The Resurrection is not an extra bolted on to an ethic

One of the strategies for parish rejuvenation in some parts of New Zealand is running Alpha courses. These have been described as “back-to-basics” courses on the Christian faith, where people think and reflect on some of the fundamental truths of the Gospel.

Occasionally, a sceptic, with a bent for writing, will attend such a course, and might deliver a slightly mocking, slightly bemused, slightly condescending commentary for a media outlet. In the UK, such articles have appeared in the past in outlets like The New Statesman and The Guardian.

These articles say things like — “of course, everyone knows that people don’t come back from the dead”. There is incomprehension as to why Christians need this to be true of Jesus. What is wrong with Christianity simply being a moral philosophy? Why is the historicity of Christ’s death and Resurrection important? And so on.

Readers of The Guardian received a succinct riposte to such material from no less a scholar than the formidably learned N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop and author of “The Resurrection of the Son of God”.

Wright stated: “The historical basis of Christianity is vital precisely because Christianity isn’t just a moral philosophy or a pathway of spirituality, however much many in late western culture (including in the church) have tried to belittle it by treating it as such. Of course, sceptics want Christianity to be ‘simply a moral philosophy’. That’s not nearly so challenging as what it actually is.”

After commenting positively about history and the Gospels, Wright goes on to say, “Just as Christian faith is far more than a moral philosophy or spiritual pathway (though it includes both, as it were, en passant), so it is more than a ‘how to get saved’ teaching, backed up by a dodgy ‘miracle’. Christian faith declares that, in and through Jesus, the creator of the world launched his plan to rescue the world from the decaying and corrupting force of evil itself. This was (if it was anything at all) an event which brought about a new state of affairs, albeit often in a hidden and paradoxical way (as Jesus kept on saying): the “kingdom of God”, that is, the sovereign, rescuing rule of the creator, breaking in to creation. If this stuff didn’t happen, then Christianity is based on a mistake. You can’t rescue it by turning it into a philosophy.”

After noting that sceptics were just as common in the ancient world as in the modern one, Wright went on to say “of course, we all know that dead people don’t rise. Actually, the early Christians knew that too. . . . [but] they claimed that Jesus had, as it were, gone through death and out the other side into a new form of physicality, for which there was no previous example, and of which there remains no subsequent example. They knew, as well as we do, how outrageous that was, but they found themselves compelled to say it. As one of the more sceptical of today’s scholars has put it, ‘It seems that they were doing their best to describe an event for which they didn’t have the right language’.”

Jesus’ Resurrection “isn’t an extra thing, bolted on to the outside of a moral philosophy”, Wright stated later.

“It is the launching-pad for God’s new creation. ‘Christian spirituality’ is learning to live in that new creation. ‘Christian ethics’ is learning to let the power of that new creation shape your life. A Christian political theology is discovering what it means that, through the Resurrection, Jesus is the world’s true Lord.”

“Ridiculous? Of course. It was in 35AD, and it is today. But, actually, it makes sense — historically, culturally, philosophically and even, dare I say, politically.”

NZ Catholic has shared N.T.Wright’s inspiring and perceptive words on the Resurrection in Easter editorials in previous years.

It does us good to revisit his wisdom from time to time.

Wishing all our readers a blessed, happy and safe Easter.

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Michael Otto