Resurrection as Escape from the Mud Swamp of the Nation State

Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence, portrays Japan as a mud swamp in which Christianity cannot take root.  Endō’s mistake, of projecting onto the Tokugawa period (the novel is set in the 17th century) a “Japanese” sensibility which developed much later with the Meiji period (beginning in the 1860’s), is itself an illustration of the strength of the ideology of the modern nation state. As odd as it sounds, the “Japanese people” with a supposed mud swamp essence (a distinct religion, language, and cultural identity) is a development which arises as Japan seeks to become a unified nation, prior to which identity would have been tied to the local clan and religion (making the country susceptible to both foreign religion and foreign invasion in the estimate of the ruling elites). The manner in which Christianity rapidly inundated 16th century Japan, one of the most rapidly Christianized countries in Asia, demonstrates that Japan was fertile soil for Christianity (and the Shogun was warned this was the first step in a colonial take-over).  The notion that Japan consists of an essence, a capacity for absorbing and reshaping every influence, is a modern development, demonstrated by the fact that the religion was driven underground, not because it could not take root in Tokugawa Japan, but because tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were martyred by a Shogunate fearful of Western invasion aided by subjects loyal to foreign religious powers. It was not simply, as in first century Rome, that Christians posed an internal threat. The links of the religion to colonial powers posed a political and military threat which would eventually give rise to Japan’s pursuit of British-like imperial power.

The ideology which would make Japan a mud swamp, warding off Christianity and foreign domination, was erected as a purposeful imitation of the modern nation state geared to meet foreign power with an equal and opposite force. The invention of the “Japanese people,” constituting a unique religious identity (State Shinto), a unique language (there was no shared language prior to the modern period and the language is still marked by mutually unintelligible dialects), a unique racial identity (Japan is a DNA melting pot of the Asian mainland) is a relatively modern innovation on the same order as the American, the British, or the French people.  What is obvious to the foreigner visiting Japan is how the culture shapes individuals so as to forge a “unique” national identity.

What may not be so obvious to the Western, specifically American or U.S., observer is that this identity is a mirror image. The identity and counter-identity have both been forged by the same imperialism, colonialism, patriotism, and nationalism, which constitute the corrosive and overwhelming force of the modern nation state. If Japan is a mud swamp which has successfully warded off Christianity (which it is and has for the most part), it is by virtue of the same power which has shaped Christianity so as to fit modern Western identity.  Where we might recognize Endō’s mud swamp, the corrosive effect of those same forces on modern Christianity may be less obvious.

A test, formulated by Paul for the Corinthians, to gauge the distance between the modern American form of the faith and New Testament Christianity is the role of bodily resurrection. The danger is we might imagine Paul is too heavy handed or is being hyperbolic when he suggests it is a choice of either belief in bodily resurrection or belief that the apostles are liars, God is untrue, and a Christianity without resurrection is worse than paganism. Eat, drink and be merry, for death reigns (I Cor. 15:32), he declares. It seems Paul has not considered the more sophisticated notion of disembodied souls going to heaven, which would separate out the earthly kingdoms from God’s heavenly focus. To say resurrection is salvation and that without it Christianity is futile; well, hasn’t Paul forgotten the main point about Jesus taking our punishment so we can go to heaven?

Paul says either embrace bodily resurrection or acknowledge the nihilistic darkness of an empty faith (along with lying apostles, remaining in sin, and being consigned to oblivion (I Cor. 15:12-19)).  He offers no room for dualism or for the notion that a disembodied soul going to heaven is Christian salvation. This dualistic division (dividing faith from ethics, history from eternity, material reality from spiritual reality), apparently would mean Christians are left in their sin (even though they acknowledge “Christ died for my sins”). He indicates this is the delusion resurrection defeats.

In the following verses (20-28) Paul equates resurrection with an embodied this-worldly sort of salvation. Christ’s resurrection is defeating the powers (the dominion, power, and authority of this world’s kingdoms, v. 24), it is bringing about the reversal of all that occurred in the 1st Adam, and is the inauguration of a universal resurrection in which the reign of God will be made complete (with the establishment of the kingdom of God – his reign, his people, according to the principle of life).  Christ’s resurrection will bring about the defeat of the final enemy and this defeat is in process (I Cor. 15:20-28). How can all of this be true?

It is the case only if the primary enemy is death and an orientation to death deployed by the “dominions and authorities” (human modes of reign and rule) defeated in resurrection. It is only true if the dualism which would split up body and soul, the City of God and the City of man, is not simply a theological or philosophical error but the lie of sin itself.

Resurrection as salvation (as an anti-dualism) makes sense where the “body of death” or the “body of sin” is constituted in a lie that divides (perceived as the self, divided between “body” and “soul”) in which the symbolic order of the law (the soulish, the spiritual) is pitted against the physical body. Sin, in Paul’s picture, is focused on the struggle and sacrifice of life within the “I.” The battle within the “I” is self-destructive and potentially violent – should “I” give way to the ever-present possibility of evil (Ro. 7:21). Sacrifice (masochistic or sadistic violence aimed at gaining life) is inscribed into the sinful economy – it is the agonistic struggle constituting the “body of death” – a Subject engaged in a struggle for life which kills. 

Paul’s “body” (σῶμα) is not referring to only the physical body but to the Subject, with sin and death describing the orientation or existential reality of the Subject. Body denotes the full reality which comes with embodiment: humans embodied in a particular environment, the body being that which constitutes them social beings, a being who relates to and communicates with her environment.  As in a Wittgensteinian understanding, the Subject is a body such that self-alienation might be experienced as “having a body” rather than “being a body” (Paul’s body out of control, as Bultmann describes it, means a Subject out of control).  So, to be joined to the body of Christ in baptism is to close the gap within the self. Sin is an apparent dualism defeated in salvation.

The gap within the self (self-antagonism between body and soul) constitutes a myriad of possible worlds and alternative means of constituting the self through opposed pairs (dualism). John notes this same world order so as to show in these apparent dualisms light defeats darkness, truth defeats the lie, and life overcomes death. The knowledge of good and evil is the deep grammar of sin dependent upon an apparent dualism (Hegel references the fall into the knowledge of good and evil as a cognitive necessity to inaugurate his dialectic). Jew and Gentile, male and female, thought and being, soul and body, East and West, inside (Japanese) and outside (foreigner), all pose the possibility of identity through difference. Or as Paul puts it, the body of death pits “the members of my body” against “the law of my mind” and this makes “me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (7.23-24). Sin is a way of being, an epistemology, a world, constituted in what Paul describes as a death dealing lie.

A modern contractual Christianity tied to the lie in the name of Christ (life is in the law because Christ meets its requirements) might favor a Cartesian version of modernity (the discordant dualism of “I think therefore I am”). In this philosophical individualism truth is apprehended within (thought, one side of the dualism, provides being, the other side of the dualism, and thus faith is its own reality). The modern theological conservative might trust empirical apprehension of reality (laws of nature, laws of science, laws of reason, over and against the mind), in which faith is a cognitive affirmation of historical reality. Both, though, begin with a given reality as posited through a modern Western frame of knowledge and modern notions of self (a self divided between empirical reality and inward essence). It is presumed one has access to an already posited reality, and Christian faith, ethics, and truth works within this framework (as I summed it up here). What is obscured is Paul’s third law – the law of sin and death – the divide within the Subject which secures this reality and the resurrection which defeats it.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2). Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  The “body of death” is put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is the ontological alternative to the “body of death” as the Subject of baptism, instead of being joined to negation and death, is joined to the resurrected body of Christ. This is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (‘the redemption of our bodies’ (8.23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8.21)). This truth cannot be bent by the mud swamp of modernity as it names the lie of dualism, of doing identity in the law, in the state, in human religion, or in modernity.

The modern nation-state constitutes identity through difference in its own dualism (Orient/Occident, Eastern backwardness/Western progress, etc.) and modern contractual theology with its focus on Western notions of individual faith (constituting the modern self), tied to Western notions of democracy, patriotism, and nationalism, is precisely what Japan’s ruling elite sensed – the ideological forerunner to colonization. The question is if an American faith subject to this same colonizing power can escape its grip?

The way of escape is clear: “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (I Cor. 15:24) as resurrection is the counter-power to a world built on death. “He has put all things in subjection under His feet . . . so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:27-28) as resurrection defeats the apparent dualism by closing the gap of a failed identity. 

Training in Resurrection

Matthew describes a jarring post-resurrection scene in which the 11 remaining apostles “saw him, worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28:17).  Some of them are stuck between two epistemic orders, hovering on the edge of a new understanding but unable to escape the gravity of their former world. It is not only Thomas who presumes he can apprehend the resurrection through a measured, proto-Lockean accumulation of facts – “seeing the nail marks, put my finger where the nails were, put my hand into his side.” The perspective of an alternative epistemic order comes late to Peter, even after the women report the resurrection: he “got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Jn 20:12). The women told him what had happened but as John explains, “their words seemed like nonsense” (Jn 20:11). As with Thomas, and perhaps the entire modern epoch, Peter is left “wondering,” just short of an epistemic shift.

 As with the doubting among the 11, it is not simply that more data must be collected, more apologetic arguments presented, so that a preponderance of evidence will tip the scales toward grudging belief. This bland, earthbound, Humean religion is a possibility even in the resurrection appearances, but what we also see, first in Mary Magdalene, is an alternative way of knowing. She is having a discussion with a local gardener when this man speaks her name, and she turns again and she would cling to him as she seems to recognize, not only the grave but earth will no longer hold him. Her own understanding, perhaps the first instance of resurrection faith, is ascended or suspended from heaven to where he would ascend. As with the two on the Road to Emmaus, the transformation is not in what she sees but in her comprehension. As with some of the 11 though, it may be that this epistemic transformation momentarily falters, so that one needs to undergo a sharpening of perspective, a growing understanding, of how the world coheres where death no longer reigns.

The various witnesses grow into this alternative epistemic order. When we first see the women at the tomb, the two on the road to Emmaus, the apostles gathered and hiding, Jesus is still accursed in their sight, death has won out, the grave has consumed him, and their understanding is bound by this reality. They are so constrained by their earthy, Euclidean, cause and effect ordering around the absolute of death, that the risen Jesus, even as he stands before them, is a stranger, a gardener, unrecognizable. With Mary it is him saying her name, with the two disciples it is his breaking of the bread, with Peter it is not simply the miraculous haul of fish; John identifies for Peter the stranger on the shore as the Lord. The flesh and blood intonation of a name, the sense filled breaking of the bread, the dawning of a new day on the shore of a lake, get at the embodied, creation encompassing, shift. The earthy, salty, fleshly, focus of their new insight is at once commensurate with their world and ours. Seeing the resurrected Jesus, where the vision was previously obscured, casts everything in a new – heaven suspended – Jesus is Lord – perspective but it is not simply that the Kierkegaardian leap or the Barthian strange new world vision is fixed or incommensurate with the world that came before.

Nor is their reconstituted insight simply the popularly predicated “historical truth of the resurrection.”  As Wittgenstein puts it, theirs is not the belief appropriate to a historical narrative. Belief simply in the historical truth of the resurrection, Wittgenstein maintains, still rests its weight on the earth. There is a growth in their perspective such that one sort of belief, even though it sees the resurrection, leaves them doubting, mis-recognizing him (he had already appeared prior to the miraculous catch of fish), looking into the sky, as they are still confined to horizontal and vertical symmetries short of the asymmetrical, fully developed, resurrection faith. The bonds of an earth-bound knowing cloud their vision and comprehension – even in the midst of worshipping Him they doubted.

It is important to say both things: there is a shift in perspective but this shift is one they grow into. It is not that they did not firmly believe but then collected more data, examined the testimony, made a thorough analysis of the eye witness testimony, compared notes, and came to a belief in the historical truth of the resurrection. Their belief is not this sort of speculative calculation; it is not simply the capacity to entertain a dispassionate historical truth, or to arrive at a singular isolated conclusion. But neither is it that they saw and instantaneously everything changed, such that what came before and after is such a sharp disjuncture that we cannot trace the second glance of Mary or the burning realization of the two on the Road to Emmaus. Even in the upper room in which Jesus suddenly appears, their understanding follows his greeting and his showing them the scars of the crucifixion. They “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20) but the seeing is noted subsequent to explanation and seems to dawn gradually. By the same token, the implication of the resurrection (full resurrection faith) has yet to be worked out, and is clearly miscomprehended by Peter (not yet sure about the cost of feeding sheep), at the close of the Gospels. It is precisely the possibility beyond historical affirmation and an incommensurate realization which opens us, who have not witnessed the resurrection, to the epistemic reconstitution of resurrection faith.

Paul, in I Cor 12:3, contrasts two orders of knowing orbiting around either the core affirmation, “Jesus is cursed” or “Jesus is Lord.” The difference marks the understanding granted by the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit which, in all their variety, promote a practical realization of Christ’s resurrected Lordship. If the accursed Jesus is the crucified, rotting in the grave, dead Jesus, and Jesus as Lord is the resurrected, death defeating, ascended Jesus, then the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of life and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, enable a resurrected order of knowing. Paul describes this heaven ascended/suspended knowledge as participation in the Trinity: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (I Cor 12:4-6, NIV). The Holy Spirit distributes or bears the gifts, which serve Christ’s body (they are service gifts, or servant gifts for the body of Christ) and in this they are the embodied, creation redeeming work of the Father.  It is heavenly knowledge in that it is divine but it is God come to earth incarnate knowledge. It is an understanding not bound to earth but which addresses and overcomes the earth binding condition of death.

There is a modernist Christianity that believes the resurrection on the basis of a preponderance of historical evidence – which seems to coerce the possibility of belief, with doubt always hovering, as there is no change of epistemic order. Here one might think of the spiritual gifts as accentuated capacities enabling belief in the resurrection as one sifts through historical consideration, scientific validation, or accumulated apologetic argument. On the other hand, there is a Christianity that imagines the gifts enable an ecstatic, incommensurate, heavenly vision which does not engage practical, lived out, realities. Both are a far cry from the belief “Jesus is Lord” and the practice of this realization in the incarnate body through the spiritual gifts. The gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, power, prophecy, tongues and interpretation are all communicative/communion gifts to be used in cultivating the different epistemic order extrapolating from and returning to “Jesus is Lord.” Here is the communion of the Trinity opened to us through the communicative reality of knowing the risen Christ.