You Have to Believe…



In the piece I’m responding to it’s “You have to believe in the resurrection to be a Christian.” But as you can imagine there are any number of statements that take this form. You have to believe x or you are not a Christian. We see this in religion. But we also see this in politics. You see it anywhere were boundaries are being policed.

Beliefs often treated as a requirement. They are an obligation and a virtue. You must believe. But I don’t think beliefs can really operate that way. They can’t be compelled or threatened. They need not be herculean leaps of faith. They should rather be as natural and fitting to our life and experience such that when held, they simply describe the world as we know it. The lure in this case, is the nature of the belief itself.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got him killed. Death had the last word (and still does).If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ life, his way of life. His teachings. So then there’s nothing special about them, they lead only to crosses.

Yes and no.

On the one hand death is not defeated. We still die. The eschaton did not come, the end of history is a bust. Mortality is real. So much so that Paul has to account for that in his letters. Death can lose its sting for Paul but it does not vanish. It simply has no ultimate power. This is not a denial of death as much as a re-constituting the meaning of it.

Side stepping our personal biology for a moment, it takes no leap of the imagination to see how ideas can be immortal. Ideas cannot be defeated by crucifixions or even by censorship. If it is a compelling idea, one that speaks truth on some level, there is very little that an empire could do to squash it. In that, any idea worth its salt can be vindicated, even in the midst of the worst circumstances designed to curtail it.

Events, including the events surrounding a life also has that ability.  Any event that happens creates the kind of world we know and experience. It makes the universe just what it is. This is because events are not discrete happenings all into themselves. They are fully related to every other event, to any possible future.

Once an event happens, it is objectified. It becomes the raw material for the future. It cannot be undone. Anything that follows will be enmeshed in any possible future. In this sense, we and the content of our lives can never be vanquished. They remain in God and in the ongoing story of the universe. It takes a kind of hubris, that many empires have had, to try to erase that past.

This would suggest that Jesus, the meaning of his life and teaching do have a kind of immortality. Certainly this is given evidence to in the church which emerged. But even if no church had emerged, whether an event is remembered or not, they constitute the kind of world God has to work with for any future to be had.

The reason we care  is because a formal religion developed as a response to those set of events. But we are as much impacted by the lives of countless people whether we know their stories or not or can recite their names or not. Think of any Native American who walked the lands of Oklahoma a thousand years ago. They are also are in God and embedded in the world we currently inhabit as well as any possible world to come.

In this sense, we’re no longer talking about what just happened to Jesus. We’re talking about what kind of world we live in such that every life is constituted by a meaning and an impact that outstrips our biological timelines. These earth vessels never contain the full extent of any given life. Jesus’s life or our own.

It would suggest that God’s redemption of our lives happened well before Jesus, since the beginning of Israel, since the beginning of time. This was not inaugurated by Jesus, rather his life exemplified something which has already been a foot in our world. Let’s call this a priori Christology, to steal Schubert Ogden‘s term.

It means that if we wanted to follow Jesus, it would not be because he was involved in some unique supernatural act such that his ideas are vouchsafed. Rather we’d have to follow him because his ideas had their own merit, the kind of merit drawn from describing the world we see operative around us today as much as back then or even before then. But then beliefs about Jesus would have no special status anymore.

And I’m ok with that.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma



Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

1 reply »

  1. Thank you. Interesting. Is it possible for a Christian to assert ‘I do not believe in God’ followed by ‘I am a Christian”
    A few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly said precisely that referring to his own beliefs. I thought that belief in God was an inescapable and self evident element if one is to call themselves a Christian?

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