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"The Bridge Between This World and Eternal Life" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 2, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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I.

Someone recently sent me an on-line account of Christopher Buckley's reflections on his parents' deaths within a year of each other in 2007 and 2008. The passage is from the author's new book on his famous father, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. In many ways, it is a touching, even at times humorous, account. In the course of his comments on life, death, and religion, as an aside, the younger Buckley informs us that he no longer believes in the fact of the Resurrection of Christ. I presume that he once did, but now does not. This information is not presented as an argument but as autobiography about himself, as if we would care to know his theology in the face of the death of his parents.

Lots of folks, of course, do not believe in the existence or Resurrection of Christ. More credibility is usually given to those who once did believe in this fact but now have "wised up" and do not. We can find others, no doubt, who did not believe in the Resurrection but who now do. The Apostles themselves practically needed clobbering over the head to accept it—a rather consoling fact, I have often thought. We have always to be grateful to the Apostle Thomas, the famous doubting Thomas, for his skepticism about the Resurrection—"Blessed are those, Thomas, who have not seen but who have believed."

If one is a Muslim or a Jew, he cannot believe in this fact and remain what he is. Hindus seem to allow for many resurrections of various sorts. And, if one is a Buddhist, it is hard to see into what Christ would have been subsumed. I have met few atheists who hold this doctrine. Lots of people will acknowledge it—provided it does not mean what it says it does. Still others will take it on "pure" faith. This means that no suasive grounds in reason exist that would also make it plausible. Anyone who doubts his own existence or who doesn't think he can get outside his own mind will, admittedly, have a tough time with this doctrine. This will be especially true if he thinks that Christ shared his own philosophic view of reality.

In the history of Christianity itself, this doctrine, from the very first, has had a stormy career. Many have managed so to mitigate or even deny it that it ironically seems possible to be a "Christian" and skip this doctrine, in spite of Paul's famous words to the contrary that without it our faith is "in vain." Some theories say that Christ did not really rise again, but the Apostles so wanted it to happen that they imagined that it did. The fact that the Apostles themselves were quite surprised by the event seems to be overlooked.

Explanations of the "empty tomb" on Easter morn abound. The only reason for the emptiness that is not admitted is the one that says that in fact Christ rose again, as He said he would. The early Jews said the body was "stolen" in spite of the guard put there to prevent this very absconding by the disciples. Many psychological theories concoct dream or illusion theories to account for the phenomenon.

For some odd reason, mankind has worked very hard to deny that there is evidence or logic in this event. We find what can only be called a vested interest in its not having happened. The reason for this insistence that it did not happen seems more moral than scientific or metaphysical. For if it did, but we deny it, as some wit used to say, "There'd be hell to pay." The New Testament actually gives the impression that what we hold and believe also has something to do with our personal destiny as related to how we choose to live.

Catholicism is not indifferent to mind. It thinks events can be put into words that accurately state what happened. We can understand these words both in the here and now and over time. It thinks that witnesses can reliably tell us what they saw. Finally, it also thinks that, if this event did happen, the best way to make it known down the ages is for others to know that it happened probably in the way that it is reported to us, through the testimony of those who told us what they saw and who, often, died for its truth.

Taking my cue from Chesterton's Heretics, I have always suspected that, when someone bothers to tell me that he "no longer believes in the Resurrection," that itself is probably a pretty good reason why it might just be true. We can detect a subtle relation between what we say we do or do not believe and how we live. Our minds protect our deeds, the ones we want to keep from harm's way.



II.

One of the reasons I like Pope Benedict is that he seems to have thought of just about everything long before he was ever elevated to the See of Peter, and so becoming pope did not slow him down. And he covers his case in that careful, thorough German scholarly way that dots all the "i"s and crosses all the "t"s. In what is fast becoming my favorite book of his, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger wrote:

The world's salvation rests on the transcending of the world in its worldly aspect. The risen Christ constitutes the living certainty that this process of the world's self-transcendence, without which the world remains absurd, does not lead into the void. The Easter Jesus is our certainty that history can be lived in a positive way, and that our finite and feeble rational activity has a meaning. In this perspective, the 'antichrist' is the unconditional enclosure of history within its own logic—the supreme antithesis to the Man with the opened side, of whom the author of the Apocalypse wrote. [1]

This is a statement of political philosophy as well as of theology and metaphysics. Rational activity has a proper meaning. History is not enclosed by man alone. Politics is freed insofar as it is not itself a divine claim, a claim that it often makes implicitly for itself.

In this connection, the Holy Father's Easter Sermon was striking (L'Osservatore Romano, English, April 15, 2009). Death, Benedict affirmed, does not have "the last word." What follows is extraordinary. "Jesus is risen so that we too, believing in Him, may have eternal life. This proclamation is at the heart of the Gospel message." This truth is itself the judgment on those who have no faith in this event. In denying the resurrection we implicitly lock ourselves into this world, by choice.

Following Paul, if we do not believe in the Resurrection, we are not to be praised, we are not to be boastful. We are to be "pitied." Something new began at Easter dawn. The meaning of hope is changed and grounded. Easter is not just "a moment in history, but the beginning of a new condition. Jesus is risen not because His memory remains alive in the hearts of His disciples, but because he himself lives in us, and in him we can already savour the joy of eternal life." Notice here Benedict corrects any notion that Christ is just a figment in the "memory" of the Apostles. The Resurrection is not just like other passing historical moments. It makes something, history itself, new.

The following passage of Benedict, I think, is of enormous significance. He goes right down the line on the alternative "theories" about what is meant by the Resurrection. He allows no alternate understanding except the clear fact that it happened. "The Resurrection, then, is not a theory, but a historical reality revealed by the man Jesus Christ by means of His 'Passover,' His 'passage,' that opened the 'new way' between heaven and earth."

We need to look at that sentence again. The Resurrection is not a "theory." It is a reality of history. We may or may not accept the evidence, but we cannot deny that this is what the Church affirms about this event. Many would like the Church to become "modern" by denying the event. The Church remains ever new precisely by not denying it.

The pope continues in the same mode, again somewhat mindful of Chesterton and the heretics: "It is neither a myth (some say it was), nor a dream (others say this), it is not a vision or a utopia, it is not a fairy tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event." What a strong sentence! The rejection of the "vision" hypothesis deals with the psychic theorists. The rejection of the "utopia" deals with the politicians, who have scourged society in the past century seeking to put the Kingdom of God on earth. The "fairy tale" deals with those who want to make it a nice myth. But this does not reject the "fairy tales" of C. S. Lewis or Tolkien. They in fact teach what is orthodox. Or as Chesterton and Tolkien put it, this is the one fairy tale that is true.

The Resurrection is an "event" that took place at a definite time, a definite place, to a definite person, and witnessed by others with names. It will not happen again. History is not cyclical. Its happening once is to be "remembered." That is, it changed the meaning of human history, or better, brought it back to what it was intended to be, the locus of our entrance into the divinity as adopted Sons of God.

The statement of the fact is clear: "Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who at dusk on Friday was taken down from the Cross and buried, has victoriously left the tomb. In fact, at dawn on the first day after the Sabbath, Peter and John found the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene and the other women encounted the risen Jesus." However we choose to deny the evidence of the Resurrection so that we can comfortably live without it, we cannot avoid the forceful assertion that this Resurrection is what happened. This is a report, not a theory.

III.

This pope is himself a philosopher of the first rank. He knows the literature and on what it is based. As he said in Spe Salvi, the primary philosophical ground for the truth of this doctrine is provided by a Marxist philosopher (Adorno) trying to figure out the logic of justice. Adorno could see that the Resurrection of the body has to be true, historically true; otherwise the world is indeed in vain. The Resurrection is "light." This light shines in the "darkest" regions of our hearts in the world.

To what does Benedict refer here? "I am referring particularly to materialism and nihilism, to a vision of the world that is unable to move beyond what is scientifically verifiable, and retreats cheerlessly into a sense of emptiness which is thought to be the definitive destiny of human life." This was, eerily, the very sense that I had while reading the Buckley account, especially about the Cross in the garden that was to contain his parents' remains. This emptiness, as Benedict says, is the logical alternative to eternal life and resurrection. It is indeed "cheerless." It leaves us empty. The destiny of human life is "nothing," "relative," it might be anything else but what it really is.

"It is a fact that if Christ had not risen, the 'emptiness' would be set to prevail. If we take away Christ and his Resurrection, there is no escape for man, and every one of his hopes remains an illusion." How straight forwardly does this pope speak to us. The circle is closed without the light. The pope says: "It is a fact." He does not mince words. Take away the Resurrection. Think logically and reasonably what follows. No real hope for each individual remains. And the corporate alternatives, the utopias, the political kingdoms, leave us as individual persons behind. They themselves turn into horrors because they are animated by a gnawing despair and a furious activism to avoid it. No escape exists for each of us to a destiny that includes precisely his individual person unless it is true that Christ has risen and told us that we are to follow Him.

In his Regina Coeli comment on Easter Sunday, Benedict explained: "The divine plan of salvation, despite all the obscurity of history, will certainly be brought about." We must listen carefully to such direct words if we decide to "deny" the Resurrection. The plan will "certainly" be brought about. Each of us has the purpose of his creation in his soul.
We are made for eternal life. It can be achieved because of this Resurrection. "His Resurrection has formed a bridge between this world and eternal life over which every man and every woman can cross to reach the true end of our earthly pilgrimage." Notice that Benedict says of this "bridge" that each man and woman "can" cross over it to eternal life.

This "can" implies that we can choose not to cross. We cannot choose not to be resurrected no matter how we live our lives. This will come about for all. But our lives and choices within our polities and our days will be the context in which we live this eternal life, either an eternal life of our own making or that of God's making. Such is our dignity.

No one escapes the choice, no matter when or where he lives his four score years and ten, no matter whether he be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or whatever. These too will pass away to rise again. We will be left with the Resurrection of the dead after the manner of Christ in the manner He described. But as Benedict often states, God cannot and will not take away our freedom to deny Him and His plan for us. He cannot save us if we do not want Him on His terms, not ours. I like the image of the "bridge between this world and eternal life." To cross a bridge, we have to choose first to cross it. There is no other way to the other side.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, [1977] 1988), 214.



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

The Truth of the Resurrection | Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Balthasar, his Christology, and the Mystery of Easter | Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale | Aidan Nichols O.P.
The Cross — For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Question of Suffering, The Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Easter Delivers Us From Evil | Carl E. Olson
The Easter Triduum: Entering into the Paschal Mystery | Carl E. Olson
The Paradox of Good Friday | Carl E. Olson



Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.



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