Transcending the reality of Christ’s resurrection

by John Wijngaards, THE TIMES, Monday April 1 1991

WITH resurrection regaining the attention it deserves, we often remain stuck in a quagmire of academic discussion without getting any closer to what Gnostics called understanding it. What docs resurrection mean in prac¬tical terms? How docs our Easter faith distinguish Christians from non-Chris¬tians? And if we who believe in Christ “have already passed from death to life” (Jn 5,24), that is: if resurrection starts now, what does it consist in and how can we know it? Paul said he knew the power of Christ’s resurrection (Phil 2,8-10). Then surely we should be able to know it too.
For our search, Gnostic writings may prove a help. Though Gnosticism strayed from Christianity into various “heresies” in the course of the centuries, it probably had one of its roots in the Johanninc tradition and may have preserved some valuable Christian in¬sights partly lost in other strands.
A Gnostic letter of around 200 AD slates that resurrection is real for us Christians, because we “possess” resurrection. “Resurrection of the spirit”, it says, “swallows resurrection of the psyche and resurrection of the flesh.” It then describes resurrection of the spirit as “being drawn upward by God as rays arc drawn by the sun.” This image is further explained in this way. All of us carry within us rays of light. Through resurrection we consciously relate these rays to their origin, to God, who is like the sun. God holds us fast, as the sun holds its rays, until our sunset, that is our physical death. Then God draws us back to himself as the sun pulls back its rays; Through resurrection we discover we arc light and start living in the day.
Gnostics commonly distinguished between three types of Christians: earthly, psychic and spiritual; corresponding to the Greek distinction in human beings of the material body, the psyche (animal soul) and the pneuma (spiritual soul). The three types expressed distinct pastoral categories which, interestingly enough, still have relevance today.
Material Christians are, for Gnostics, those Christians who have either never had, or have lost, any real spiritual dimension. The whole of religion is translated into material terms. They believe in superstition, magic, miracle cures. Prayer means asking God for money or health. Weddings and funerals arc reduced to mere social functions.
Psychic Christians, on the other hand, take the practice of their religion seriously. They believe revealed truth, receive the sacraments, honour Christian ethics. They fall short, according to Gnostics, in their level of awareness and of participation. Psychic Christians objectivise the truths of faith, making God speak and act as if he were human. They look on ritual and sacrament as quasi-magical sources of grace. Psychics believe the commandments were formulated by God himself as the detailed guidelines of an anxious parent. In all this, Gnostics contend, psychics miss the characteristically spiritual dimension brought about by resurrection.
Spiritual Christians, who have experienced “the resurrection of the spirit”, also accept the doctrines of faith, the sacramental dispensation and Christian moral principles. But having discovered that God is genuinely Spirit and is Spirit in themselves, they approach these realities as mysteries. God, they know, is infinitely beyond human categories and so we can only speak of him through image and metaphor. The sacraments heal and foster, as dynamic signs. Laws and regulations do not express God’s immutable decrees. They are human approximations distinct from Love which is God itself. Spiritual Christians are the true “Gnostics” (knowers) because they know God and spiritual realities directly.
Now the Gnostics were a varied and funny lot. Some were spiritual snobs. Some mixed their Christian beliefs with incompatible pagan philosophies. Some seem to have advocated bizarre forms of behaviour. They hardly were the kind of people to be universally trusted as spiritual guides. Yet they may have preserved valuable insights.
What does the Gnostic view mean in practical terms? I am risen with Christ if I have become aware, in a tangible way, that God, who is above everything relates to me directly. This consciousness of resurrection shows itself clearly in that beautiful “Catholic” knowledge that God is love. If I have this consciousness, I feel secure in his love. I know that whatever may happen to me and whatever my human weakness, God is there to forgive me and love me and pull me through. The realisation of God’s direct and personal love overcomes any fear I may have, even the fear of death.
I am still not fully risen with Christ, I am still a “psychic” Christian, if I allow anything at all to take the place of my trust in God’s love. If my spirituality hardly rises above observance, it may well be that conformity has dethroned love in me. If I constantly feel scruples about external transgressions, my God may be fear. If I am superstitious and worried about spells and ill-fortune, I have not discovered who God really is. If I never meet God in a silent person-to-person encounter, I am missing out on my deepest potential in relationships. In all such cases the cure will probably require more than a gradual recovery. It calls for a true liberation, for an opening of my eyes to the reality of God’s love, for a resurrection of the spirit.
Many Christians are still trapped in traditional religion; if religion is accepted to mean a structure of beliefs, rituals, practices and institutions through which we relate to God. This is the Old Testament religion Paul calls “the law of sin and death” from which God set us free (Rom 8,2).
Through Christ we relate directly to God. The Church and the sacraments are there, but not as props of a new “religion”; rather as the continuation of the incarnate Christ in present-day symbols. A Christian code exists, but not as the prescriptions or taboos of “religion”; in fact more as a safety net for those who sidestep love. Laws arc only for sinners, as Paul explains (Gal 5,23; 1 Tim 1,9). The realization that nothing can come between the love God has for us and ourselves (Rom 8,38-39) is the direct result of our share in Christ’s resurrection.
The facts of Incarnation (God living among us in Jesus Christ) and Resurrection (involving Jesus’s whole person including his body) sustain our faith. But, in their meaning these salvific events transcend physical realities. We have not fully “risen with Christ” if we have not discovered and appropriated their deepest and inner meaning.
The writer is a theologian and director of the Catholic Spiritual Resources Centre. Housetop.