By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who Is the Realist?

One of my favorite friends and conversation partners is the "village atheist" where I live. He is an eminently decent and pleasant man. One of his main concerns is not to live under the allegedly false illusion of religious belief. I try to point out that, in the Christian tradition, nothing is more concretely and grittily realistic than the truth that to give is to live. He will answer that he can follow that truth without leaning on any sort of theological belief. Like many pleasant atheists, he is the product of a Christian culture and background which formed him very early in life. Like many others with such backgrounds, my intuition is that his Christian background and upbringing still play a large role in shaping his present commitment to decency and unselfishness. In this regard, I never tire of repeating the remark of another non-believer, the famous political economist John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that Western non-believers are reaping the benefits of older generations of believers, implying that, possibly, some day that moral endowment and capital, if not replenished, will simply stop yielding further benefits at some point in the future. Some feel that we are already at that point in some places.

I thoroughly agree with realism. I can see easily the unhistorical beliefs of other religions based on legends, which however inspiring, beautiful, insightful, romantic, and worthy of respect, are simply highly unlikely to have ever happened in the real world; such legends are either asserted blindly as groupthink without a shred of evidence in their favor or are clearly and flatly untrue. I mourn those, especially the young, who invest their lives in such unrealism and narrow their intellectual and theological horizons. But, what can I say to the village atheist, about my own religious tradition? Why am I different from the historically unrealistic believers of other religions?

The tomb was empty. His followers were not looking for a risen crucified man, but they saw him. That is the best historical explanation for what happened after the brutal execution of the itinerant Jewish teacher/prophet known to us as Jesus. After the death of Jesus, Christianity did not spread by the sword, as happened with Islam in its early years of expansion across the Middle East and North Africa. St. Paul did not lead armed contingents. In contrast, Christianity grew and flourished under brutal persecution as a minority religion, until the Roman Empire--after centuries--finally gave in to reality. I am not aware of any historical explanation--other than the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus-- for that completely unexpected, astounding burst of fervor and expansion after the miserable and shameful execution of the disciples' Galilean teacher as a common criminal. That is my historical realism.

For more on this theme of historical realism, see this lecture by Anglican theologian, and now Anglican Bishop, N.T. Wright given at the Gregorian University in Rome at this link. Below is an excerpt close to the end of the lecture:

Historical investigation, I propose, brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw. I do not think that history can force us to draw any particular further deductions beyond these two phenomena; the conclusion the disciples drew is there for the taking, but it is open to us, as it was to them, to remain cautious. Thomas waited a week before believing what he had been told. On Matthew’s mountain, some had their doubts.

However, the elegance and simplicity of explaining the two outstanding phenomena, the empty tomb and the visions, by means of one another, ought to be obvious. Were it not for the astounding, and world-view-challenging, claim that is thereby made, I think everyone would long since have concluded that this was the correct historical result. If some other account explained the rise of Christianity as naturally, completely and satisfyingly as does the early Christians’ belief, while leaving normal worldviews intact, it would be accepted without demur.

That, I believe, is the result of the investigation I have conducted. There are many other things to say about Jesus’ resurrection. But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him. The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

Of course, there are several reasons why people may not want, and often refuse, to believe this. But the historian must weigh, as well, the alternative accounts they themselves offer. And, to date, none of them have anything like the explanatory power of the simple, but utterly challenging, Christian one. The historian’s task is not to force people to believe. It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and to make clear, too, that from that point on the historian alone cannot help. When you’re dealing with worldviews, every community and every person must make their choices in the dark, even if there is a persistent rumour of light around the next corner.

Source link (emphasis added).