On the Resurrection

Whether you believe or reject the claim of the Resurrection of Jesus, there seems to be on either side a single key consideration.  For believers, there is an account of the Resurrection given in the Bible.  For doubters, this is an account of a miracle, and miracles do not occur.  Those are the main competing considerations.  There are others, but these are the most important ones.

It is with no pleasure that I judge the doubters to have the stronger of these considerations.  So, a few thoughts on what makes the biblical account weak.  One is that the Bible cannot be the evidence for its own authority.  However, it isn’t clear what a more valid alternative would be.  It makes sense that the evidence for the Bible’s authority has been incorporated into the Bible itself.  Why would any serious person exclude it?  Another thought is that those who are giving the reports of the Resurrection in the Bible are themselves believers.  Well, here is another case of “well, what do you expect?”  If you had personal testimony to the Resurrection, wouldn’t you be more likely than others to count yourself a believer?  So, that the Bible claims to provide the source evidence for its own authority actually isn’t that unreasonable.  Still, isn’t it possible that the early Christians were all lying, or at least deluded?  Yes of course that is possible.  They themselves do seem to have believed, insofar as many became martyrs for their faith.  So the martyrs at least were not Machiavellian liars — if they lied, they believed their own lies to a certain extent.  Why do martyrs sacrifice their lives on behalf of claims that deep down they might know are not true?  Something becomes muddled deep down between what is true and not true.  There are swarms of maybes swirling around our hearts.  We seek out patterns, dots that we can connect in order to make sense not just of everything we believe to be physically true, but also everything that we feel.  Emotional responses have a truth to themselves.  In intense pleasure we find truth, at least a moral truth.  In happiness we find truth.  In love we find truth.  There is also truth in extreme pain.  The dots we connect reveal how all of these emotional and moral truths relate to the physical, historical and mathematical truths.  We can recall here the second temptation of Jesus in the desert, where the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the top of a temple to see if angels will rescue him.  The temptation is to see your emotional truth as greater than your physical truth, and to set at odds these things rather than harmonize them.  Jesus of course resists the temptation.  The challenge to doubters of the Resurrection, who doubt because miracles are impossible, is the same problem in reverse.  Is it not an affront to truth itself to see one half of truth–physical truth–as boundlessly superior than the other half–emotional truth?  Is there not something more honest in saying as Jesus did from the top of the temple that “It is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test,'” than to say “certainly if I throw myself down, no one will save me?”

On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

My Mother, My Immortality

The desire for immortality wasn’t the most obvious topic for my political theory dissertation, particularly one aimed at helping us understand our political situation today (the issue has been considered by most scholars as a dead one for hundreds of years).  On the other hand, we all agree that new solutions are needed to overcome the problems that we face as a society.  Well, new solutions mean new ways of thinking — it’s as simple as that.  And sometimes the old can be made new again.

Of course, new ways of thinking are likely to fail — that is exactly why nobody else is trying them.  They are untested, and often for good reason.

There really is no good way to get around this problem.  Either we seek out these new solutions, and assume the risk that goes along with that, or we play it safe, waiting for somebody else to tackle the big issues of the day.  With one life to live, and with a strong appetite to have some lasting significance, I’m willing to sometimes take my chances.

Over the past few years, I have found that this unusual path gives rise to unusual needs.  I often feel, in my personal and professional life, that I am operating without a safety net — that failure will have serious consequences, and mediating those consequences requires constant vigilance and flexibility.

In this respect, I am profoundly blessed to have the unceasing love and support of my wife, Margarita.  Where I have also found strength, unexpectedly, is from researching my family history.  I began this much more personal kind of research shortly before my mother died 3 years ago tomorrow (April 13th, 2012).  It had long haunted me how little I knew of my family, and how unrooted I felt in this world.  When I began, I could not even recall the names of 3 of my grandparents.

In one of the last conversations I had with my mom, she shared with me some details about our family in order to help jump start my research.  She also gave me some life advice, which was a pretty unusual thing for her to do.  She told me to make sure, apart from working hard, that I try to make sure that I am happy.

This advice seemed pretty straightforward at the time (Sure Mom, okay), but her words stayed with me.  Is there really a difference, after all, between working hard at something you are passionate about and being happy?  Was she just giving me a hard time?  The Bible tells us that we are cursed by the Fall of Adam to sweat and toil to provide for ourselves.  Marx tells us that our labor is actually our fundamental essence, the activity that gives meaning to our lives.  Adam Smith says in the Wealth of Nations that we innovate in the hopes of working less, perhaps suggesting that it is after our work is done that we pursue happiness.  There are lots of different views on this, so was my mother’s advice just too oversimplified?  That’s exactly what I thought for quite some time.

The better answer that I’ve come around to brings me back to the start of this post.  The fact is that the answers given to us by the Bible, by Marx, by Smith are all undeniably subject to circumstance.  They might all be right, they might all be wrong, and it may just depend.  What we are charged with doing in this world, however, is discovering our own answer to our own circumstances.  In this respect, after initially dismissing it, I now consider my mother’s advice to be superior to all three of these great moral and philosophic authorities.

“Make sure that you are happy.”  Go out into the world and discover the possibilities.  Test them; experiment with yourself.  Research your family history, write a dissertation, love unconditionally.  Be devoted, be “all in” when you try something.  Maybe it will work, or maybe it won’t, and you’ll have to start all over again from the beginning.  At the end of it all, at least you’ll have made sure.  I don’t know how any of us could do any better.

mom blog post