Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Alison Milbank on religious counter-intuitiveity

I am still disturbed/confused by Holy Week but in a way I find that reassuring. Here's a bit from an article at ABC Religion & Ethics by Alison Milbank (the wife of you know who) which sort of explains what I mean ....


The Easter journey into paradox

[...] The resurrection is certainly not an easy "happy ever after" for the disciples. In Mark's gospel, the fact of the empty tomb is a disturbing difficulty and the women who discover it run away terrified. The earliest manuscripts end there, with the reader forced to decide whether to believe or not.

John's account begins with the beautiful story of Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener, but then has Jesus entering a locked room. On his second appearance in this securely guarded space, Jesus offers Thomas, the good empiricist, who had refused to believe he had risen unless he could place his finger in the nail marks, the chance to do just that.

John makes the resurrection as difficult to grasp as he possibly can. His Christ both eats fish and can disappear and reappear at will. All this was as bizarrely problematic for devout Jews of the first century as it is for us today.

It was a current belief in Jesus's time that the prophetic dead might become angels like Enoch and Melchizedek, who were assumed in the body to the heavenly court but then became angelic spirits. This theory lies behind some argumentation in the letter to the Hebrews.

So when Jesus suddenly appeared in the locked upper room, this might have helped his disciples to make sense of the event. But then this theory is destroyed when he invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and thereby shows he is no angel but in some sense still corporeal.

Our minds, like Thomas's and those of the disciples, cannot conceive of a body that is wholly spiritual and yet also in a transformed way material. The concepts by which we organise experience are blown apart.

How relatively easy it would be to accept the Islamic account and that of the Gnostic believers, who say that Jesus did not really die at all, or else plump for a merely internal spiritual vision, which we might have of any dead beloved person.

That way, we could keep our cosmos neat and tidy: with the resurrection a purely spiritual experience, religion could be a private, spiritual space and not this messy, conflicted institution that keeps getting enmired in politics.

Unfortunately for this option, the early Christians did experience something that was quite inexplicable and paradoxical, and in no gospel do they funk laying out the impossibility of what they claim. The empty tomb is presented as a problem as much as a solution. But it goes along with the whole gospel narrative, which is one of paradox from beginning to end.

A God complete in himself who yet creates, a human baby crying and defecating who is totally divine, a Christ who is both utterly gentle and terribly fierce, a God who suffers and dies and yet lives for ever ......



Blogger cowboyangel said...

Interesting article. I would say that this paradoxical nature is not confined solely to the Gospel narratives but to the entire Bible. It's often a violent, freaky, disturbing, surreal and unsettling book. How we turn it into a "nice" religious book is fascinating in itself. Or into some glorified self-help text that gives clear answers to life's questions. It's much more interesting than that.

12:29 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William,

Yeah, it's just strange. Any modern publishing company would send it back :)

12:34 PM  

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