No More Potemkin Theology

Editorial by Art Dewey
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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 5
September – October 2017
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Perhaps no other biblical text reminds me that I do not live in the world of the first century more than the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, which discusses resurrection. Here Paul delivers a response to the skeptics of the Corinthian community. Evidently some believed that they had received genuine access to the power and presence of God and were already living as “resurrected” people. The power that they felt and exerted over others in the community demonstrated this new life.

Paul does not deny that the Corinthians already participate in the vital breath of the God of Israel. But he argues that the story is far from over. He first notes what most people in the ancient world assumed: that seeds actually die after they are sown (1 Cor 15:36) and that every blade of grass that sprouted, every plant that appeared, came about through divine agency, which provided a new body for the plant after the death of the seed. (Thus a plant differs so from its seed.) Where ancients saw divine abundance breaking out, moderns see an organic continuation from seed to plant.

Paul also plays upon another ancient assumption: that the bodies above the earth are composed of light, not matter. Philo even says that the stars are intelligent minds. Roman coinage highlights the comet seen at Julius Caesar’s funeral. He had become that shining spirit. In the ancient world, no one would have equated a comet with an orbiting ball of rock and ice or a star with an ongoing thermonuclear explosion. Thus, when Paul declares that “the dead will come to life like that” (1 Cor 15:42), that they will be raised with a “body fit for life in God’s new world” (1 Cor 15:44), Paul means that the Corinthians will share in the same condition Jesus now enjoys. They will share the “likeness of the heavenly man” (1 Cor 15:49). In short, they will become stardust.

And this is where I feel so alien from that first-century text. When Galileo peered through his telescope and saw our moon and then the four largest moons of Jupiter, he changed our vision of space. The world of spirit has come tumbling down like a dying satellite ever since. The “heavenly fire” (Donne) has gone out.

And it does no good to retreat to what has been Western culture’s traditional take on the resurrection: the delectably solid bodies of the Renaissance. So many of us imagine the resurrected body to fit those anatomical dreams. But they too fall away once we realize that we live in a radically different cosmology. Our world, crafted by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Noether, and Hawking belongs to neither the first nor the sixteenth century. When we look up we do not see spirit but bodies of light receding away from us.

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In fact, this gets us back to what Rudolf Bultmann recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century. If we do not simply toss away such ancient witnesses, if we sense that there is something there for us, we cannot retreat back into that smaller, earlier world. We cannot go home again pretending that in twenty centuries nothing has happened to the way the world is understood .

Indeed, Paul constructs his entire mission to the nations, to those looked down upon by his Jewish brethren as lacking in full humanity, by stressing his paradigm shift. He discovered that the God of Israel did not play the competitive games of Rome. He detected a God who does not give up on the abandoned. Out of this vision Paul walked through the world. He did not deny what had happened to him or the experience of the communities he engendered.

And then there is this added note. When Paul uses the language of resurrection (literally “to stand up again”), he is maintaining the Jewish quest for justice: the notion of resurrection derives from the Jewish sages’ speculation on how their God could finally answer the injustices committed against so many innocent ones. Thus, to say that Jesus was “caused to stand up again,” that the Corinthians “will come to life like that” was an investment in hope, a confident claim that justice will be found.

And this is where we stand now. Are we still moved by the hope that Reality is ultimately compassionate? Do we imagine that what we do plays out over the long run? Do we recognize that life is not an adolescent game of survival but something far more mysterious and intricate? Have we had any experience that catches us by surprise because we are overwhelmed by an unexpected gift? Have we ever dared to give ourselves away? Have we found wisdom in unwanted and unheard of places?

We cannot go back again. We cannot use the Bible to construct a Potemkin village, to keep from asking if there is anything there, as well as to keep from making a genuine response to the complexity and contours of life on this planet.

But we can take some tips from our ancestors. Because we cannot stay in the past, let us determine to move out, to take part in an exodus that exceeds the original trek. Even our older brother Paul could learn something new. Let us take up the fragments of our traditions and use them like flint to fire up new campfires, where strangers like dreams are welcome, where new worlds are unearthed with each new friend, and where each moment trembles at the birth of creation.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 30-5

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