Things that matter

On Easter day, April 12, the Owl offered the post entitled Resurrection, speaking of that as the most important of all articles of faith, the sine qua non, and the one that should be taught before asking believers to endorse any others. In fact, Resurrection is not just a traditional teaching of the church; it is the event on which the whole history of the world turns, when God demonstrates that his covenant with his people is stronger than death. The post ends with a saying of Jaroslav Pelikan that appears on the sidebar of our homepage:

“If there is Resurrection, nothing else matters.
If there is not Resurrection, nothing else matters.”

My friend Elwyn read this and protested that many things matter. I think his remarks typify very well what many readers might say. With his kind permission, here they are:

I’m not sure what to make of the quotation at the end about nothing matters if there is no resurrection. Truth matters. Love matters. All the people in the world, even those who don’t get excited about the resurrection, matter.

Of course he is right. Let us take his three points, Truth, Love, and all the peoples of the world as our outline in reply.

Truth

Jesus is the one who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John (14:6) He does not claim that he and only he tells the truth, or that someday he will explain the truth to us; he is the truth. It seems impossible to parse the sentence, for how can a person, even a divine person, be something abstract? The answer lies in the comprehensive power of the thing: Truth is not an abstraction, an intellectual property, nor any Platonic ideal. It is the most objective thing possible. There was gravity before there was Newton. Similarly, this Truth was present before any created thing (Proverbs 8:22–31). And not incidentally, the passage just cited goes on to speak of the Creator’s delight in human beings; but more of that in due time.

Love

Every Sunday school child learns the saying “God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Here is another sentence with the verb to be at its center. It proclaims Love as the most fundamental fact of our existence. We also learned “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . “ (John 3:16). In a churchy context, that sounds all sweet and calming, but it might better be read a different way; not as we complacent ones recite it half asleep, but as a keening screech: “God so loved the world, that he gave his Son!” this world! his onlybegotten!

All the People

In our pluralistic world, the diversity of peoples leaps immediately to mind. What are we to say about a passage like this:

It is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. (Romans 14:11)

An erstwhile friend of the Owl, a “post-colonial ecclesiologist,” reads it as a harangue against all the other religions of the world. Over against his reading we set this:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17–19).

Surely if God is God, and God is Love, then “all the fullness of God” must include the fullness of his love for every creature he has made. Going back to John 3:16: “God so loved the world, . . . “ The world; not the Christians, not the pretty people, not the Episcopalians or the Baptists or any particular nation: the world. The world exists only to be the theatre of God’s love, the material basis for his covenant with all his creatures.

If we know that our thinking and language are inadequate to describe God, then we must allow that God might reach whomever he pleases, in his good time, by whatever means he chooses. There is nothing to prevent us believing God’s means are embedded in Buddhist or Hindu or other traditions.

•                •                •

Elwyn goes on:

I suppose by Jesus’ resurrection you mean that the truth of his life abides with us despite his death on the cross, but I may be wrong about that.

Not wrong at all; spot on, and elegantly said.

Pelikan’s saying is not meant to devalue anything that truly matters, but to assert that whatever does matter can abide only in the power of the resurrected Lord. I think it is meant to have two layers. One sounds cryptic to a person not used to the thought. It would nudge the hearer in the right direction to make it come right. The other sounds clever to one who already knows. Clever Pelikan certainly was; the most erudite man I ever met.

3 thoughts on “Things that matter”

  1. I’m not familiar enough with Pelikan to be able to trace the quotation in context. Is he talking about “the” Resurrection of Jesus, coming out of his tomb really, not just symbolically or as a metaphor? As you have pointed out, Owl, Jesus was just as much “real” in this world as you and I are. His death was real, as will mine be. I will not leave my tomb in a resurrected body in three days, as He did. If Pelikan means, paraphrasing St. Paul, that if Jesus’s Resurrection did not “really” occur, then all our faith is in vain and we are left in our sins with these bodies which are terminal from our births — then I agree with Pelikan.

    1. Katherine – Thank you for your incisive questions. You can read a little about Professor Pelikan in Wikipedia. By googling further I discover I got the quote wrong; not “If there is resurrection . . . “ but “If Christ is Risen, then nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen-nothing else matters.” (There are some slight variants.) To my ear that makes it an even more concrete assertion. As such, it throws out a challenge to more modernistic belief, that the resurrection was a subjective event in the disciples’ minds. Jesus’ powers persist in them as the Spirit that creates the Church, and as a vocation to go out into the world to make disciples. (Who doesn’t have deceased relatives whose power persists, for good or ill, in their descendants? What’s unique about that?)

      As you realize, Pelikan surely has in mind Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “ and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” I think you would agree that none of the events of Jesus’ passion and after can be allowed to drift into abstraction. That is an apophatic statement that leaves us searching for a positive concomitant. Faith stands nonplused before it.

  2. Thank you, Tom. I was reasonably sure Pelikan did not take the Resurrection as symbolic only. There were, of course, people in the early centuries who taught, as do some subjectivists in modern times, that the story is important but not “really” true — Jesus wasn’t really dead, or someone else was executed in his place; the story of the empty tomb was symbolic, the reported post-Resurrection appearances were merely people who realized how important Jesus had been. The Qur’an and some earlier heretical writings repeat some of these notions, which the early Church emphatically rejected.

    We can believe, or not believe, but the story is Truth.

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