The Problematic Resurrection

In Long Night’s Journey into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust,[1] A. Roy and Alice Eckardt contend that Christianity in the post-Holocaust world must come to greater terms with its inherent Jewishness. Say the Eckards, “the Christian revolutionary will insist upon a genuine reaffirmation of Jewishness, which entails radical historicalness” (Eckards, 125). While Judaism has always maintained its fundamental belief in the meaningfulness of history, with the event of Jesus Christianity has come to under-emphasize history in favor of a more spiritual understanding of the world, and in so doing has effectively denied a fundamental trait of its Jewish roots. This devaluation by Christianity of the relative importance of history, contend the Eckards, is deeply problematic for Christianity: “the fact stands that a widely accepted theological schema gnaws at the vitals of the Christian church, a schema according to which, in effect, the Cross-Resurrection-Parousia is made into a solely decisive series of events, salvationally speaking” (Eckards, 126-127). According to this view, the Resurrection is an event which transcends history and takes precedence over it. All of history is measured in relation to the Resurrection, and no single historical event or series of events can be understood to meet or supersede it in significance. With the Resurrection, Christianity places itself “above” history, and history in a sense ceases to matter to it. As the Eckards put it, “Christianity itself becomes a wholly transcendent ‘reality,’ which moves in entirely ‘spiritual’ ways above the flux of history” (Eckards, 127). 

Hence, the issue of historicalness becomes a significant point of contention between Christians and Jews: while Jews continue to firmly believe in relating to God within the realm of human events, Christians implicitly deny such Jewish historicalness insomuch as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the defining event of the Christian tradition, is ahistorical. But the Eckards are not merely pointing to a difference of opinion here between Christians and Jews regarding the significance of history. Rather, they are suggesting that this leaning of Christian theology towards transcendental spirituality is something of a theological aberration, a risky and potentially harmful deviation from the truth. The Eckards claim that “this Christian outlook easily turns into forms of absolutism and triumphalism, or of particularism wearing a camouflage of universal truths” (Eckards, 127). For the Eckards, the potential harmfulness of this Christian outlook, or its deeply problematic nature, has not so much to do with the Resurrection as such, but rather with the implication of the Resurrection that regardless of what happens in history, the most significant event of all was and shall always remain the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the significance attributed by Christians to other historical events (such as the Holocaust) shall always be limited or reduced so as never to equal or surpass the Resurrection in terms of ultimate significance. Furthermore, since the Resurrection is transcendental and fundamentally pro-Christian, Christians can only understand the rest of world history in the specifically pro-Christian terms the Resurrection dictates. 

But for the Eckards, the ahistorical nature of the Resurrection raises some important questions about the Resurrection as such. Say the Eckards, “there are grave questions respecting what it means to talk about the reality of the Resurrection” (Eckards, 128). To the Eckards, the Resurrection is historically suspect insomuch as it lacks a certain verifiability. Given this questioning of the historical validity of the Resurrection, the Eckards would appear further to be suggesting that the absolutism and triumphalism which Christians naturally derive from their understanding of the Resurrection may in fact be unwarranted. Rather, Christian absolutism and triumphalism could now be viewed as the undesirable side-effects associated with an essentially manufactured proposition. 

To the Eckards, the truth is “that it is the teaching of a consummated Resurrection which lies at the foundation of Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism,” and that “the Resurrection is the relentless force behind every other Christian derogation of Jewry” (Eckards, 130). Hence, the Christian Resurrection, with its denial of the significance of historical events and the aura of absolutism which emanates from that denial, constitutes a formidable obstacle to Jewish-Christian relations. From the Christian perspective, that is to say the perspective deeply informed by the consummated Resurrection, the theological significance of the Holocaust is lessened in relation to the Resurrection. As the Eckards explain, the Christian equation of “the suffering and death of Jesus with the torment of hell” implies that the Jewish struggle during the Holocaust, albeit severe, cannot constitute hell as such. The category of hell in this case is reserved for the suffering and death of Jesus alone. For the Eckards, this Christian position does not constitute theological truth, but rather a distortion of the meaning of history. More importantly, it motions towards the potentially harmful effects of the Christian premise that the most important and significant historical event (i.e. the Resurrection) has already taken place. No subsequent historical event, regardless of the degree of human suffering associated with it, can ever hope to assume the same degree of significance as the Resurrection. 

From all of this the Eckards conclude that the time has come for a Christian reaffirmation of Jewish historicalness. For the Eckards, this reaffirmation of Jewishness has radical implications: “Jewishness means a denial of any consummated Resurrection, until this time in history and beyond today” (Eckards, 129). For the Eckards then, due to the centrality of the Resurrection within the Christian faith, for the reaffirmation of Jewish historicalness to be effective such a reaffirmation must be understood as affecting first and foremost the Christian understanding of the Resurrection as a consummated event. The Eckards further contend that it is only by way of a revision to this most essential of Christian doctrines that there can be any hope of a genuine rediscovery of Jewishness within Christianity: “the one place for the reaffirmation of Jewishness to happen, if it is to happen at all, is in connection with the momentous and all-determining tenet of the Resurrection” (Eckards, 128). For traditional Christians, this proposed shift in thinking about the Resurrection put forth by the Eckards is no minor task. As even the Eckards admit, strength and good courage will be needed by Christians in this endeavor, particular in light of the words the apostle Paul: “’If Christ had not been raised,… your faith is in vain’” (Eckards, 128). 

In Faith and Fatricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism,[2] Rosemary Reuther echoes some of the concerns put forth by the Eckards regarding the historical status of the Resurrection without necessarily concluding, as the Eckards do, that the idea of a consummated Resurrection should be done away with entirely. Says Reuther, in speaking of the Resurrection, “the objectivity of this event can never be verified. To the outsider it must appear perhaps even as a collective ‘wishful thinking.’ To those who experienced it, it represented the dramatic influx of new understanding, the starting point for a new beginning” (Reuther, F&F, 69). For Reuther then, as for the Eckards, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ remains historically suspect, but nevertheless, to Jesus’ first disciples this redemptive event meant that “Jesus was ‘the stone which the builders rejected,’ but who now ‘has become the head of the corner ‘(Ps. 118:22)” (Reuther, F&F, 72). 

In highlighting this scriptural claim that Jesus Christ became the “head of the corner,” Reuther is motioning towards the same Christian theological absolutism and triumphalism that the Eckards speak of in their thesis.  As Reuther explains, with this promotion of Jesus to the “head of the corner” it became necessary for the followers of Jesus to defend this promotion of Jesus against those who would hear nothing of it, and who in fact had a vested interest in denying it (namely, the unconverted Jewish communities). Says Reuther, “hypocrites, blind fools, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, serpents, off-spring of vipers, and children of hell are among the epithets heaped upon the rival interpreters of the tradition in the Gospel of Matthew” (Reuther, F&F, 75). And building on this initial vilification of the unconverted Jews, the Church eventually positioned itself as the absolute authority in matters pertaining to God: “the church alone is the true Plant (Israel) of God, while all the rest belong to that plant which had not been planted by God and which will be rooted up and thrown into the fire (Luke 13:3; John 15:1-6)” (Reuther, F&F, 75). 

Much like the Eckards, Reuther also motions towards a need for Christianity’s self-understanding to evolve if the problems of the past, such as the Holocaust, are to be avoided in the future. In particular, Reuther identifies Christianity’s persistent need to justify its revelation in Jewish terms as the root cause of the difficulties encountered in Jewish-Christian relations. Says Reuther, “as long as ‘the Jews,’ that is, the Jewish religious tradition itself, continues to reject this interpretation, the validity of the Christian view is in question” (Reuther, F&F, 94). So, to the extent that Jews cannot be expected to willingly forgo their basic covenantal principle, the only other foreseeable solution is some Christian reinterpretation of the Resurrection such that it may not be so readily contradicted by the basic tenets of the Jewish faith. 

In their review of Faith & Fratricide, [3] Thomas A. Idinopulos and Roy Bowen Ward similarly understand Reuther’s proposal as being that Christians should “abandon a teaching about salvation wherein Judaism is negated” (Idonopulos & Ward, 204)[4]. According to  Idonopulos and Ward, “there should be no difficulty in doing this if Christians cease believing in their redemption in Christ as an accomplished fact, and begin to view it as an event to be expected in the future, in that time when all mankind, Christian and non-Christian, Jew and Gentile, will be delivered from evil” (Idonopulos & Ward, 204). In addition to confirming Reuther’s thesis, Idinopulos and Ward here seem to be perfectly echoing the thoughts of the Eckards as well. 

In his Last Letters from a Nazi Prison,[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoes several of the main themes presented above, albeit not in direct reference to the issue of the Resurrection. Indeed, any questioning of the historical validity of the Resurrection of the sort put forth by the Eckards or Rosemary Reuther would have arguably been quite unpalatable to Bonhoeffer. Yet Bonhoeffer’s concept of a “religionless Christianity” seems to invite the same kind of questioning that led Reuther and the Eckards to their respective conclusions. According to Bonhoeffer, “we are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all: men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so when they say ‘religious’ they evidently mean something quite different” (Bonhoeffer, 275). To Bonhoeffer, religions are not static entities, but rather tend to follow a certain pattern of change through time. Hence, the spiritual inwardness that served the early Christians so well in their initial understanding of the Resurrection is perhaps not quite as effective when dealing with the challenges Christianity faces in today’s modern secular world. With the notable absence of God in the world today, Bonhoeffer is led to question whether in fact Christianity should even continue to depend on a particular religious premise at all. Bonhoeffer asks, “is it not true to say that individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all? Are we not really under the impression that there are more important things than bothering about such a matter” (Bonhoeffer, 277-278)? 

To Bonhoeffer, Christian indifference to the Holocaust makes clear that we are now living in a “religionless” state. Christianity, if such a thing still even exists, has through time become progressively disconnected from its theological origins. Bonhoeffer in his own way seems to be motioning towards a prospective revolution in Christian theology no less significant than those prescribed by Reuther and the Eckards. To Bonhoeffer, a “religionless Christianity” is a Christianity that is in dire need of a new salvational principle, a principle based on God’s absence instead of his presence and on his weakness instead of his strength: “Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us” (Bonhoeffer, 289). Reuther and the Eckards similarly challenge Christians to seek God in places where they are not used to finding Him, and to acknowledge God’s absence by relinquishing their always comforting but ultimately detrimental belief in a consummated Resurrection. 


 

[1] A. Roy Eckardt and Alice L. Eckardt, Long Night’s Journey into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 1982). 

[2] Rosemary Reuther, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979). 

[3] Thomas A. Idinopulos & Roy Bowen Ward, “Is Christology Inherently Anti-Semitic? A Critical Review of Rosemary Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, JAAR 45/2, 1977, 193-214. 

[4] Although Idonopulos & Ward agree with this basic premise of Reuther’s, they disagree with Reuther that the later evolution of anti-Judaism into anti-Semitism (culminating in the Holocaust) was strictly due to the “inner logic of christology itself” (Idonopulos & Ward, 203). Rather, they point to certain historical and political events, such as the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., which significantly worsened the relations between Christians and Jews at the time. But to the extent these political and historical events occurred after the Resurrection, they do not seem to seriously interfere with Reuther’s main argument as it relates to the origin of Christian-Jewish complications. 

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Last Letters from a Nazi Prison” in William Robert Miller ed., The New Christianity: The Rise of Modern Religious Thought (New York: Dell Publishing, 1967).

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Gender

In “(En)gendering Religious Studies,”[1] Randi Warne argues that religious studies have played an important role in the construction of gender. Specifically, according to this feminist perspective religion has played no small part in the establishment of the “rational” male gender in opposition to the “emotional” female gender: “the prescriptive gender ideology of separate spheres, marked by an aggressive, rational, public, culturally authoritative male and a passive, receptive, emotional, private and nurturant female was naturalized, ontologized, and authorized in the scientific study of religion from its origins” (Warne, 149). For Warne, this “prescriptive gender ideology” deeply embedded within religious studies is methodologically problematic. Indeed, for Warne it has had “a deleterious effect on the adequacy of the scholarship that the scientific study of has produced” (Warne, 152).

Warne argues that androcentrism has become so omnipresent within religious studies that it is generally taken for granted and no longer even noticeable to the uncritical observer. For Warne, “The continued male domination of the field of the scientific study of religion is both symptomatic of this gender ideology and a mask if its male gender-embeddedness, facts which served and still serve to distort and render unreliable the knowledges being generated about religion” (Warne, 149). For Warne then, our knowledge and understanding of religious traditions is very much a story told by men about other men, and to the extent that female actions have been omitted, the story thus told is at best incomplete. The traditional emphasis on male actions has effectively, if artificially, elevated the relative importance of male actions vis-à-vis their female counterparts, while the impact and significance of female actions have been largely underreported, undervalued and deemphasized throughout history.

Warne further explains how this male gender-embeddeness within religious studies is made possible through the workings of a kind of “circular” process. According to this process, knowledge is derived in the first place from observations made through decidedly androcentric lens. As such “knowledge” is then accumulated throughout the history of the academic discipline, it eventually grows to encompass the field’s entire frame of reference, forming the basis for all subsequent research work. As further knowledge is built upon this androcentric base, such knowledge is falsely labeled as “objective,” since the specifically androcentric tendencies of both the researchers and the objects of their research effectively removes from view any other points of reference. This process is deemed “circular” insomuch as an already androcentric knowledge base in and of itself continues to drive the further collection of similarly androcentric knowledge in a kind of ongoing, endless cycle: “The asymmetry of androcentrism assumes that what men do is of preeminent human importance. The ‘self-evidence’ of that importance is then naturalized and its gender-embeddedness obscured. When men do what is now considered ‘objectively’ important … men and their actions become not only a ‘serious’ subject for intellectual investigation and analysis, but also representative of humanity overall” (Warne, 150).

Considering all this, one might wonder to what extent Warne might be overstating the corruptive effect of the “prescriptive gender ideology.” While Warne does provide some interesting examples of possible gender distortions, such as her questioning of the validity of secularization theory in Euro-North America, as she cites the fact that female per capita church membership in the United States actually increased (rather than decreased) throughout the nineteenth century (Warne, 150), Warne’s general indictment of the scholarship produced by the academic study of religion on the basis of a few identifiable incidents of male bias seems a tad severe. An important point that appears to be absent from Warne’s analysis is the recognition of the fact that much of humankind’s religious history was in fact driven by the actions of men. The rational, aggressive and authoritative qualities of men have in fact allowed them to implement and coordinate much of the human religious phenomena observable throughout history. To deny this fact is on the basis of a prescriptive gender ideology simply amounts to replacing one historical distortion with another.


[1] Darlene M. Juschka ed., Feminism in the Study of Religion (London : Continuum, 2001), Randi R. Warne, “(En)gendering Religious Studies,” pp. 147-156.

Reality as Freedom from Self-Centeredness

In An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent,[1] John Hick contends that transcendence, which he refers to as “salvation/liberation,” is “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness” (Hick, 51). Hick describes this transformation, which he considers to be a fundamental theme within each of the major world religions, as “the sudden or gradual change of the individual from an absorbing self-concern to a new centring in the supposed unity-of-reality-and-value that is thought of as God, Brahman, the Dharma, Sunyata or the Tao” (Hick, 36). To Hick, each of the world religions presents this “absorbing self-concern” as a natural yet undesirable human tendency that must be overcome. Self-centeredness is, among other things, thought to be at the source of human anxiety, and the world religions in one way or another endeavor to assist individuals in freeing themselves from this harmful self-centeredness. For the unenlightened and self-centered individual, reality consists of an endless sequence of perceived threats to his/her being, whereas for the adherent of a world religion it is rather the state of freedom from self-centeredness that is truly real. Hence, religious experience can be understood as a response to this idea of a “transcendent” reality.

In his elucidation of the world religions’ common motioning towards a transcendent reality, and by his very use of the term “reality” to describe the object of religious transcendence, Hick, as if to recall Eliade’s ambiguous association of religious meaning with “the real and the significant,” specifically intends to raise the possibility often rejected implicitly or explicitly by modern social science that religious experience might be grounded in something ultimately real. Hick admits the impossibility of refuting the naturalistic interpretation of religion, but also insists on “the equal impossibility of refuting the interpretation of religion as our varied human response to a transcendent reality or realities – the gods, or God, or Brahman, or the Dharmakaya, or the Tao, and so on” (Hick, 1). To Hick, our modern scientific mindset all too easily causes us to dismiss without hesitation the supernatural as a legitimate possibility within our analysis of any religious phenomena, but the “pervasive ambiguity of the universe” (Hick, 1) is such that there is no real, scientific basis to support a definite conclusion either way.

Furthermore, to Hick the standard opposition between naturalistic and religious interpretations of religious phenomena is an over-simplification of the matter: “the alternatives are not that the intentional object of religious worship or contemplation is either entirely illusory or else exactly as described in this or that sacred text” (Hick, 8). While it is clear that human factors have affected the formation or religious concepts throughout history, it does not follow that all religious concepts are purely human fabrications. Indeed, Hick proposes that a modern understanding of the transcendent “must show reason to believe that this vast and multifarious field of human faith is nevertheless not wholly projection and illusion – even though there is much projection and illusion within it – but constitutes our variously transparent and opaque interface with a mysterious transcendent reality” (Hick, 9).

Given this “variously transparent and opaque interface” with the transcendent, in the final analysis it is difficult to conclude on the validity of Hick’s overall thesis with any degree of certainty. For the naturalists, the shear variety of religious beliefs in the world, each with their respective and mutually exclusive claims to the truth, suggests that in fact none of them are ultimately true. Hick successfully demonstrates that this naturalist position vis-à-vis the transcendent is based more on viewpoint than objective proof. To Hick, it is no less rational or scientific to begin one’s analysis with the presupposition that the object of religious thought and experience is real and to proceed from there.  Hick’s understanding of ultimate reality as the transcendence of the ordinary human ego by way of salvation in the case of the Semitic traditions, and by way of liberation in the case of the eastern traditions, is in any case a welcome counterweight to the reductionist accounts, which in their own way pose an equal challenge to human credulity. 


[1] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion : Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven : Yale U.P., 1989).

Adequacy of the Concept of Religion

In The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to Religious Traditions of Mankind[i], Wilfred Cantwell Smith is often insightful and thought-provoking, but his aim to prove that the term “religion” is somehow inadequate and even misleading seems futile. If this is only the reader’s first reaction to Smith’s thesis, the reader’s initial skepticism is later confirmed as Smith, though intelligent and logical in his approach, ultimately succumbs to the shear difficulty of the task he initially sets out for himself. Nevertheless, the reader can still appreciate Smith’s contribution to the theory of religion.

Smith is somewhat successful in problematizing “religion.” To begin with, he posits that “to be a participant in a religious movement is to recognize that that movement points to something or Someone beyond itself” (Smith, 118). In his typical thought-provoking manner he also puts forth that “a religious tradition has no meaning unless it enables those within it to see something that those without do not see” (Smith, 118). It seems reasonable enough to assume that transcendence is a defining characteristic of any religion, and that such transcendence is unique to those who experience it. Smith then quite rightly points out that “there is a difference between knowing a doctrine of salvation, and being saved” (Smith, 122), suggesting that the observation of religious behavior by outsiders is always incomplete. One can indeed appreciate the inherent limitations of outside observation when it comes to analyzing and comprehending religious transcendence. Arguably, too, the element of transcendence is central to religious behavior, so this observational limitation is not a minor one for the student of religion. From this lack of observational capability, Smith concludes, when we speak of “religion,” as outsiders we are in fact referring merely to the physically observable part of religious behavior. To Smith, the term “religious” has come to encompass the cumulative history of every observable aspect of religious life, with the exception of the very thing that defines religion as such, the transcendent:  “the observer’s concept of a religion is by definition constituted of what can be observed. Yet the whole pith and substance of religious life lies in its relations to what cannot be observed” (Smith, 124). Smith concludes that the term “religion” is therefore inadequate, since it cannot do justice to the phenomenon it purports to designate.

Smith makes an interesting case, but as I see it there are several fundamental problems with his argument. Firstly, to suit his argument Smith constricts the student of religion’s view of things to an unreasonably narrow specter. From reading Smith, one might conclude that the outside observer of religious behavior has no ability whatsoever to grasp the transcendent element no matter how hard s/he tries. For Smith, “the observer by the very fact of being an outsider, a non-acceptor of the context, has ruled out its transcendent quality in theory a priori” (smith, 124). But is this a fair depiction of the state of religious studies today? In light of our natural human tendency to engage in religious behavior, pointing as it does towards some inherent human attraction to the transcendent that even the outside observer may be sensitive too, does it not seem unreasonable for Smith to conclude that an outside observer of religious behavior can’t at least catch a glimpse of the transcendence experienced by the subjects observed? Is this not as false as stating that no white man can really understand racial prejudice against black people, even though the white man may himself from time to time encounter prejudice, albeit perhaps in a different form?

Another significant problem with Smith’s argument is its self-contradicting nature. In trying to demonstrate how the outside observer is strictly focused on context, and therefore misses the point entirely, Smith himself engages in the following elaborate description of what it means to be a Muslim, that is to say a follower of a religion to which Smith himself is an outside observer: “The commands of God … for the Muslim himself, in accord with the degree of vitality of his faith, rather liberate that behavior. They free it from the confines of purely human floundering and the ignorance of mundane device; and elevate it to a quite new plane – the in one sense unbounded, certainly eternal plane of cosmic appropriateness and validity” (Smith, 125). If Smith as an outsider observer of Islam has, as his theory suggests, a priori ruled out the transcendent quality of Islam, how then did he arrive at the above degree of insight into the transcendent effect of the commands of God on Muslims?


[i] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion : A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York : Mentor Books, 1962).