On Christian Hope, the Ressurection and Evangelisation

Earlier today, together with a group of other Catholics involved in interfaith dialogue, I was working through the discussion document released by the ACBC on the Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation.

The second to last question on the discussion paper is this:

In what ways does the Gospel offer a way forward in the midst of disappointments and discouragement?

I then made this comment:

“I would have no hope at all, were it not for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it were not for that one fact, I would have no faith in God, no incentive for moral living, no interest in theology or spirituality, no hope for the future.”

The reaction from the table was unanimous astonishment and horror. They could not comprehend what I was saying.

I was, of course, merely paraphrasing St Paul, who wrote in 1 Cor 15:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

I think the difficulty arises in part because the meaning of “evangelisation” has been “churchified” and we have forgotten that at its core it means to proclaim the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead and that he is therefore Lord (Kyrios). In the ancient world an “evangelium” was the proclamation of a victory of a king or ascension to power of a new ruler (eg. a new Caesar). Those who carried this message – the “evangelists” – were royal emmissaries, or heralds. Paul had come face to face with the Risen Christ and therefore had accepted the duty to proclaim this “evangelium” to the whole world (“Woe to me if I do not announce the evangelium” 1 Cor 9:16).

For myself, in presenting the good news to others, I have to start with the Resurrection. That one historical fact is the one thing that changes everything. For me it is this, and this alone, which gives us any reason at all to hope in a good God who loves me, and who is doing something to “offer a way forward in the midst of disappointments and discouragement.” From the Resurrection all else follows – from the goodness of Creation to the necessity of the Church.

Pope Benedict put it well and simply in Spe Salvi (43): “Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice.”

Why am I a Christian? Because Jesus is risen from the dead.

It’s as simple as that.

[UPDATE: You can read more on the meaning of the word “evangelisation” in the presentation I gave last week to the Catholic Women’s League National Conference]

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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10 Responses to On Christian Hope, the Ressurection and Evangelisation

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Good stuff, David, and my first thought was “well, why was everyone else around the table horrified?”

    And then my second, slightly more considered, thought was, “why was everyone else around the table horrified, given that they were Christians?

    And I think that’s important. There are lots of people who do not believe in or accept the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but who have any or all of faith in God, incentive for moral living, interest in theology or spirituality, hope for the future. You deal with some of them every day in your working life.

    And when it comes to evangelization, saying that but for your faith in the resurrection you would have none of these things strikes me as easily misunderstood, in a disastrous way. Because it would be very easily misunderstood as a dismissal of their faith, their hope, their virtue, their spirituality, their insights as invalid, groundless, unjustified because they aren’t rooted in your faith in a particular central truth upon which all else depends. Which of course is not what is meant. But I can see why a bunch of people involved in interfaith dialogue would see the potential for misunderstanding here.

    (I realize, of course, that you weren’t saying this to non-Christians, and I’m not suggesting that you would. Nor was Paul talking to non-Christians)

    And of course if we are strictly truthful, was your claim entirely accurate? If you and I had not been raised in the tradition that we were, with the faith that we have, can we really say that we would be without hope, without faith of any kind, without virtue? It’s a pretty far-reaching claim, after all, and it’s contradicted by common experience.

    Perhaps we can turn the claim around. Faith, hope, virtue, spirituality – these things are meaningful and important because Jesus Christ is risen. And these things always point to the reality of the resurrection, whether this is clearly seen or acknowledged, or not. Faith, hope etc which is not explicitly founded in the resurrection – the faith and hope of non-Christians and non-believers, in short – still points to, and derives meaning and strength from, the resurrection.

    This is still a challenging thought for a non-Christian, and I supposed runs the risk of being received as patronizing. But it strikes me as a much more positive presentation of the same insight.

  2. Joshua says:

    David,

    Good to see you back!

    Could you explain more of what your fellow Catholics said when they reacted so to your statement? What was their view of the Resurrection?

    • Schütz says:

      Hi, Pere. Hi, Josh.

      Why did they react the way they did? Well, I think Pere got the main reason when he wrote:

      Because it would be very easily misunderstood as a dismissal of their [ie. people who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus] faith, their hope, their virtue, their spirituality, their insights as invalid, groundless, unjustified because they aren’t rooted in your faith in a particular central truth upon which all else depends. Which of course is not what is meant. But I can see why a bunch of people involved in interfaith dialogue would see the potential for misunderstanding here.

      I think that is precisely what horrified my interfaith Catholic friends. And so it is very important that I used what is known as an “I statement”, I was talking about me, not about them. This is very important in any dialogue situation: what I say about my faith and my experience does not invalidate what you say about your faith and your experience. Unless we accept that as a first principle, our dialogue isn’t going to go anywhere.

      I was just speaking for myself. Yet, if indeed Christ is not risen from the dead (a statement which I take to be not just, or even primarily, a statement of religious faith, but a statement of historical truth – we had that conversation before, I think), would I (in this mythical, non-historical world in which Christ is not risen) still have some kind of religious faith that would give me hope for the future, faith in God, incentive to moral living, etc. etc.?

      Pere asks this question when he says:

      And of course if we are strictly truthful, was your claim entirely accurate? If you and I had not been raised in the tradition that we were, with the faith that we have, can we really say that we would be without hope, without faith of any kind, without virtue? It’s a pretty far-reaching claim, after all, and it’s contradicted by common experience.

      Well, it is contradicted by the experience of others, but not by my experience. I take it as paradigmatic that if Christ had not risen from the dead, there would be no Christian religion, no Church to belong to. Nil Christianity. What are the other possibilities? (Nb. this is a thought experiment only)

      I could conceive that if I were born a Jew, I would find plenty in the Hebrew Scriptures that would give me hope for the world. The exodus experience, replayed yearly through the Seder meal, would indeed give me ground for faith, hope and love.

      But I am not a Jew. If Christ was not risen from the dead, and therefore there was no Christianity, I presume that any number of the polytheistic and tribal religions of my ancient Germanic forebears might be a religious option still (since these largely died out as a result of Christian mission one must presume that they would still exist in this Christianity-less world). But would they actually give me “faith, hope and love”? I don’t know.

      Or perhaps I might have followed the new monotheistic religion of the Arab peoples, and become a follower of the prophet Mohammed. Although again, historically speaking, one might ask if there would actually have ever been a Muslim religion if there was no Christian religion (just as one can wonder if there would ever have been a Christian relgion if there were no Jewish religion). And maybe I would find a certian hope for the future, incentive to moral living etc. from that source.

      But ultimately, for me, the question comes down to that discussed by Papa Benny in Spe Salvi: how can there be any real hope, while the sentence of death hangs over every human being? If in fact death is the end, finito, nothing afterwards, then Neitzsche was right, and as Camus wrote in L’Étranger, I might as well just “lay my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe”.

      This is where Dawkins and his ilk are quite correct. Religion makes no sense, is ultimately irrational (although, of course, all religious belief is, in some sense, rational – as Rodney Stark points out in his book “Discovering God”) if death has the final word.

      I am a Christian because I am convinced of the historical facticity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is, of course, an event on the spiritual plane as well, but I believe those who gave testimony to the fact that the tomb was empty and they encountered Jesus risen and alive. This fact tells me that “Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh.” That fact tells me: “Yes, there is justice.” And that fact gives me hope. It enables me to believe. It enables me to love.

      Given my skeptical nature, I believe that I would, were it not for the Resurrection, be an atheist.

      Does this belittle the hope that others have? No. But it does spur me to press this question: how can you have hope in the face of the ultimate end of death? If they believe in an afterlife of some kind, I would be spurred on to ask “on what basis?” If they find hope in the goodness of humanity or the brotherhood of man or some such notion, I would ask “on what basis?” My Christian hope is built on sure and certain foundation of the Resurrection of the Dead.

      I have never had a stronger experience of heart of my faith than when I have stood at the open grave into which we have just lowered the body of a departed Christian and proclaimed in these words: “For as much as it has pleased Almighty God to take out of this world the soul of N, we commit his body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” At the coal-face, this is as sharp as any proclamation of the Gospel can get.

      • Peregrinus says:

        “What if” scenarios can be interesting and instructive (and fun!) but they need to be treated carefully in terms of what they can tell us about the real world.

        If Jesus did not rise, and as a result there was no Christianity (or at any rate nothing that we would recognize as Christianity) what religion would we be? Impossible to say, but I don’t think the default/null position is “atheism”, not least because without Christianity as we know it we probably wouldn’t have atheism as we know it either. If Judaism has remained a tribal religion and Christianity and Islam had never been born, perhaps Zoroastranism or Mithraism would have expanded and adapted to fill the gap. Or perhaps some other offshoot of Judaism would have been spawned. (Perhaps we’d all be Sabeans, venerating John the Baptist.) Or perhaps eastern religious culture would have crossed into the West, rather than the other way around. Perhaps we’d have a religion combining Greek philosophy and Confucian ancestor-veneration. Who can say?

        But a less counterfactual “what if?” is this: What if, rather than supposing that Christ is not risen, I suppose that I had been brought up with no faith that Christ is risen (and perhaps no awareness of the claim)? And this is, of course, the actual position of many, many people. Pertinently, it is the position of people with whom we find ourselves in interreligious dialogue.

        You (rightly) say that all your faith and all your hope depends on the reality of the resurrection. But here we come across a paradox; most people’s acceptance of the reality of the resurrection depends on their faith and their hope. If you don’t approach the claims about the resurrection with an already Christian mindset, those claims do appear to be preposterous, and the likelihood that you will accept them is small. Obviously while people do convert to Christianity, and do come to accept the truth of claims which initially appeared preposterous, such a conversion is not the personal story of most Christians. And, equally obviously, most people who do convert to Christianity as adults don’t do so because a careful, impartial study of the historiographic evidence has persuaded them that the resurrection is a historically established fact. They accept the resurrection because they are willing to accept it; their faith and hope and experience compels them to be open to accepting it.

        You and I were open to accepting the resurrection because we were brought up and formed in that openness. Others – adult converts – have a story about how they came to that openness; the stories are diverse but – now I’m getting anecdotal – they mostly involve personal relationships with individual Christians and/or with the Christian community. They involve getting the kind of wisdom and insight that cannot be got from intellectual study but also requires lived experience.

        I think for a long time, and until as recently as perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, it was fairly widely held that the claims of Christianity were easily perceived to be true; that anybody who looked at them openly and dispassionately and who considered the evidence and looked into their own hearts could not but be persuaded of their truth. And, it follows, that those who were exposed to the claims of Christianity and considered them and rejected them were either blinded by ignorance, prejudice and bigotry (the “invincibly ignorant”) or were deliberately obstinate (the “contumacious”, knowing the claims of Christianity to be true but nevertheless rejecting Christianity because it would be “an irksome check on the indulgence of their passions”). And this attitude coloured our often appalling treatment of Jews and non-believers, and in due course of non-Catholic Christians.

        We would never take that view nowadays but the fact is that we did, implicitly and often explicitly, say exactly that for many centuries. And we acted on it. And that creates a context for interreligious dialogue today which cannot be ignored. Sure, our partners in dialogue may wholly accept our sincerity and good faith in repudiating that view today, but they must also be conscious that we represent a tradition which doesn’t have to repudiate that view, and hasn’t always repudiated it.

        Hence, no doubt, the wariness of your Catholic colleagues.

        • Stephen K says:

          Peregrinus, I find that your post is a truly exquisite articulation of the problem. I couldn’t possibly replicate or improve on it. I have touched on this myself in several posts though and think it a pivotal consideration for anyone with any belief system. But you have hit the nail on the head ever so neatly.

  3. Peter says:

    Spot on David!
    The resurrection is surely the cornerstone of our faith.If Christ did not rise from the dead then we are wasting our time.

  4. William Weedon says:

    Amen, David! Amen. You perhaps have heard that as the erstwhile Lutheran, then Orthodox, Jaroslav Pelikan lay dying, his last words were:

    If Christ is risen, then nothing else matters. If Christ is not risen, then nothing matters.

  5. matthias says:

    When God says to Moses ” I am the God OF Abraham and of Jacob and of Joseph” he is using present tense. I think of John Donne’s great poem
    DEATH BE NOT PROUD

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