Sense and Nonsense: What Resurrection?

I believe … in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Recently, I heard from a young graduate student whom I did not know. He told me he was becoming a Catholic. In the process, he was taking instructions at a local parish. Evidently, there were a number of people also taking instructions. One gentleman, who was a Catholic, but lapsed in some way, was coming back to the Church. He explained to the group that he was so returning because the Church is so much more “tolerant” these days.

For example, he continued, he himself did not believe in the Resurrection of the Body. The now “tolerant” Church agreed with him. Therefore he could practice again. Apparently the instructor assigned to teach these potential converts had no problem with this strange view either. The Church, I take it, is in this approach so “tolerant” that such things as the doctrine of the Resurrection are up for grabs. It is not one of the things that count. I do not know what the local bishop might think of all this. I do hope he has an opinion on the topic. Needless to say, the young man seeking to join that Church which does hold the Resurrection and says it does wondered if he had knocked at the right door.

How common such scenes are I could only guess, but I suspect that they are rather frequent these days. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the man who did not hold the Resurrection was right, that in line with sundry modern theologians (who definitely agree with him) this doctrine was no longer something required of believers, this in spite of the Creeds. My first reaction, of course, would be rather Pauline, that is, why on earth would anyone want to become a Catholic on the assumption that this doctrine of the Resurrection is no longer required for baptism? The attraction and delight of Catholicism in particular are based on the truth of this doctrine, itself based on the humanity and divinity of Christ, based on an event that did take place. The whole thing is quite strange.

A church that upholds doctrine, that is, insists in public on what it teaches on condition of not belonging to it if not held, that insists on what it believes no matter how evidently outlandish the belief might be, at least can be respected for its gutsiness. But a church that says one thing for a couple of thousand years and then drops a core item as minor or unbelievable is quite absurd. And everyone knows it, probably even the man who denies the Resurrection but wants to be baptized again anyhow.

No doubt, the real problem with this gentleman who was joining the Church because it was so tolerant that it no longer believed in the Resurrection was precisely that the Church does stand for something. There is a sort of “compassion” ethic which would hold that any firm position that excludes someone is rigid. The Church within itself, in this position, should be able to “tolerate” anyone, and its doctrines ought not to stand in the way. If we did not insist on anything, apparently, we would be just one big happy family with nothing separating us because nothing is really “held,” nothing really matters.

What the gentleman dislikes, of course, is dogma. Yet, as Chesterton said, our minds are made for dogmas. Dogmas alone can free us. The mind that in principle denies dogmas is on its way to its own destruction. The mind is an apparatus designed to state what is. “It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country [England], where the Creeds are daily recited” Dorothy Sayers wrote,

there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is.

This blunt observation, of course, is not to deny that there are those who do know what the doctrines of Christianity mean and still deny and despise them. With such, as Aquinas held, we can at least debate and argue. What is perplexing is the professed Christian who wants to be a Christian and still deny what the faith essentially is.

In P.G. Wodehouse’s novel Psmith in the City, recently acquired by myself on account of a birthday from a friend who loves to hear Bertie Wooster exclaim in a million ways, “Whhaat?”, there is a character by the name of Mike Jackson. This Jackson evidently had recently acquired a job in the mailroom of a local firm. Jackson found that

the work in the postage department was not intricate. There was nothing much to do except enter and stamp letters, and, at intervals, take them down to the post office at the end of the street. The nature of the work gave Mike plenty of time for reflection.

Christian doctrines, if I might be so bold, are also given to us because we have minds. God has treated us with the dignity of challenge, the challenge to think why on earth this or that teaching is right, true. We need plenty of time for reflection before we realize that the structure of the universe that dogmas portend is the reality, that the denial of any doctrine ends up by deforming man.

The Resurrection is not first a dogma, then a fact. It is first a fact, then a dogma. It is the dogma addressed to us precisely as we are, body and soul, the way we are, the way we ought to be, the way we want to be. This is the dogma, as Chesterton said, that is unbelievable mostly because it is too good to be true. No philosophical or religious system has ever thought of any greater dogma for the human beings that are. We do not say “wouldn’t it be nice if this doctrine were true, therefore it is.” We say rather, “it seems impossible to be true as far as we can tell, but Christ rose from the dead.”

We are thus challenged to think how this might be so. We are not asked to contradict the mind. What we end up with, in our debates with those who dislike and despise Christianity, is the assurance that no argument holds against the dogma. We are also left with the suspicion that many a classical dilemma, notably those associated with friendship, with the relation of God and man, with the inner life of God, are related to this doctrine of the Resurrection almost as if certain essential questions which must arise in our living were purposely left unanswered. Some find this absurd. Some find it uncanny. Some find it consoling. But if you do not believe in the Resurrection, do not be baptized. Do not miss what it is that Christianity is about on the grounds that you are so “tolerant” as not to believe the only thing worth believing in the first place.

I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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