Easter Sunday

March 27, 2005
See Also: 

Liturgies

Sermons:
Nance 2006
Sauter 2003

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Reading 3: 
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
By Joseph A. Bracken

For many Christians belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday and in their own resurrection either at the end of the world or immediately after death has come to seem like wishful thinking. Despite the explicit testimony of the Gospel writers and of St. Paul in his epistles, contemporary Christians often find themselves wondering about the credibility of this belief in the light of what natural science has revealed about human nature, in particular, about the mind-body relationship. In response, some Christian theologians have urged a more symbolic understanding of resurrection, i.e., resurrection as new life in Christ here and now as a result of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Others have concluded that, given the obvious interdependence of mind and body as revealed by contemporary neuroscience, God miraculously recreates each of us as a purely spiritual reality capable of eternal life at the moment of our death. But this, of course, raises questions about ongoing personal identity, whether we are still the same person as in this life.

My own conviction is that full confidence in the classical doctrine of the resurrection of the body will not be restored until contemporary Christians have at their disposal a philosophical world view of the same scope and depth as what Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers worked out in writing their Summas and other theological treatises. For, at the beginning of the modern era, Rene Descartes rejected the transcendental relation between mind and body taken for granted by his predecessors and proposed instead that the “clear and distinct” ideas of spirit and matter are totally opposed: matter is identified with extension and subject to quantitative analysis; spirit is restricted to the minds of human beings, accessible only through personal reflection (“I think; therefore, I am”). While this move gave an important impetus to the development of early modern natural science, it introduced a wedge between science and the humanities which over time has had very unfortunate consequences for human self-understanding, in particular, for belief in life after death.

Alfred North Whitehead worked out his philosophy of organism in conscious resistance to this dichotomy between matter and spirit in the modern Western mindset. His key presupposition, after all, was that “the final real things of which the world is made up” (Process and Reality, 18) are actual entities or actual occasions, momentary subjects of experience which by reason of their analogous self-constitution coalesce into “societies” corresponding to the material persons and things of this world. Likewise, in the final pages of Process and Reality he notes: “Each actuality in the temporal world has its reception into God’s nature. The corresponding element in God’s nature is not temporal actuality, but is the transmutation of that temporal actuality into a living, ever-present fact” (Process and Reality, 350). But how are we to understand what is meant by “a living, ever-present fact”? Most Whiteheadians presume that what the master had in mind was the objective immortality of created actual occasions within the divine consequent nature since "prehension," even divine prehension, is based on a subject-object relationship.  

Without going into details that I have  worked out elsewhere, I would propose that intersubjectivity, whether between God and created actual occasions or between created actual occasions in their relations with one another, is a societal reality or field-phenomenon. What does this mean? It means that the individual subjects of experience remain distinct from one another even as they continuously co-constitute a shared field of activity structured by their dynamic interrelation. Subjective immortality for human beings and indeed for the societies of actual occasions making up our human bodies, all the animals and plants on the face of the earth, and even all the inorganic “things” of this world consists then in sharing a structured field of activity with the three divine persons of the Trinity. In this way all God’s creatures share in the divine life: here and now quite unthinkingly but in a manner still unknown to us much more fully once this life is ended. Be that as it may, Christians should never give up their cherished belief in the resurrection of the body and the eventual transformation of this world into a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21/1). All that is really needed to justify such a belief is a new vision of reality, based in all likelihood on a better understanding of what is meant by intersubjectivity.

The Rev. Joseph A. Bracken, S. J., is professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also the author of The One in the Many, The Triune Symbol, Christianity and Process Thought, and coeditor of Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God.