If you aren’t on Theological Twitter (good for you!) you might have missed the tweet storms currently underway in regard to Serene Jones’ and the interview she undertook with the New York Times. If you don’t know, Serene Jones is the current President of Union Theological Seminary, in New York; and formerly a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. Her statements in this interview are not really all that surprising, she has made other statements previously that would have foreshadowed what she said to the NYT. Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting, if for no other reason because her views are becoming more and more trendy; although theological Twitter, representative of a large swath of Christians, surprised me a bit (in a good way). You might be wondering what I am referring to, at a material level. In particular, the NYT’s reporter, Nicholas Kristof, asked Jones what she thought about the bodily or physical resurrection of Jesus and the Virgin Birth: She rejects both.
For the purposes of this post I want to focus on her view of the resurrection; which is most significant in regard to what it means to be a Christian (that said The Virgin birth is actually of a piece … something Karl Barth, among others, understood quite well). I will share the pertinent part of the interview with Jones, and then I am going to quote a riposte from Barth; with reference to his view of the bodily/physical resurrection of Jesus (I recently posted on this very issue). Here is the New York Times’ piece:
KRISTOF Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.
JONES When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.
For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross. The crucifixion is a first-century lynching. It couldn’t be more pertinent to our world today.
But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?
Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?
You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?
At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.
Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.
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.
Jones’ views are nothing new (under the sun). She has simply succumbed to the pressures of the intellectual life; in the context she has been groomed. But I am not going to pretend to actually understand what in fact has led her to unbelief; usually, as Holy Scripture makes clear, the Gospel of John in particular, it is when we seek the glory of people rather than God that belief seeps in and overtakes us—often not recognizing that it is even happening to us.
Barth was groomed in a similar intellectual/theological context as Jones; albeit right in the heart of it all in the halls of the great German universities, and under the great teachers who taught the sort of Gnosticism that Jones is now a proponent of. So, it seems fitting to refer to Barth; with reference to what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He writes in his early Church Dogmatics:
The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing a trembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself.
Interesting that Barth refers to the Markan account of the resurrection, just as Jones does. But Barth arrives at a completely different conclusion. He sees in the absence of the telling of the empty tomb, via the women’s witness, as a substantiation of the physical resurrection of Jesus. Barth sees in that silence the note of utter awe and wonder that a genuine follower of Christ would and should have. This is in contrast to Jones’ interpretation, one formed by unbelief and capitulation to a cultural atmosphere that is current in the sector of the academy she inhabits. What Barth has in his doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, that Jones doesn’t (because she doesn’t even have the doctrine to begin with), is the same awe and wonder that the first female witnesses had of it. He understands its sui generis nature, and sees the resurrection as the history delimiting and primal reality that it is; at least according to Scripture.
If we were going to go simply on the quality of the theologian, Barth wins. But we don’t have to simply go on that, as significant as Barth is. We, of course, have Holy Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, and the ongoing experience of countless people who speak with the risen Christ each and every day (including myself). The very existence of the Church bears witness to the fact that He is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! The Church’s existence is contingent upon the reality and doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without it, as the Apostle Paul makes clear, we might as well ‘go eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ No amount of existentialist oomph can generate the sort of transcendent meaning and hope that the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has generated. And yet Jones seems to think that she can generate this very power; the power of God. But we know that the Power of God is the Gospel (cf. Rom 1.16). Ironic: the very thing Jones, and that we all need, is the very thing she denies in order to construct a vision of the kerygma that is built on the very foundation that the bodily resurrection shouts a resounding victory over; US and our incurved love of self. Jones has simply taken ‘turn to the subject-theology’ to heart, and built an edifice based on self-love from there (another theme Barth counters in CD I/2 §18).
 “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth is a ‘Bizarre Claim’?,” New York Times, accessed 04-20-2019 [Emboldening mine].
 Barth, CD I/2 §14, 115.