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The Resurrection is not a Religious Event

by Pete Phillips, Premier's Head of Digital Theology

A highly colourful glass triptych representing the Cosmic Christ
Triptych of the Cosmic Christ, Chapel of the Redeemer, Mainz

I saw this post over at @3minutetheology (Justin Lewis-Antony's Twitter feed) which sees the resurrection of Jesus not as a religious event.

I wondered what was going on here. Thinking, perhaps, this was someone doubting the historicity of the resurrection. It never happened, it shouldn't be seen as being an event. But Justin included a passage from Herbert McCabe's classic text Love, Law and Language (from around page 142 depending on your edition), which says quite the opposite. For McCabe, the Resurrection isn't just religious event - something marginalised inside the church, some thing cut off from reality and from the horrors of the reality we live in or others live in.

The resurrection meant not just that a church was founded, it meant that the world was different: the church exists to articulate this difference, to show the world to itself.

Justin emailed me to say that 3minutetheology was a blog in its day - a kind of thought for the day...and now a provocative Twitter feed. I've followed...This idea of the resurrection being more a cosmic event and less of a religious event has stuck with me and grown into a deeper reflection on Easter...

A picture of Jesus in torment light above, dark below

In this picture of Christ's suffering, the moment when he cries out "my God, my God why have you forsaken me" - the beginning of Psalm 22 which is ended in his cry in John's Gospel - "It is finished". A sense of the cosmic nature of the act, the collision of light and darkness, the forces of creation shattering around him, the new creation birthed from his suffering.

Finished but born anew.

And so the McCabe passage - "Resurrection is a cosmic event."

I meant to ask Justin how this affects us today, this Easter. But in my haste I typed "how does this effect us". Justin replied - "The cosmic event effects us, without affecting us." The Resurrection happened, it transformed the very essence of being, the whole of creation, all of time and space and whatever else makes up God's creation. Everything is changed, transformed, recoded by the event. But in a way, that change doesn't ask us to do anything about it, isn't affected by our reaction to it. God is not a small god (Terry Pratchett fans will understand this) whose power grows the louder a congregation sings, by how punishing their holiness tradition, how fervent their social action. But rather God clears a space (church?) "for us to inhabit as a climate or a landscape - a place where we can see properly - God, God's creation, ourselves." (as Rowan Williams put it).

But rather God clears a space "for us to inhabit as a climate or a landscape - a place where we can see properly - God, God's creation, ourselves." (Rowan Williams)

Our response to the Resurrection, to Easter, is not a faith dependant on feeling God's presence, his resurrection. Faith is assent but not an assent God depends on. An assent to the way God has made things to be, an acceptance of God's act of self-giving, offering, and acceptance. An assent to the truth of the resurrection without the need to feel it, indeed, the resurrection itself is not undermined by my lack of assent - it's reality, it's purpose, it's being stands. God doesn't depend upon us to make it happen.

When we went to Rome before the lockdowns, my wife and I saw Michaelangelo's Pietà for the first time. Not just a picture in a book, not just re-presentation on a website, but instead the actual object. The beauty was amazing. The sense of grief. The flow of the tears. The love of a mother for her son. The fragility of Christ in death.

A photo of Michelangelo's Pietà, depicting Mary holding dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion

When I remember the scene though, I remember being distanced from the Pietà, cut off from it in some way. Wondering why, I reflected back and realised that the Pietà can only be seen behind glass. It's good, clean glass but it is still there. A barrier between us and the beauty of the Michelangelo masterpiece. I was struck by the sense of separation as I remembered the experience. The picture above, taken on my iPhone doesn't show the glass, it cuts through it and focuses on the statue itself. Although my wife took a more distant photo and you can see the glass clearly. But my mind made this an exhibition place rather than a place of encounter. A place where I became a tourist or art gallery visitor. Not a place where I met with my God, where I met with reality, the ground of my being.

There's a difference. In my biblical literacy work I know that there's a hint that reading the Bible under glass might feel more like an exhibition of the Bible rather than encounter; that those keen to engage with the Bible, keen for the Bible to engage with them, prefer the Bible in paper form, tactile form, multisensory form, rather than to encounter the text under glass. A need to be open to encounter, shaped by inhabiting the space God opens up for us. To encounter the divine.

Is this something of what Justin is getting at? That religion complicates our engagement with the divine, brings in layers of distraction, behaviours, liturgies, cultures which somehow seem to mix up the resurrection with them, with religion, rather than pointing to the absolute nature, the cosmic nature, the all changing nature of the resurrection as a cosmic event - something which Herbert McCabe and, more recently, Sam Torrance were more than happy to emphasis in their systematic theology.

The empty tomb. Feels like a forensic investigation scene.

The resurrection isn't an exhibition space - not a gallery to saunter through looking at the exhibits - not a place for us to sit and watch - not a place for Mary to hold onto Christ when eventually she sees through her tears in John 20. Indeed, when she does try to hold onto him, to make him feel her presence, to hug the reality of the resurrection, Jesus tells her not to touch him - noli me tangere - to let him ascend to the Father.

In Salvador Dali's picture from Biblia Sacra, the resurrected Christ has a reality which Mary now lacks. She is the rather ghostly figure delaying Jesus. But Jesus, wrapped in gold, dripping gold, purposefully strides ahead and upwards. Mary's action, which in our craving for acceptance and meaning, seems to important, is seen as an intrusion into the reality which Christ fills. He calls her by name, talks with her, affirms but...

Making the resurrection an exhibition, a place to meditate, halts the action, interrupts the fulfilment of the cosmic event, the rebreathing, recreation of the world. As John's Gospel hints at the recreation of humanity in the so called Johannine Pentecost, Christ breathing over the disciples - a new cosmic moment.

Happy Easter. How will we affirm that Christ's self giving, self offering, and God's acceptance becomes for us an event which changes creation itself. Not just a warm fuzzy hands in the air feeling, but an event of cosmic importance - an event which changed the being of everything.


Thank you for the tweet, Justin!


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