Protestant church where I picked up a pamphlet about the Resurrection. It was fairly predictable material. After Jesus’ death, the disciples continued to experience Jesus’ presence because they came to appreciate the true meaning of his life and mission. So they were encouraged to live in the same spirit. In that way, Jesus lived on in their hearts, and in their lives, by the Spirit. This was the form that God’s presence took for them. And this is how Jesus is present in and for the world today.

I am tempted to refer to this as ‘Hallmark card’ theology. But I also realize that I should not be such a snob about Hallmark cards. For although they are often bland and sentimental, they can also ‘hit the spot’ if sent by the right person at the right time. Sometimes, we express deep convictions in platitudes and clichés because the convictions are so deep and personal, we almost have to tone them down. Furthermore, the experience of a loved one still being with us after death is a very real and very profound experience. So rather than mock or criticize the pamphlet, I’d rather say that it is true as far as it goes. But I do believe we can go further.

One of the interesting things about Matthew’s resurrection account is the statement we find in 28:11, “When [the eleven disciples] saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Now one thing that has to be said about the experience of a loved one still being ‘with you’ is that you don’t doubt it. You might not have the words for it. It may coincide with missing someone terribly. You may not be able to explain it. But I don’t think it is the kind of experience you ‘doubt’ as such. So what Matthew is talking about here with the eleven disciples is a different kind of experience. One that might involve doubt. One in which doubt might actually be unavoidable.

Furthermore, although the Greek can be translated as “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted,” as it is in the NRSV, if we pay attention to Matthew’s writing style elsewhere, then it is not just some of the eleven that doubt. They all do. Grammatically the second pronoun is not used in a ‘partitive’ sense. In Greek, there is a hoi men . . . hoi de construction that means ‘some . . . others’. Hoi de (used on its own) can also mean, ‘some on the other hand . . .’ But Matthew doesn’t use hoi de that way anywhere else. So in 28:11, Matthew is actually saying: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but [they] doubted.”

The word Matthew uses for “doubt” here occurs in only one other place in his gospel: in Matt 14:31, when Jesus, after the ‘walking on the water’ encounter with Peter, says to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” In that narrative, worshipping Jesus follows fear and doubt. Here, it seems, seeing Jesus and worshipping him and doubting is something the disciples experience at the same time.

So why do the disciples have so little faith? Perhaps the last verse in Matthew’s gospel helps explain this. For here (Matt 28:20) Jesus tells the eleven, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The thing about the Resurrection is that no one was expecting it to happen in this age. It belonged to the Age to come, as the beginning of that age when it would be experienced either by everyone or at least by the faithful. The problem is not just that it has occurred at an unexpected time and to only one person, contrary to all expectations; the problem is with the ongoing reality of what Jesus calls “the [present] age”—which in this verse he sees as continuing for some time.

The disciples had no fundamental problem believing in miracles occurring in the present age. This certainly applies to the healings. Even the walking on the water, though it terrified them, was something they came to accept. But the Resurrection for them was of a different order. Why? What is the difference?

In our way of thinking, we tend to assume that possibility precedes actuality. Something has to be possible before it can be actual; before it can happen. So if the Resurrection actually happened as an event in space and time in the first third of the first century AD, then it must have always been possible, at least in principle. And if it was never possible, even in principle, then it didn’t happen. In biblical thinking, however, there is room to see things differently. For something can happen by the grace and power of God. And that happening can then change the conditions of possibility. Actuality and possibility are still connected. But possibility does not have to precede actuality. That means that biblically we can say: Before the resurrection of Jesus, resurrection was not possible. In being raised from the dead, Jesus, as the beginning of the new creation, makes resurrection possible.

This way of thinking is something that I think the disciples could have gone along with. The resurrection that they knew from the book of Daniel, for example, was not the extension or continuation of the present conditions of possibility. That way you get an ‘unreal’ way of thinking in which life gets extended beyond its limits to such an extent that it is no longer life. And perhaps we do end up with something ultimately grotesque, like ‘the Walking Dead’, if we try to think this way. It is this unreal ‘continuity thinking’ that makes ‘resurrection’ unbelievable for many people.

But the closest parallel to biblical resurrection in secular thought is probably the idea of revolution. For those with a biblical faith in the early part of the first century, resurrection meant the kind of change that would bring the old world order to an end. Not the end of God’s creation, but the end of this present age of injustice and death. For change this radical and this deep, one had to talk of a whole other age, the life of the age to come, a new creation.

What throws the disciples when they encounter the risen Jesus is the continuation of the present age, the ongoing existence of what should be the old age. This means that the Resurrection of Jesus is at odds with the world they are living in. Its possibility and actuality contradicts the possibilities and actualities of the present order. Which means that their problem is our problem. And that make their doubt understandable.

So how do we resolve it? Not by smoothing it over. Not by living in an unreality. Not by saying that the counter-reality of the resurrection is simply our way of remembering Jesus so that he may live on in our lives. But by attuning ourselves to the energies of the New Creation, which has begun in and through the life of the One we follow.

This is why Paul, who clearly sees resurrection as part of the final future transformation and consummation of history (see 1 Cor 15)—as something yet to take place—also sees the Resurrection as a “power” at work in the present age that is at odds with the present age. In Philippians 3:11–13 he even speaks about his desire to “attain the resurrection from the dead” in this life and thus “make it [his] own.” That is the actual language he uses. In an apocalyptic phrase that has been much misunderstood, he describes this as “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (3:13) not because he is turning his back on the original blessing of creation and not because he is looking to the future of this present order but because he is no longer oriented to what is destined to pass away. His focus is on fulfillment rather than on ‘more of the same’. The future he is living towards, the blessing that God always wanted for the world, revealed in the seed that dies in the earth before bringing forth fruit (1 Cor 15:35–38), is the future that has begun in Jesus; a future that, judged by the limits of the present age, is not possible.

In that sense, atheists see something that mainstream Protestant theology refuses to face. The Resurrection is at odds with reality. That’s the point! You have to choose which reality is going to energize your life. This is the challenge and hope of Easter:
Matt 28:16–17: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but [they] doubted.” 

Nik Ansell is a Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies. His work weaves together biblical studies, theology, and philosophy. Recently, he published The Annihilation of Hell, an interdisciplinary study of eschatology in dialogue with the work of Jurgen Moltmann. See Ground Motive's interview with Ansell on that book here.

Image used from The Chaparral.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Feasible and the Possible

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“What [humanity] needs is not just the persistent posing of ultimate questions, but the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now. The philosopher, of all people, must, I think, be aware of the tension between what he claims to achieve and the reality in which he finds himself.”

— Hans Georg Gadamer, Foreword to the Second Edition of Truth and Method, p. xxxviii.

As a philosopher, this quote has always filled me with hope. That may seem odd, given that it appears to be reining in philosophers, reminding us to keep our feet planted in reality, and naming the tension between what we want to achieve and what we actually can. But it is precisely in the realm of the possible, rooted in the here and now, that life in all its concrete, stubborn vividness emerges. Sometimes reality seems bleak or disappointing and one is tempted to head for the hills of theoretical abstraction instead of working with the tools one has to construct practical and possible solutions to messy concrete problems. And yet, time and again, I have found that the bleakest setting can harbour unexpected life anew. (This is of course a lesson that any Christian who has spent time thinking about the juxtaposition between Good Friday and Easter Sunday intuitively knows, but it holds true in many areas.)

Boethius, considering Lady Philosophy
What, then, is “the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now”? To know what is “feasible” and “possible” and “correct” one must first get to know the materials one is working with: reality in all its mud and muck, cold Springs and delayed rainy seasons. One has to move out of the realm of the abstract, and into the realm of concrete issues. As philosophers, so often we get addicted to those “ultimate questions”: What is truth? What is thought? What does it mean to be human? And in trying to pose those questions honestly—and they are certainly good and worthy questions to ask—we can lose sight of the here and now. The best philosophers, I would argue, are those who understand that “ultimate questions” are tied to “underlying questions,” without which they would not have meaning. Universals are senseless without the concretes that ground them.

So how do we as philosophers pay heed to the concretes that ground the questions with which we concern ourselves? To put it another way, how do we take reality seriously? Questions like “what is truth?” are fascinating in and of themselves, but when they are applied to situations like climate change (for example), they take on a whole new dimension. Suddenly they are no longer fascinating, but deadly real. We are changing the world, changing reality, every day, and not necessarily in good ways.

A recent article in the Christian Post provides a telling example of the importance of maintaining truthfulness and attending closely to reality. The article is a reply to a rebuttal; in particular, it defends a recent series of videos published by the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Office of Social Justice, videos that profile the damaging consequences of climate change in Kenya. As the Christian Post article details, climate change deniers at the libertarian Cornwall Alliance dispute the CRCNA’s conclusions about the effects of climate change in Kenya, conclusions reached after a group of CRCNA delegates actually visited particular regions in Kenya to hear from local farmers themselves. In order to dispute these delegates’ claims, the Cornwall Alliance cited statistics from the World Bank which state that the overall national average of rainfall in Kenya had not substantially changed in recent years. While the statement these climate-change deniers cited in support of their argument may well be true, it is far from truthful. As the Christian Post article points out, such a statement does not take into account the extreme variances in yearly rainfall that micro-regions have experienced. To put it in more generic terms, if in one year sub-region “A” of Country X experienced an increase of 40 percent in its rainfall, while neighboring sub-region “B” of Country X experienced an equivalent decrease in rainfall, it would indeed be truth that the combined average of rainfall for Country X would remain unchanged. Yet, as the Christian Post article details, the on-the-ground experience of those living in either region would have changed. Drastically. Statistics don’t lie, but they can be used to give a false picture, and the truth of a massive mudslide bearing down on you can’t be reasoned away.

What is truth? On issues of concrete importance (like ecological justice), working with the feasible, the possible, the correct, and the here and now is a virtue and quite frankly a necessity. And yet… what does “feasible” mean, really? Who sets what is “feasible”? These are also important questions, especially when one is dealing with something like ecological justice, because sometimes naming “feasibilities” can be used to shut down changes that are quite possibly feasible, but require a different imagination, or making difficult changes or doing something that isn’t popular—like sharing power, or giving up luxuries and preferential privileges.

What is correct, here and now? What is right, how should we act? These are, I would wager, questions that cannot be answered in the abstract—though that’s not to say that abstract thinking can’t be one part of helping decode them. They are not “ultimate questions.” But they are questions for philosophers (and everyone, really). Moreover, they cannot be answered in splendid isolation, by one Thinker contemplating Reality while sitting at her or his desk. Additionally, they are not only concrete problems, they are also communal problems that require collaborative work to address. To know what is correct for reducing carbon emissions here and now (for example), one needs a multitude of people—scientists, environmental advocates, government workers, policy writers, engineers, concerned citizens, and more—working in collaboration on concrete solutions to this concrete problem. The same could be said for knowing what is correct, here and now, for addressing injustices against the aboriginal community, or ending the conflict in Syria, or any other number of pressing, concrete problems that make up reality.

There is a tension between what we want to achieve (Justice for all! A healthy earth!) and the reality in which we find ourselves. But acknowledging this tension does not have to shut down possibilities: instead, it can keep us honest. What groups, projects, and communal work do we need to contribute to, to ensure that we develop feasible possibilities that achieve the reality we want to have? It’s a question the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics is asking as this academic year winds down and we start planning for next year. What do you think we should be working on? Let us know in the comments section, below.

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.

First image: "Libraries in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods Figure 1" by Unknown - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; second image: "Flood Destruction" by Axel Kuhlmann - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -; third image: Photo taken by Allyson Carr, used with permission.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Kill or Be Killed: Raylan Givens and the Justifications of Masculinity

This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.


By Shane Cudney

Kill or be killed. Few of us have ever faced this question in the moment of survival when instinct asserts itself and action can’t wait for deliberation. As a combat veteran, my son looked this hellhound in the eyes. While he was fortunate enough to leave Afghanistan at the end of his tour, Afghanistan never left him and he has never awakened from the nightmare. Living in a war zone does something to you. It brands you for life with the mark of hell.

For better or for much worse, the military, and every other institution, including most especially the family, are the training grounds that fundamentally shape men into who they are. These are the places where key questions are implicitly answered, the most significant of which is, what does it mean to be a man? If it’s still a man’s world, as they say, and if that world is marked by terror, violence and war, then what it means to be a man is even now inextricably linked to survival, the strategies it gives rise to, and the fear that informs them. F/X’s Justified (2010-2015), starring Timothy Olyphant, is an interesting vehicle that can’t help but explore these very questions.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Can Christianity Be Reduced to Love Seeking Justice?

By Ethan van der Leek

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Jószepf Molnár
The Bible is filled to the brim with stories, wisdom, and prophecies of God’s liberating energies. One of the founding and establishing moments of Israel was God’s act to free them from slavery and oppression in Egypt. This event is inaugurated when God sees his people’s misery and hears them crying out. The God of the Hebrews is an attentive God, a God who responds to suffering. And it is this attentiveness that he summons his elected people too.

The event of the exodus is etched into the memory of Israel and makes its mark throughout the Old Testament. It is established at the outset of the Ten Commandments, prefacing the law given to Israel as a mark of their covenant relationship with God: “Remember the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”. The law itself is filled with concern for the suffering; “care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”, God says, “proclaim a year of jubilee”. It is present in the Psalms, the songbook of Israel, as a call to remember God’s faithfulness in raising Israel from Egypt. The prophets, too, claim that Israel was not faithful to God and they expressed this unfaithfulness by oppressing the poor and the land, ignoring God’s call to be a light to the nations and establish a kingdom of love and justice; Israel forgot God’s act of liberation, and established themselves as oppressors and idolaters, for which the justice of God brought them to exile.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Expanding Our Response To the Call of Justice: An Interview with Gerda Kits

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Gerda Kits is Assistant Professor of Economics at The King's University in Edmonton, Alberta. Her research brings the insights of economics to bear on real-world problems, notably ecological issues such as agriculture and conversations surrounding the Alberta oilsands. Additionally, Kits is concerned with the ways in which people of faith interact with issues of justice, and her work attempts to help professionals and non-professionals better understand their place and role in the complex web of social and environmental issues facing us today.
The following is an interview carried out by e-mail between Dean Dettloff, Post-Conference Animator for the CPRSE, and Dr. Kits.
Ground Motive: Thank you for your willingness to participate in this interview, Gerda. To start, let’s talk a bit about the intersection of justice and faith. Our society seems to be ambivalent about whether or not faith makes a difference when pursuing questions of justice and their solutions. Some say it should be treated neutrally, as a personal commitment that should be held away from one’s research and projects. Others suggest faith is inextricably part of how one interacts with identifying injustice and working toward justice. What have you found in your work on these issues?

Gerda Kits: First, faith is one of the reasons many of us work for justice. Pursuing justice is an imperative for Christians – it’s all over the Bible. That’s not to say that all Christians have to work for justice in the same areas, or in the same ways; there are many different forms it can take. But we all need to be engaged somehow, because it’s an integral part of our faith.

But faith also shapes how we understand justice. Sometimes justice is perceived narrowly as simply respecting the rule of law, or not discriminating against people, etc. In my understanding of the Bible, Christians ought to have a much fuller and more holistic idea of justice as restoring right relationships, and making sure people are able to live out their God-given calling. That goes far beyond simply obeying the law, towards taking positive steps to ensure people have access to all the different kinds of resources and relationships they need to flourish. So the specific issues we decide to pursue, and the solutions we propose, are going to be fundamentally shaped by our faith as well.