Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Scientist and the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith.  In his book Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright argues that we must grasp its significance in order to understand the present and the future.  A physically alive, transformed and risen Jesus Christ is indeed the worshiped Lord of the church.

The problem is that this event - bodily resurrection - doesn't fit into our framework of how the world usually works.  Wright gets at the heart of this in a passage in his book I will now quote.  In addition to its centrality in his argument, I think this passage is especially relevant to those of us in science - even (or perhaps even more so) simply to those who subscribe to a scientific worldview.
But how far does the "scientific" position go?  When we ask what a scientist can believe about something, we are asking a two-level question.  First, we are asking about what sort of things the scientific method can explore and how it can know or believe certain things.  Second, we are asking about the kind of commitment someone wedded to scientific knowing is expected to have in all other areas of his or her life.  Is a scientist, for example, expected to have a scientific approach to listening to music?  To watching a football game?  To falling in love?  The question of whether a scientist  can believe in Jesus's resurrection assumes, I think, that the resurrection, and perhaps particularly the resurrection of Jesus, is something that might be expected to impinge on the scientist's area of concern, somewhat as if one were to ask, "Can a scientist believe that the sun could rise twice in a day?" or "Can a scientist believe that a moth could fly to the moon?"  This is different, in other words, from asking, "Can a scientist believe that Schubert's music is beautiful?" or "Can a scientist believe that her husband loves her?"  There are those, of course, who by redefining the resurrection as simply a spiritual experience in the inner hearts and minds of the disciples pull the question toward the latter pair and away from the former.  But that is ruled out by what, as we shall see, all first-century users of the language of resurrection meant by the word.  Resurrection in the first century meant someone physically, thoroughly dead becoming physically, thoroughly alive again, not simply surviving or entering a "purely spiritual" world, whatever that might be.  Resurrection therefore necessarily impinges on the public world.
But at this point we meet a third element in knowing, a puzzling area beyond science [...].
The challenge is in fact the challenge of new creation.  To put it at is most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is, but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be.  It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting pint of the new world.  The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religions possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation."
(p 66-67, boldface added)
Our celebration of Christmas is not complete without understanding the resurrection.  The resurrection means we celebrate not just a historic event of God coming to us, but a present reality as well.  I hope the above quotation, though perhaps a bit lengthy, was as helpful to you as it was to me on this topic.

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