The evolutionary Resurrection of Benedict XVI

Coverage of the second volume of Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" series (a third is rumored) largely focused on what the pontiff had to say about Jews and the death of Jesus. That was understandable, given Joseph Ratzinger's personal history and the fact that the Vatican released excerpts related to those issues to gin up interest in the book.As I tried to find another good hook to write about the rest of the book on its release date, I flipped first to Benedict's treatment of the Resurrection. I found the entire volume to be very impressive, filled with so much scholarship, easily synthesized (though somewhat dated, I think) and spiritual wisdom that I confess to experiencing one of those episodes of ecclesial pride that the temporal head of the church would also have such authorial chops. It's sort of the way I want to proclaim kinship with the Anglicans when I read Rowan Williams or N.T. Wright. (There's a good argument to be made, however, that these fellows should all spend more time governing than writing, and indeed Wright gave up his Durham see because he hated the adminstrative part.)Papa Ratzinger does slip in his pet peeves here and there, but those tend to disappear beneath the whole of the work (to me, at least) much as they did when I read "Introduction to Christianity" way back when. And this second volume on the Jesus of history and faith doesn't have quite the zip (again, for me) that the first one did, or perhaps the first book benefited from the frisson of novelty.While this book focuses on Holy Week, it is a rather bloodless re-telling, certainly no Mel Gibson (no relation, swear) version. Indeed, it seems to me that portraying or explaining the Resurrection is the toughest challenge for an author or cinematographer or homilist or even an evangelist. (The scene of Jesus walking from the tomb to martial music in "Passion of the Christ" was not a highlight, I thought, though the entire film is not a fave of mine.) In his book, Benedict notes that none of the gospels present the event itself, because it "defies description" since "by its very nature it lies outside human experience."But the pope gives it a shot -- he has to -- and I turned to Benedict's account of the Resurrection, wondering how he would present it. It turned out to be the most memorable part of the book for me (though not made for a news story, alas) especially for its description of the Resurrection as an "evolutionary leap," a characterization which the pope concedes might have problematic connotations:

Perhaps we may draw upon analogical language here, inadequate in many ways, yet still able to open up a path toward understanding...we could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical evolutionary leap, in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.Indeed, matter itself is remolded into a new type of reality. The man Jesus, complete with his body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal. (pp.273-74)

He continues:

Since we ourselves have no experience of such a renewed and transformed type of matter, or such a renewed and transformed kind of life, it is not surprising that it oversteps the boundaries of what we are able to conceive.Essential, then, is the fact that Jesus Resurrection was not just about some deceased individual coming back to life at a certain point, but that an ontological leap occurred, one that touches being as such, opening up a dimension that affects us all, creating for all of us a new space of life, a new space of being in union with God.It is in these terms that the question of the historicity of the Resurrection should be addressed. On the one hand, we must acknowledge that it is of the essence of the Resurrection precisely to burst open history and usher in a new dimension commonly described as eschatological.The Resurrection opens up the new space that transcends history and creates the definitive. In this sense, it follows that Resurrection is not the same kind of historical event as the birth or crucifixion of Jesus. It is something new, a new type of event.Yet at the same time it must be understood that the Resurrection does not simply stand outside or above history. As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless has its origin within history and up to a certain point still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus Resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within history. (pp. 274-75)

Benedict is grappling mightily with the event, and doing an inspiring job, in my view -- all the while recognizing the paradox that the event itself is both the crux of belief and "absurd":

Had it been necessary to invent the Resurrection, then all the emphasis would have been placed on full physicality, on immediate recognizability, and perhaps, too, some special power would have been thought up as a distinguishing feature of the risen Lord. But in the internal contradictions characteristic of all the accounts of what the disciples experienced, in the mysterious combination of otherness and identity, we see reflected a new form of encounter, one that from an apologetic standpoint may seem rather awkward but that is all the more credible as a record of the experience. (pp. 266-67)

Other reactions? Is the "evolutionary" analogy a new one, or just new to me? This perhaps isn't the most appropriate post for the Feast of the Ascension, but I've just now got round to it. Any other writings on the Resurrection that others here find illuminating?

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

Also by this author
Marie Colvin, witness

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads