A few weeks back you wrote a column about Paul’s letter to the Epistles in which you allowed for the possibility of error in Scripture. I’m guessing that you would not be willing to admit that the resurrection falls under the same possibility of human error as the letters of Paul. Why is that?
I’m glad to admit that the resurrection falls under the same possibility of human error as the letters of Paul. Let’s talk about why.
To begin, I’ll invite you to go back and reread the resurrection stories in Scripture. Here we find the news that Jesus has been raised proclaimed by a man who looks like lightning (Matthew 28:2); here we see Jesus appearing “in another form” to two disciples (Mark 16:12); here we witness Jesus walking the earth but sometimes unrecognizable to his friends (Luke 24:16, John 20:14) and vanishing when they do recognize him (Luke 24:31); here is the paradox of Jesus fatally wounded and yet alive and well (John 20:27). Here, in short, is the account of a profoundly mystical experience.
And now, think about your own encounters with mystery. I bet that you’ve had a few of them, even if they weren’t as intense as witnessing Jesus raised. Maybe you have had the privilege of being present for someone’s death or birth. Or maybe you have had the joy of being startled by beauty in poetry or love or nature or art or still somewhere else.
Regardless of the precise circumstances, you will know that all these experiences of mystery all have at least one thing in common. They all defy words.
Now, the ineffability of mystery doesn’t stop us from attempting to share it with others: we have a deep need to tell our stories. And so, we reach for superlatives (it was awesome, amazing — maybe even terrifying) and metaphors and similes (his face shone, it was like she was on fire). But, ultimately, our words cannot exhaust the immensity of what we have experienced.
What Abraham Maslow calls a “peak experience,” what our friends in 12-step spirituality call a “moment of clarity,” what Dag Hammarskjöld knows as an occasion of “yes” — these encounters with the divine are always more than we can hold onto. Thus, telling the story of such an event can never yield a description which is literally true, or factual, or without error. To attempt to craft an errorless description, for instance, of sitting with a loved one during his dying or of giving birth to a child would be to lapse into absurdity. Similarly, to suppose that an ancient reporter hiding in a bush outside of Emmaus would have been able to record precisely the scenes that the John or Luke describes is to trivialize the Gospel.
Such thinking represents a category error. We cannot cram a mystery into a straitjacket. We cannot demand that a mystery give a deposition in court.
The resurrection might well be the greatest mystery that there is. Encountering it seriously and faithfully necessitates letting go of the need to tell its story without error. It begins with acknowledging that, in meeting Jesus risen from the grave, we find a story that is bigger than words.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Martin Elfert to firstname.lastname@example.org.