Easter and Materialism

Ross Allen, a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has published a timely and thought-provoking article at The Christian Century entitled “The mystical significance of Jesus’ resurrection.” It is full of insights regarding the failures and pitfalls of modern materialism as a context for engaging with any of the early Christian understandings of Christ’s resurrection. Allen’s reflection engages substantially with the work of David Bentley Hart which I have followed for a few years and blogged about several times including this most recent post on “Christ’s Empty Grave in the Writings of David Bentley Hart.” Allen contends that “within a classical understanding, it is much more intelligible to argue that Jesus’ ‘physi­cal’ resurrection was, at its root, spiritual—because the physical world we inhabit is already and always derivative from the spiritual world.” Citing Sarah Coakley, Allen also affirms “that this isn’t a kind of abandonment of bodies, as if they didn’t matter, but rather a radical commitment to the embodied experience of the risen Christ and our transformation.” This is all very helpful and clearly in line with David Bentley Hart. However, there are also a few conceptualizations of the resurrection that Allen cites which go well beyond what David Bentley Hart or the Apostle Paul would have had in mind.

Citing Michael H. Crosby at length, Allen pushes for a movement away from the “Gospel narratives stressing the ‘bodily’ resurrection to a reclamation of the mystical experience of the Risen Christ” so that we might be like Saul who was “transformed by his mystical experience of the Risen Christ.” This came to mean that “Jesus was alive (‘risen’) in each and every member of the living body of Christ, in the church and throughout the cosmos.” While it is true that such an account can be reconciled with a substantive understanding of spiritual embodiment, Allen seems intentionally to be offering Crosby as an example of those “who think a reanimated body, however conceived, simply isn’t the best way to make sense of what happened to Jesus and will happen to us” and who feel that “a myopic insistence on resurrection as reanimation can push hope out of reach.” Allen clearly wants to include such believers within the fold of orthodoxy and cites Synesius of Cyrene, made a bishop in 410, as a precedent for this with his famous declaration that the resurrection “is nothing for me but a sacred and mysterious allegory.” (While Synesius of Cyrene is certainly a remarkable outlier in several regards, were we to take the time, there would be more to consider about his meaning with terms such as “sacred allegory” here. In brief, Synesius certainly considered allegory to be revelatory of greater realities and not falsehoods.)

Most telling, it seems to me, is that Allen makes no reference anywhere within his essay to the fact of an empty grave. Allen’s concern to defend those who cannot accept any version of “a reanimated body” leaves Allen apparently ambivalent regarding whether or not the grave was empty. One of my most basic concerns with Allen’s essay is that it relies so heavily upon David Bentley Hart in the early part of the essay but fails to note that Hart himself clearly affirms the empty grave. In Atheists Delusions, Hart argues regarding Christ’s trial before Pilate that it is “in the light cast backward upon the scene by the empty tomb” that we most clearly “see the forsaken of the earth as the very children of heaven.” More recently—in a conversation with David Armstrong posted to A Perennial Digression on October 2, 2021—Hart says of the resurrection: “I’ve always thought that’s one place where Wolfhart Pannenberg was right.” For his part, Pannenberg argues that the resurrection claim “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (Jesus, 100). Likewise, in another book he develops this same case that “in Jerusalem the empty tomb had to be important as a self-evident fact” (Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 359).

While I don’t accept Allen’s evident desire to fully include within the Christian fold those who are ambivalent about an empty grave, I do appreciate Allen’s strong case for an understanding of Christ’s resurrection as a spiritual embodiment that defies modern materialistic categories. Allen is clearly happy to affirm a robust idea of spiritual embodiment that wonderfully captures what David Bentley Hart has said. Here is Allen: “For some of us, the idea that the bodies we now inhabit will be brought back in a stronger form is an endorsement of the basic goodness of our physicality and a promise that we will all one day be healed: it offers that kind of steadfast hope.” Allen is at his best here and in critiquing “a naive materialism, which by this point many physicists and philosophers see as outdated and false.” He is right that the resurrection accounts in the New Testament represent a variety of conceptualizations and that these all demand that we “reimagine our understanding of the material world altogether.”

What David Bentley Hart takes from Paul and many patristic writers is ultimately a sense that Christ’s dead body underwent a transfiguration with the resurrection so that the divine light—that gives existence to all things from within all things—fully transfigured the dead flesh so that the fleshly body gave way entirely to the far more substantial and imperishable spiritual body (an inner life upon which all flesh depends for its very existence). This is what Hart writes about in his wonderful response to N.T. Wright: “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.” As Allen puts it, Paul “claims that Jesus rose with a body that consisted solely of pneuma [spirit], which was understood in terms of what we might recognize as something like oxygen or electricity.” This idea of spirit as a kind of element is defended by David Bentley Hart in his March 10, 2022 subscription newsletter posting where we read:

One must cease to think that only the material body possesses extension in any sense; one must learn not to treat words like ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘mind’ as interchangeable terms for one and the same thing; and one must most emphatically not think of soul or spirit or mind as necessarily incorporeal in the absolute sense of lacking all extension or consistency.

I asked Hart in the comments for this post: “In learning to think of soul or spirit or mind as corporeal in some sense and as possessing some ‘extension or consistency,’ how do we relate this to our modern scientific cosmology and our understanding of material elements? We cannot, it seems, join Paul in the concept of spirit as a living and imperishable element.” He replied: “Can’t we? There are all sorts of things in Paul that cannot be directly retained, but that one seems unproblematic.”

Clearly, Hart’s own conception of reality is remarkably close to that of Paul, and this is what makes Hart’s understanding of Christ’s resurrection so difficult for modern minds to grasp. Much of what Hart writes leaves modern readers ready to assert that what does or does not happen to Christ’s fleshly body is irrelevant. Hart, however, insists that this dead body itself was transfigured as the flesh entirely gave way to the sustaining and far more substantial body of elemental spirit that was always the source of being and life for the incarnate Christ. This understanding means that fleshly bodies are an incomplete manifestation of spiritual bodies and that we can in fact begin in each moment of our current lives to realize the final resurrection as we learn to see the more substantial spiritual elements of which our entire cosmos is actually constituted. Much of this is vividly described by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce with many insights such as this:

“But does it mean that everything—everything—that is in us can go on to the Mountains?”

“Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot come to the Mountains. Not because they are too rank, but because they are too weak.”

Returning to Allen’s article, therefore, I am fully in agreement, when he says of Christ’s resurrection: “What it invites us to is a new way of seeing. In this understanding, the body with which Jesus rose is one we can perceive only with our spiritual senses, honed through contemplative practice—but it is nonetheless real.” Indeed, if it is true, the resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals everyday realities to us in an eternal light that leaves modern materialism entirely empty and no more substantial than an army of tin soldiers.

Isenheim altarpiece, resurrection panel, detail of a falling soldier by Matthias Grünewald, 1512–1516.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s