Resurrection & subversion

Had he just died, and that had been the end of the story, it, it would have been something that could have been interpreted any number of ways, but it would have fitted our religious expectations. That is, in some sense we would understand its inevitability — it had to happen — his teachings might live on after him, he would be a renowned sage, but he would be gone and the whole story would have a kind of tragic fullness to it. Because an end had been given to his story. Because death, and this is death’s great service to us, gives us an end to our stories that makes them meaningful. But then comes Easter. . . . I think sometimes we tend to forget that the Gospel of Easter is not just something that seems incredible, and seemed incredible, it was in some sense subversive of the whole sacred order of the universe. Uh, because — what happened at Easter was that the sane responsible prudent decisions made — the, by those who were responsible for sustaining the economy of life and death, the economy of chaos and order, the social reality of the universe in which Jesus was located, had passed their verdicts, discharged their offices, done what was expected of them; and God had passed his judgment and it absolutely reversed those verdicts. Christ was not assumed into a hereafter in a simple sense. Christ did not disappear into the divine mystery. God did not confirm the verdict of his judges. God did not accept the finality of death, its meaningfulness, he didn’t take the well-rounded story of Jesus with its tragic conclusion and make something beautiful out of it; rather God shattered the power of death in Christ. And in that moment, a whole, the whole rationality of a world reconciled to death collapsed.

After all — I mean, there’s no older religious wisdom, and again I’m not making statements about all non-Christian religions, that’s not what I mean, but I mean there’s a religious wisdom that we all share going back to the beginning of human piety — there’s no older religious wisdom than the one that teaches us that the sacred, there’s a sacred necessity and irreversibility of death. And that a victim that has been once offered up to ‘the gods,’ or ‘order,’ or, or, or ‘the divine,’ has to be then transformed into some higher, more abstract good. But that’s not what happens. Rather it is still the person, Jesus of Nazareth, in his particularity, who is vindicated over against all the powers — the political powers, the cosmic powers, the power of death itself. And in that moment, what is revealed is that, according to the divine vantage which is revealed in Christ, death is not part of God’s order. It is not God’s final word. It is not part of his economy. And then what becomes of all our sacrifices, what becomes of all the resignations we’ve had to make and all the reconciliations? We discover that we are no longer permitted to enjoy the solace of a certain sort of religious resignation. Uhm, we can’t just sink away into the chaos of nature, uh, death is no longer there a thing to be mastered and understood as part of the cosmos. Incredibly, we’ve been told that death itself — which has been made natural to us over, at the expense of so many victims, and at such a huge expense of cultural, religious labor — that death itself never was the truth of things. Death, which religion, culture, just practical wisdom had made familiar to us and even meaningful for us becomes a stranger to us again. Essentially meaningless. Ultimately unjust — no matter what the workings of divine providence may do with any given moment of death, nonetheless death itself no longer fits.

Um, this is a very simple thing I know, uh, but . . . it strikes me that somehow we don’t always appreciate it that, that contrary to the best, the most prudent, the most serious religious and philosophical reflection of much of human culture, which teaches us, ‘Well, yes, we have emerged from that, that ignorance of death that was our special condition as children — can we now be reconciled to the cosmic reality of death,’ instead what the Gospel says is ‘Well, no, the real question is whether the world can be redeemed from death,’ because that strangeness of death to us, that, that sense of alienation and distance between ourselves, is in fact an index of truth. It points us toward something truer than the practical wisdom that culture and religion and so much of our social history would have us embrace. Um, in a sense, the resurrection of Christ calls us to a second naïveté. A post-, how can I say it, a, a, a post- — I don’t want to say post-religious, again it sounds as if I’m simply condemning religion in the abstract, but a post- [pause] -critical return to our most primordial intuition of death as something unnatural. Obscene. Intrinsically evil. And a return, in a sense, to that disquiet before the power of death, that, th- — its power to interrupt our natural orientation towards the future which is the thing from which, supposedly, all the wisdom of the ages was supposed to deliver us. What we discover is that that disquiet, perhaps, was always a sign of a created openness to God and his kingdom, and that in a sense the odd tendency of primitive man to see death as unnatural turns out to be a sign of spiritual wisdom, a perfectly correct sense that most of us would do well to try to recover, the true nature of spiritual beings created in the divine image. And that maybe even that strange and haunting and irrecoverable immediacy of the small child’s experience of the world is a foretaste of our true home. Having, uh, departed from the garden of our first innocence, as I called it earlier, we’re called not to become disenchanted realists content to dwell here under the dominion of death, looking for, uhm, rationales for why there is death, why this person dies, refusing to acknowledge the sheer idiot hideousness of death, refusing to recognize death as a thing that is evil but instead learning to be wise and at peace with it. No. We’re summoned rather to enter into the city of a second and higher innocence which knows death only as a shadow, and a falsehood, overcome by infinite love.

From a terrific lecture given by David Bentley Hart in 2006, available in mp3, free, at the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press site.

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