We’ve heard the story of Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb twice now. We feel her despair at the gruesome and humiliating death of Jesus. We feel her horror at the desecration of her friend’s body. We weep with her when she is overcome with emotion in the garden. We leap with joy when she recognizes Jesus, risen indeed! But as we experience these emotions with Mary there is something strange happening. And as usual what is strange is also the most interesting, the most edifying. And what is strange in this story is that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. She thinks he’s the gardener! It isn’t until he speaks to her that the spell is broken and she recognizes her friend and cries, Rabonni! Teacher! The spell is broken! She sees something she has not seen before! She sees something new! Things are not always what they seem!
Things are not always what they seem. The world we live in is more ambiguous than at first glance. As we walk through our lives on this pale blue dot in some random corner of the chaosmos we often think that we have a grasp on reality. We think we understand how things are. This comes out the rise of modernism or the age of reason. Several hundred years ago in Western Europe philosophers and thinkers and scientists started to discover things about the world and understand things about the world that led them to question the prevailing worldview. In the pre-modern era the world was understood through relationship to a deity that was mediated by the church. In the pre-modern world theologians and philosophers and scientists in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, who were still very influential, tried to understand the nature of reality through reason, innate knowledge and reflecting on experience.
It was the advent of empiricism and the scientific method that led to changes in how we viewed the world. Observation and testing hypotheses led scientists like Copernicus to make discoveries like the fact that the earth orbits around the sun rather than the sun around the earth. New techniques and technologies were developed that led to the explosion of new knowledge and understandings. In fact, the explosion was so great that some people came to believe that “that the use of science would lead to all knowledge.” That we would come to understand the workings of universe completely and entirely
And who knows? Maybe we will. And I in no way want to diminish the advances of science. Our knowledge has been increased exponentially and our increased understanding of disease and illness, for example, has saved many lives. Science has made many people’s lives better. I am not advocating a return to pre-modern modes of thought.
But amidst all the advances of modernity something else has become apparent. Even though we understand the universe to a much greater degree postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida and John Caputo have discerned that reality is a lot more slippery than can be explained by science and reason. Caputo tells us that we can’t “trust the categories we have at hand, we can’t trust this reliable drawer of tools that we think we have when we want to think of the world.” Reality is a lot more slippery than that. If we look at things very closely we find out that they are a lot more porous and ambiguous than they appear on the surface.
So let’s try that. Let’s look closely at something, something even mundane. Let’s look at the example of the gift. Gift giving is not what it really seems. On the surface when I give you a gift you have something that you didn’t have before and I lack something that I did have before. You have something more. And I have something less.
If I give you a gift then you say, “I don’t how to thank you.” Well you don’t have to thank me. It’s a gift. Or you say, “I will be forever in your debt.” So what happens is that you haven’t received a gift you actually received a debt. And at some point in the future, you very carefully and at the appropriate time give me a gift that is of approximately the same value as the gift I gave you or else you are perpetuating imbalance and I will have to give you something else in the future. We have even come to say that at Christmas we exchange gifts. We aren’t really giving anything.
In the end giving a gift is impossible. In fact, it is what Derrida calls “The Impossible.” We have to look at is inside the action of gift giving. And this is important. It’s important because it’s important to give. And somehow we have turned giving into exchanging.
And it is important because we do this same thing in other ways as well. Moreover, the impossibility of gift giving lifts up the ambiguity that is our world. When we closely examine reality we find how porous, how multiplex, how ambiguous our world really is. And this ambiguity is a good thing. It means that there is possibility there, there is a future. When something is completely fixed and understood then it is finished, it has no future. The only way to understand the true meaning of a word is if it comes from a dead language a language like Latin. Then you can define it completely. You can write down all the meanings and record all the usages and say there it is! That is what that word means. Which is all well and good but then it is dead, it has no future. But in a living language the word is still alive, open to new meaning, open to new possibilities.
And this ambiguity and instability shakes up the hard distinctions that modernity relies on. Modernity depends on distinct and definite differences in the divisions of reality. But when we look at the world in the way Caputo suggests we see much more ambiguity. Which is a good thing because this ambiguity unsettles the categories; it blurs the lines between the secular and the religious, between theism and atheism, between faith and knowledge. When we examine the nature of existence scrupulously and thoughtfully we find that it is more complicated, more ambiguous and this can bring new life to our institutions and our world.
Because one of the challenges facing liberal Christianity we have reduced faith to a set of ethical practices. We are concerned only with justice. And I know, I know I preach justice all the time, perhaps too much. And these things are important but if there is nothing else then we can become stagnated and stultified. We have to be about justice we have to care for the poor, feed the hungry and liberate the oppressed but we need something more.
These are all great things but we need something more. We need something else. Dare I say it, we need resurrection. Not the resurrection of the fundamentalist Christians who insist that you have to believe that God made dead cells come alive or you will burn in hell. If you think that the resurrection is simply about dead cells revivifying then you are missing the point. Like “the impossible” of the gift we have to engage in “the impossible” resurrection. If we embrace the ambiguity of the world then we can undercut the divisions of the secular and the religious, theism and atheism, faith and knowledge. If we embrace ambiguity we can engage what is happing in resurrection and we can participate in resurrections happening right now. Resurrections like the possibilities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, resurrections like a community accepting a transgender minister, resurrections like a congregation that had no children ten years and yesterday had 33 children and youth making crafts, dying Easter eggs, playing ball hockey and baking resurrection rolls. Resurrection is children in worship where there were no children before.
Resurrection is God doing a new thing, it’s new potentialities, it’s new possibilities. As Tripp Fuller says “Resurrection is the place in which we find out there’s something more than the potential we already have. Because we aren’t a people of what’s actual, we are a people of what’s possible.” And what’s possible is “the impossible” of the resurrection; that what’s happening in the resurrection is that we are a people of the possibility. In “the impossible” of the resurrection we get to be protest marchers in God’s love rebellion. We get to. We don’t have to. We get to. What’s happing in the resurrection is that we can turn all those “have tos” into “get tos”. We don’t have to care for the poor we get to care for the poor, we get to feed the hungry, we get to liberate the oppressed. In the resurrection we no longer have to we get to. That is the impossible possibility of the resurrection. That we get to be a part of God’s love rebellion. And that is the good news of the resurrection. Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids), 2007.