What Does Belief in the Resurrection Look Like?

I believe all kinds of things: I believe E = mc2 (though I do not understand it); I believe warm weather will finally come to South Bend (eventually); I believed my GPS yesterday as it brought me to this doorstep; and so forth. But surely different kinds of truths call for different kinds of belief. The object requires something of the subject. Something different is required of me to believe the weatherman when he tells me tomorrow it will be sunny, than is required of me when I believe my wife when she tells me that she loves me. Different degrees of commitment by the believing subject are required, and the difference is created by the object of knowledge. This is what I have in mind when I ask: what would it mean to believe in the resurrection?

My teacher, Paul Holmer, investigated the subjective quality of knowing, which is not the same as subjectivism. As a philosopher, he considered the cost of knowing some things. He wanted to ask how we are capacitated to know truth, and I share two of his summary remarks with you. First, “You cannot peddle truth or happiness: what a thought cost in the first instance, it will cost in the second.” In other words, what it cost Augustine to understand grace, it will cost you to understand grace. He can point the way, but he cannot travel the road for you. In one kind of knowledge, scientists stand on the shoulders of previous scientists as they pile up knowledge, but there is another kind of knowledge (wisdom, I would say) which cannot just be piled up. Each person must take it and apply it to herself individually. The second remark by Holmer was “What we know depends upon the kind of person we have made ourselves to be.” There are things a coarse and egocentric person cannot know; there are things a gluttonous and avaricious person cannot know.

Now, what kind of person must we be in order to believe in the resurrection? I would like to suggest three names for the subjective condition for believing in this objective truth. I am describing one state, but naming it works better using three names instead of one.

First, the subjective state required to believe in the resurrection may be called faith. I am thinking both of the beginning touch of faith, and its greater extension in our lives. I mean it in the sense of metanoia—conversion, repentance. We take on a “new mind” (a meta nous). There are some things for which, to see them, a new mind is required, which capacitates us for this belief. A profound modification of the human being is needed. We do receive new minds from time to time, and with a little effort you can think of examples. That philosopher who opened up for you a whole new way of seeing things, or that theologian who made the penny drop. A man might boringly till a field to plant the most boring crop of turnips ever put in the ground, but one day he falls in love, marries, has children, and begins planting his garden to feed his family, and the old action becomes different. Teleology is connected with meaning.

Cultivating this teleological orientation requires a sort of integrity of us, which Holmer says is a kind of attentiveness:

If someone says, "My trouble is I've never known what I wanted," the issue is not the hiddenness and internal privacy of wants, but very probably that one has never wanted steadily and long. The problem is not that my "wants" are unknowable, even to me; the problem is that I have not trained my wants, like I have not trained my eye on the target. Failing this, there is no "I."

Who I am involves what I have loved long and hard. Holmer continues, "If one's subjectivity is made up only of episodic and trivial desires, stimulated by accident and circumstance, then one is not a person at all. No self gets a chance to develop." This is what it means to have integrity. Integritas means soundness, from "integer," which means whole, complete. Integrity means being a person who wants, instead of being a collection of wants. There is someone inside. My name is being written on the white stone. If we wanted steadily and long, if we wanted worthwhile things, if we judged between the trivial and the consequential, if we focused our attention so as to order the welter of sensations we receive, then we would have a kind of consistency or texture to our lives. Do we really want the resurrection? In his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis says

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Resurrection hope lifts us from our love of mud pies. And we need beauty, imagination, glory, and similar qualities to awaken us to this greater dimension. The liturgical celebration of the Paschal mystery of Easter in a week should do exactly this.

We have been told that this material world is all there is, but Christianity believes that this world has a sacramental scent. Again, C. S. Lewis:

Everything in this world is but a reminder of a far-off country. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.

What if we really did believe that a human being is made for resurrection and eternal life? Would we not treat the human being differently, whether at the end of life, or in the womb as the person is just beginning to pass into actuality. A human being’s whole existence is constantly on the crest of a wave from potentiality to actuality. If we really did believe we have eternity after today’s life – wouldn’t that affect how we behave today? It would imply taking the measure of this world against the horizon of eternity, the way we must sometimes take the measure of the day’s events against the horizon of our whole life.

In his book Man At Play, Hugo Rahner describes the affect of standing at the exact midpoint between heaven and earth.

He who plays after this fashion is the “grave-merry” man . . . he is a man with an easy gaiety of spirit, one might almost say a man of spiritual elegance, a man who feels himself to be living in invincible security; but he is also a man of tragedy, a man of laughter and tears, a man, indeed, of gentle irony, for he sees through the tragically ridiculous masks of the game of life and has taken the measure of the cramping boundaries of our earthly existence (27).

In other words, only such a man can accept and lovingly embrace the world, which includes himself, as God’s handiwork, and, at the same time, toss it aside as a child would toss a toy of which it had wearied, in order then to soar upward into the "blessed seriousness" that is God alone. This seems to me a description of a person of faith.

Love and Hope

The first condition then for believing in the resurrection is faith. Here I would like to discuss the second and third conditions: love and hope.

Confirmation of love’s role come from a surprising source—the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Born into a family of Jewish converts to Catholicism, and living in relative agnosticism for part of his life, he thought his way into religious questions. In Culture and Value he writes:

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. —If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation . . .

But if I am to be really saved, — what I need is certainty — not wisdom, dreams or speculation — and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence . . .

Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection.

Wittgenstein has linked together faith and love. They co-inhere. Faith consists of aligning our heart with God’s heart, and his heart is full of love. We are being made fit to receive the joy held in store for us.

Human beings are made for eternal life, which is different from everlasting life. It does not mean going on, and on, and on. Eternal life is full, active and conscious participation in the life of the Eternal One. As such, it can already begin. Benedict XVI writes in his second volume on Jesus,

"Eternal life" is not—as the modern reader might immediately assume—life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal. "Eternal life" is life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death (81).

But this means that we can already begin our eternal life. We can start the process already. The Desert Fathers spoke of a first resurrection of the soul that happens when we have overcome the passions and aligned our will to love God above all things; a second resurrection of the body is to follow. If things work right, we go to our death already resurrected!

Then everything would be different: our experience of time and history and matter would be different; we would desire differently and perhaps different things; our work, our play, our vocation, would all look different. Most people know that when they are deeply in love their toes are touching bedrock as they otherwise float along through life. (And I do not just mean romantic love; think of parents sacrificing for their children by being deeply in love with them.) The happiness that comes from loving, is different from any other sort of happiness. It is a foretaste of resurrected life. This love lifts us out of things temporal and points us, like an arrow, at eternity. Chesterton writes,

For Catholics it is a fundamental dogma of the Faith that all human beings, without any exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude.

Hope is the third name of the subjective state I am trying to describe. Jean Danielou writes about the impact hope would have on us in his little book Prayer: Mission of the Church.

The most difficult theological virtue is hope. In spite of the promises of Christ, how many Christians there are who haven’t the slightest certainty that they will one day enter into possession of the beatific vision and the overflowing joy of God! How many Christians there are who live without the conviction that they are moving toward this joy! And these people thus show little disposition to generosity because lacking certainty about what is to come, one would rather, as they say, get the most out of this life.

I suggest his words contain the truce between liturgy and social justice, between the tabernacle and the soup kitchen, between the mystics and the Matthew 25 Christians. Our liturgical celebration of the mystery of the resurrection floods the light of hope into our hearts, and produces generosity in us because it permits a sort of reckless abandon in the way we live on this earth. If this is all there is, we might conclude “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” If we are only a flickering bit of consciousness that will be snuffed out tomorrow, we might only focus upon the little pleasure we can squeeze out of today. (How simple life must be for a hedonist!)

I understand there are some Christians who are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good, but Danielou’s very point is that this is the hope for beatitude gone awry. It is the light of the resurrection that allows us to take the proper measure of this world, and therefore respond with the proper action. It allows us to see our brief 80 years in proper perspective. The saint with a soul soaring upward into heaven does not forget the world; to the contrary, he or she is in the most radically free position to transform the world. Chesterton describes this by saying we must be “enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it.” Having hope in the world to come does not cut us off from the world we live in now. Rather, it permits us to love the world radically, without practical calculation of cost analysis. Hope gives courage. Hope gives fortitude.

The Three Sisters

Faith, hope and love must co-inhere. How can we understand their interrelationship? In his little classic, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Peguy imagines faith, hope and love as three sisters.

Faith and love are older;
hope is the youngest and smallest of the three.
The little hope moves forward in between her two older sisters and one
scarcely notices her.
On the path to salvation, on the earthly path, on the rocky path of
salvation, on the interminable road, on the road in between
her two older sisters, the little hope

Pushes on . . .

And no one pays attention, the Christian people don't pay attention,
except to the two older sisters.
[But] It's she, the little one, who carries them all.
Because Faith sees only what is.
But she, she sees what will be.
Charity loves only what is.
But she, she loves what will be.

Hope can see what will be, and so empowers both faith and charity. To become certain of the resurrection would require more than a movement of the mind, therefore, it rather requires a movement of the heart. Pascal points out that path to belief: “Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions.” To know the certainty of resurrection, the heart must open to God. And, in turn, the sure hope of the resurrection will persuade us of God’s love.

Does faith dare hope to what lengths divine love will go? When Satan burgled Eden, he took the most valuable possession and imprisoned it in a stronghold he thought was secure.

The evil one thought he could hide anthropos from God by shame and accusation and death. He took Adam to a place he thought was out of God’s reach. But he was mistaken. Ephrem the Syrian sings in his Hymns on Paradise

Adam was heedless
as guardian of Paradise,
for the crafty thief
stealthily entered;
leaving aside the fruit
—which most men would covet—
he stole instead
the Garden’s inhabitant!
Adam’s Lord came out to seek him;
He entered Sheol and found him there,
then led and brought him out
to set him once more in Paradise.

When the man and the woman hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden, the Lord God called, saying, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). The cry, “Adam, Eve, where are you?” sounded in the garden that first time. Then angels went to the corners of the universe shouting the question, not only because they were bid by their Lord to do so, but also because they missed the humans’ voices in the celestial choir. The king sent inquisitors with the question through the long corridors of history—Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah—but neither could they find Adam and Eve. Finally, the Lord put on flesh, so that he could die, so that he could look in the last, last place. And there, in Sheol, he found them: deaf, mute, ashamed, dead. And the Lord brought out the man and woman and led them once more to paradise. This dogma is written in icon, too.

This is what we celebrate in this Easter season: the culmination of humanity’s salvation history, and the declaration of our beatitude. We celebrate the Paschal accomplishment of our reorientation from death to life, from darkness to light, from Satan to God. We are directed to the time when we will slough off our garments of skin and to be arrayed in glory. I had a comical thought about this one spring day when I was reminded how anxiously I waited as a child to get rid of my winter coat. I wrote about it in my column in Gilbert Magazine.

One day I am sealed in my ponderous, bulky coat, and the next I am free of it. Like Superman ripping apart his Clark Kent shirt and tie on the way to the telephone booth, I zip apart my jacket and throw it into the house behind me. Spring has come. I am loose again. It provoked in me the odd thought of wondering what it would be like if other animals in God's Kingdom followed suit (no pun intended). Spring comes, and the turtle yawns, stretches, then feels for the zipper under his chin and after one smooth pull steps out of his shell. Or perhaps he reaches up behind his neck and pulls his shell over his head like a T-shirt. Unencumbered, he dashes through the grass as speedily as a turtle is able to dash. Spring comes, and the snake slithers out of his pants, carelessly leaving them behind in the grass, like a boy strewing his clothes on the bedroom floor. Spring comes, and the horses kick off their heavy hoofs to run barefoot in the grass, like kids are glad to kick off their galoshes. Spring comes, and the children on the playground doff their snow pants to find they can climb more nimbly; and maybe inside the bulky, lumbering gait of a bear is a lithe and agile creature waiting to step out of its winter woolies.

Clothing, and re-clothing, is a Christian image of the resurrection, described so well by Paul Claudel's meditations on Resurrection from the Dead. "This flick of the nail which will split our pod from top to bottom . . . Our material body yellows and withers until the seed of immortality is ready." It was not made to last forever in its present form. "This body which we have inherited through a series of intersecting accidents is now rightfully ours through grace," but one day it will be glorified. "The soul therefore surrenders her old tunic to the elements while waiting to be reclothed in that new and innocent garment which He has promised." Our heavenly garments will be white, like light. We will be light:

This is the stuff of our baptismal gown . . . This is the cloth which heaven supplies to the wardrobe of the Holy Father. This is the linen closet where we would like to plunge our arms and draw forth those noble fabrics with which we would clothe ourselves in folds of glory!

The resurrection to come will be the Great Spring, when we will slough off our mortality. It will be the Final Spring, when we will find spiritual agility hidden underneath our garments of clay.

To realize that we were made for eternity radically reorients our priorities. It makes us see each moment through the lens of an impending resurrection. Here is Gregory of Nyssa:

If you realize this you will not allow your eye to rest on anything of this world. Indeed, you will no longer marvel even at the heavens. For how can you admire the heavens, my [child], when you see that you are more permanent than they? For the heavens pass away, but you will abide for all eternity with Him who is forever.

The theological virtues of faith, hope and love make us into people who share Eternal Life with the Eternal One, and our vocation is to be witnesses (martyria)! We are called to be “martyrs of the resurrection” in the valley of death, which waits for its transfiguration and completion. Resurrection life is trampling down death by death (as Orthodox hymnody sings at Easter), and being capacitated to contain the glory of God.

Lewis said that some completed people already dot the landscape.

Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off . . . They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do but they need you less. They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from.

To believe in the resurrection would mean to live something like that. Each of the saints reveal another facet of what resurrection life looks like, which is why we like to keep their company. Though space, time and matter will evanesce, we are capable of being made into a three-sided liturgical loom on which eternal life is woven, one day to be gently lifted off by the master weaver, without dropping a stitch, and fitted into his own radiant garment. The sepulcher becomes a birth canal.

Editorial Note: This theme will be treated more fully in Professor Fagerberg’s book, Liturgical Mysticism, to appear Fall 2019 from Emmaus Academic Publishing.


Featured Image: Aleksandr Ivanov, Rock Removed from the Grave, 19th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


David Fagerberg

David W. Fagerberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent publication is a collection of essays on liturgical theology over the years: The Liturgical Cosmos

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