Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Resurrection of Nature: Thinking Beyond Borg & Jones

What follows is a highly condensed version of my argument for a neo-process theology of the ‘resurrection of nature', which I defended in the concluding chapter for my Master's thesis (Perichoresis and Process: The Eco-Theologies of Moltmann and Cobb) at Claremont School of Theology a couple of years ago. I'm posting this in response to the debate about the necessity of a material resurrection between Marcus Borg and Tony Jones.  My argument for a kind of third way beyond their perspectives essentially comes down to this: by maintaining a social trinitarian panentheism in which everything material already exists (and continues to exist in a reconciled state) at every new moment of becoming within the divine life, and also by understanding matter as more akin to energy (as quantum physicists and process thinkers continue to claim), Christians need not worry about whether there was an empty tomb or not to hold a robust view of the resurrection of Jesus.  I am drawing especially on the work of Jurgen Moltmann, Joseph Bracken, and John Haught, as well as four of my teachers from Claremont: Philip Clayton, Marjorie Suchocki, Tripp Fuller, and John Cobb (although that is not to suggest that they all completely agree with what I argue here).

As the majority of contemporary biblical scholars agree, the Jewish understanding of ‘resurrection’ that Jesus and Paul affirmed had to do with a transformed body, not just the soul. N.T. Wright argues that the Jewish view of resurrection is that it is “for the whole world – meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history.” Resurrection hope is thus cosmic in scope. But is there a way to think about a cosmic resurrection that is plausible, ecological, and faithful to Christian intuitions, avoiding the problems of theodicy the are implied by asserting a coercive form of divine action required for the resurrection of Jesus? I will argue that a "field-oriented approach" to resurrection better succeeds in meeting these three criteria (see Joseph Bracken's Christianity and Process Thought, John Haught's God After Darwin, Philip Clayton's The Predicament of Belief, and Thomas Jay Oord's The Nature of Love for a more technical explanation of much of what follows).

John Haught rightly points out that bodily resurrection is an inherently ecological concept, since bodies are interconnected and constituted by the whole of creation. As such, bodily resurrection would logically include the rest of the natural world throughout evolutionary history. However, a common criticism of resurrection from eco-theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether is that it demonizes death, which is a necessary part of life. But as Latin American liberation theologians remind us, it is important to understand the primary motivations for the biblical views of death and resurrection. Although death was generally seen as natural in the Old Testament, the New Testament’s more negative perspective on death is rooted in the view that it is the oppressive tool of Empire, used to terrorize the poor and crucify Jesus. Jon Sobrino explains that resurrection hope “applies directly to justice, not simply to survival; its primary subjects are victims, not simply human beings; the scandal it has to overcome is death inflicted unjustly, not simply natural death as our destiny.”

Resurrection is then first and foremost about justice for the victims, whether human or nonhuman. From a process perspective, only if all creatures are able to enjoy richness of experience, have joy outweigh suffering, have most of their felt needs be fulfilled, and their existence preferable to nonexistence, was God’s decision to lure our kind of world into being worth the risk for each creature as an intrinsically valuable subject of experience. But it seems apparent that this is not generally the case, especially in the tragically violent history of evolution and in the long and bloody history of empires. Death cannot be merely a contribution to something greater than ourselves. If we are to think ecologically, considering the value of the individual parts of creation and not only the whole, some notion of resurrection seems necessary. As Jay McDaniel writes, “Given the inescapable lure to live with wholeness and satisfaction, a lure that itself is the immanence of a creative God, one life does not seem to be enough” for most creatures to realize shalom.

Although it must be held together with Sobrino’s notion of resurrection as justice for the victims, Haught’s view is that death in the most general sense is a natural and necessary part of the creative process of becoming. But if death in the sense of nonexistence were the final word of the creative process, the purpose and identity of creatures that God has so patiently lured into existence to maximize overall value in the universe would be difficult to affirm. Haught thus argues that resurrection is not so much a rescue operation from natural processes as it is our entrance into a deeper mode of participation in the universe through the triune life: “Resurrection, if it is truly bodily, could mean a person being set free from a limited relationship to nature in order to take on an even deeper intimacy with it, a relationship that Karl Rahner has called ‘pancosmic.’” From this perspective, the pain of death seems to be partially due to “our undergoing the transition from a relatively narrow range of relationships ‘in the present age’ to the wider web of relations that would pertain to a perfected creation.”

Such a profoundly ecological view of resurrection would seem to encourage an ethic of solidarity with the natural world, over against a flight to the beyond. One may even be reminded of Teilhard’s material mysticism: “Bathe yourself in the ocean of matter; plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious experience; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God…” Within the framework of trinitarian panentheism, one can see how resurrection into the divine life would involve an intensification of communion with the three divine persons, and therefore an intensification of one’s participation in the reign of God. Resurrected life in the fullest sense of being reconciled to God, both body and soul, would somehow involve one’s continuing participation in God’s ongoing creative-redemptive activity in the world.

But how is this view to be understood metaphysically? Joseph Bracken makes an interesting proposal within his social trinitarian metaphysics that makes a difference for resurrection theology. Such a view requires a shift in the conventional understanding of matter as instead being more akin to energy fields and thus not as solid as it seems to ordinary sense experience. As Bracken explains (with just a bit of technical terminology from Whitehead: "actual occasions" can be defined as momentary energetic events of becoming, which is what reality is ultimately composed of at the basic level; "fields of activity" are what Bracken describes as the shape that certain patterns of actual occasions take when organized into ordinary objects of sense experience - such as human bodies):

"If the human body is a complex structured field of activity for all the actual occasions existing within it at any given moment, then the body is far less physical and material than our senses here and now tell us. What is important about the body is the flow of energy from moment to moment in virtue of a fixed pattern of relations among the body parts. This pattern of relations can presumably be incorporated into the divine field of activity at every moment without difficulty and can be integrated with the pattern of relations governing our bodies from the first moment of conception onwards. When we die, therefore, we will be reunited with our bodies…[as] what has been recorded in our characteristic bodily pattern of behavior."

In this metaphysics of resurrection then, material bodies continue to live in a transformed state in the triune life. Reunited with their final occasions through God’s (non-coercive) resurrecting power, a creature as a psychosomatic unity would continue “to grow in its appreciation and evaluation of its contribution to an ontological reality much greater than itself, namely, the kingdom of God.” From a panentheistic perspective, this means an intensification of a relationship to the triune God, who is always already present, along with the creature’s continued contribution to the infinite creative process as a whole.

In this perspective, questions about an empty tomb of Jesus after his resurrection are relevant, but not decisively so. As evangelical theologian Thomas Jay Oord has argued (in agreement with John Cobb), process metaphysics certainly does not rule out the possibility that Jesus’ physical body was literally transformed, leaving behind an empty tomb. Indeed, for him it is of ultimate importance for his Christian faith that this occurred. From an emergentist perspective with a more limited view of divine action, Philip Clayton shows how the resurrection of Jesus can be conceived of in a way that neither requires an empty tomb nor a denial that Jesus was personally raised to new life and somehow made present to the disciples. This goes beyond what Marcus Borg has argued for in his popular books. Within the presently proposed trinitarian metaphysics, a person of faith does not necessarily have to decide either way on an empty tomb in order to affirm a real resurrection of Jesus. If material bodies are really energetic bodies that are always at every moment being resurrected into the triune life (since pan-en-theism = all-in-God), they need not necessarily disappear at some particular moment from normal space-time to be literally, materially resurrected. One might then stress the historical importance of the appearance narratives over the empty tomb narratives, as some scholars do, as well as the Pauline emphasis on the “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

It seem to me that such a theology of resurrection is faithful to Christian intuitions, entirely plausible in terms of contemporary science, avoids the problems of theodicy by emphasizing a non-interventionist but realist view of divine action, and deeply ecological in that it does not require an absolute reversal of natural processes for resurrection to occur (as in Moltmann's theology). While initially providing justice for history’s victims through healing and reconciliation, with Haught we can think of the climax of our resurrected life as the deepening of our relationships to the cosmic community in a new mode of collaboration with the ongoing work of the triune God.


  1. If you were trying to solve a scientific problem I don't see how this does it. The resurrection is still extremely improbable under scientific laws even if the body is a "field of activity". Am I missing something? How is this compatible with science? This seems to just re-frame an old idea and it's not any less coercive either. While it's more naturalistic I wouldn't call it scientific.

  2. Thanks Rolland. I certainly wasn't trying to solve a scientific problem. I simply wanted it to be plausible in terms of science. That's not the same as talking about the resurrection as probable. An event in the world can be plausible without being probable.

    As for coercive activity, I don't know how you see what i've described as being coercive. If one wants to believe in an empty tomb and Jesus' body literally being resurrected without coercive activity, this idea depends on the process notion that entities have some modicum of experience - that is, experience as the ability to respond to influences goes all the way down, even though not always conscious experience. God's activity as a lure constantly acts as an efficient cause in creaturely becoming, which leaves final causation to the creature - meaning the lure can be appropriated or resisted. God's activity in creation is thus noncoercive, without exception, and there would never be violation of natural laws. With this in mind, is a miracle improbable? Absolutely! But this opens the possibility for that to occur. But the point of what I'm saying is that I don't think we should hang our hat on this literal of an interpretation. It's possible, but not likely. One could only assert such an incredibly improbable event only on faith but with the confidence that it is at least reasonable, and that's where Oord as an evangelical is coming here.

    Among other things, a field of activity is a way to imagine the organizing patterns between the various actual occasions that are constitutive of a person. In process thought, God is constantly resurrecting the individual occasions and giving them subjectivity within the divine life. This is the logic of a fully relational theism. But if the three divine persons that co-constitute the one God of Christian faith are also imaged as overlapping fields of activity (within which the cosmos as a mega-field of activity with many sub-fields of activities - that is, this is panentheism), there is no reason why a field of activity could not be resurrected into the divine life without coercion. I recommend Joseph Bracken's Christianity and Process Thought for how this works out in better detail. If the idea of the field of activity isn't working for you after that, try Clayton's Predicament of Belief. He speaks of resurrection without coercive intervention as well, but from an emergentist perspective.

  3. Thanks a lot for the explanation. I missed the distinction between plausible and probable. Even if something is the least probable to occur it could still be plausible. I'd have to read up on this more. Thanks for the book recommendations. I've read predicament of belief, Clayton's thinking is probably the most scientifically compatible form of theology/Christology I've read. Although his emergentist position about consciousness being taken up into the divine life still seems pretty tricky. Emerging properties like consciousness may not be completely bound by the physical, but I don't see how they could exist without the physical from which they emerged. Clayton's hypothesis of panentheism solving the problem seems fantastic, nevertheless I have to accept it as a Christian who believes Jesus' subjective existence is being sustained by the Holy Spirit. I may just have to let go of my need to rationalize my faith claims to an extent that may not be possible.