N.T. Wright on the Epistemology of the Resurrection

Here’s some interesting musings from N.T. Wright on the kind of epistemology one brings towards an event like Jesus’ resurrection. It’s in his fun little book Surprised by Scripture, in the chapter “Can a Scientist believe in the Resurrection?” The whole chapter is an enjoyable read, but here are some tidbits that point in some intriguing directions (bold and italics are mine):

“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort is not blind belief that rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply— which would be much safer!— a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which is like all modes of knowledge defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who has promised to put all things to rights at the end, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up that doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option at least, perhaps when all others have failed, is to change the paradigm, not to exclude everything you’ve known to that point but to include it within a larger whole.  

…. As I said, the resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is also that; it is the defining, central, prototypical event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing that involves us in new ways, an epistemology that draws from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research but the whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is “love,” in the full Johannine sense of agápē.

My sense from talking to scientific colleagues is that, though it’s hard to describe, something like this is already at work when the scientist devotes him- or herself to the subject matter, so that the birth of new hypotheses seems to come about not so much through an abstract brain… crunching data from elsewhere, but more through a soft and mysterious symbiosis of knower and known, lover and beloved. The skeptic will quickly suggest that this is, after all, a way of collapsing the truth of Easter once more into mere subjectivism. Not so. Just because it takes agápē to believe the resurrection, that doesn’t mean all that happened was that Peter and the others felt their hearts strangely warmed. Precisely because it is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality. This is the mode of knowing that is necessary if we are to live in the new public world, the world launched at Easter, the world in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t.

That is why, although the historical arguments for Jesus’s bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas and Peter, the questions of faith and love. We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won’t do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to find out whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won’t rely on candles anymore, not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home. All knowing is a gift from God, historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.”

Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (p.60- 63). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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