Monday, April 02, 2012

(Super)historical Jesus

One of the great things about the annual remembrance of the Passion is that it forces us to recall that Christianity is about events.  That is to say, what we remember is an occurrence, a thing that happened.  The Gospel is not a message based on someone's enlightened thoughts about God; it is not even a message sent straight from heaven.  It is a message about things that took place, in real space and real time.  The Paschal celebration helps us to remember that.  There is time before it, leading up to it, and there is time afterwards, leading away.  We celebrate in a particular place, with particular people - a space that is next to other particular places, inhabited by other particular people.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Christianity is historical.  When Jesus died and rose, he did so in reality, in a moment contiguous with other moments and forming part of a series that includes this moment now, in a space located within that same space in which we live.  The Gospel is a report of that occurrence, coupled to an explanation of its significance.  It is about history.  That is why the only worthwhile apologetic for the Christian is a historical one.  Did this happen, or did it not?  It is this sort of apologetic which is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, and before Agrippa.  This stuff happened.  (If it did not, then Christians are pitiful, pathetic creatures).

Having said that, how do we avoid Lessing's ditch?  Lessing's problem was that as a good child of the Enlightenment he felt a universal could not be proved by a particular; specifically, reports of particular miracles, which reach me by perfectly ordinary and non-miraculous testimony, cannot establish the truth of the Gospel.  If all that matters is history, how can I get over the intervening centuries and believe in a report of a thing the like of which I have never witnessed?  If the Gospel is a report of a historical occurrence, why should I believe it when it resembles nothing else in history?

I think part of the answer is to recognise that when the apostolic testimony asserts that these things happened, it does not mean to maintain that they happened in just the same way as all other things.  Perhaps a useful way to put it would be this: the events reported in the Gospel happened within history, but they are not themselves historical events; that is to say, they are not events which stand in an ordinary relation to the other things happening around them.  They are not explicable by reference to their setting, or to the other events occurring at the time.  In fact, whilst at one level the resurrection of Jesus is something that happens in history, at another level it is a thing that happens to history.  This one point in space and time brackets and encompasses all the other points, including this one now.  If there is an epistemological ditch, there is no ontological one.  A historical apologetic can get us to the point of saying: there is a hole here - a thing that does not fit into history.  We cannot explain what came before and after in terms of the ordinary historical sequence.  And at that point, a lot will depend on whether we are willing to consider that history is neither so impregnable nor so linear as we thought.

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