On Holy Saturday, the New York Times published columnist Nicholas Kristof’s Easter interview with theologian Serene Jones, the president of New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary. In the interview Kristof, Nicodemus-like, tiptoes toward Christian faith with hesitation but sincere interest (as he has before). “For someone like myself,” he says, “who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” “Well,” Jones replies, “you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” In another part of the interview, she elaborates:
For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.
You might be tempted, on reading that, to cluck your tongue at liberal Protestants—Jones is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ—and launch into a jeremiad about the decline of the mainline denominations. If so, I understand. A few years ago, I would have joined you. But now that I am a member of a mainline Protestant denomination myself—I belong to the Episcopal Church and am currently in the process of discerning a call to ordination—I’ve come to think statements like Serene Jones’s don’t actually represent the future of theology in the mainline.
Anecdotal evidence can be suspect, but consider this: on Saturday, when Jones’s comments appeared on the Times website, it was only a matter of minutes before my Twitter feed was awash with dismay. The evangelicals I follow were rightly, albeit predictably, upset. But I also follow a lot of fellow Episcopalians and other progressive, mainline Protestants. The ones I have in mind are, for the most part, young, educated, left-of-center in their politics, LGBTQ-affirming, and committed to all manner of other progressive social-justice causes, and mostly uninterested in the latest trends in worship music or church-planting, preferring instead the stability of venerable institutions and formal liturgy. And, virtually to a person, they took Jones’s comments as an occasion to affirm—nay, celebrate—the traditional doctrine of the empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily life after death. They were saddened and bewildered by Jones’s views and ready to proclaim their own confidence that, on Easter morning, “if he rose at all / It was as His body.”