In some recent conversations at Faith & Theology there has been a lot discourse about the ontological implications of the resurrection of Christ. Basically, the argument is between those who insist that we must find a “logically prior” ontological ground for the resurrection of Christ in a postulated eternal logos asarkos and those who argue that the resurrection is an unassimilable novum which defines the reality of God and cannot be circumscribed within a pre-existing metaphysical framework, let alone one that postulates an abstract de-fleshed Word which is prior to the revelation of God in and as Christ.
A brief perusal of those discussions will show you that I favor the latter position. If I may be permitted to rhapsodize a bit about this question, I would like to synthesize some of the conversations and thoughts I’ve had about this issue recently and see if they yield any helpful contributions to this conversation.
The essential presupposition that I hold, and which I believe to be supremely biblical is that the resurrection is always and ever again disruptive in the theological or philosophical enterprise. The problem with enfolding the resurrection into a metaphysics, even one that takes it’s “starting point” in the historical event of the resurrection, is that the resurrection eludes our attempts to categorize it within a framework of being. The resurrection is always a complete novum which cannot be circumscribed within a metaphysical system, no matter how dynamic we take that system to be.
This is not to say that the resurrection means we can never talk about being, rather it means we must constantly learn to speak about it in a new key. The resurrection invites and requires theological-ontological discourse, but this discourse must constantly be referred back to the event which birthed it. The resurrection always sends us back to the ontological drawing board, demanding that we constantly revise our notions of being in its light. In other words, the resurrection does not simply disclose to us a new metaphysics. No matter what metaphysic we might have, the resurrection overturns it. The resurrection is unsurpassable and insurmountable. It cannot be domesticated or circumscribed into a metaphysical system in which it is rendered intelligible. The resurrection is always subversive, politically, philosophically, and theologically. The moment when we make it simply a part of a larger system, regardless of how “incarnational” such a system might be, the resurrection ceases to be the permanent revolution that it is disclosed to be. It ceases to be apocalyptic.
An important point that should be noted here is that, while this current discussion is about the ontological revolution of the resurrection which overturns and interrupts any sort of totalized metaphysical discourse, this conversation could just as easily be had in a great many other dialogical modes. A central example of this is that of Christian ethics. The resurrection cannot be domesticated within a Christian ethical system or total perspective which then renders its “ethical implications” intelligible. The resurrection always disorients and calls into question our ethical practices and virtues. A great example of this is the ethical question of violence. While a great many Christian pacifists find it easy to fold the cross and resurrection into the ethical framework of Christian nonviolence, such easy assimilation provides an illegitimate way in which the radically disruptive nature of the resurrection is put aside within closed system of nonviolence. Such a totalized pacifism too easily assumes that we know what “peace” means inevery situation. It is the resurrection which must always call into question the form of our practice of nonviolence. The example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s agonistes toward discovering righteous action is instructive on this point. Any totalized system of ethics, metaphysics, or any other sort of discourse which would render the resurrection of the crucified immediately intelligible inevitably blunts the disorienting critique which the cross and resurrection pose. The insights which flow from the resurrection can never take us beyond it into something else. Rather we are always return to Golgotha and and the empty Tomb and constantly finding the givens in which we take refuge called into question by the translucent luminosity of the Crucified and Risen One who is with the Father.
Now, this is not to equate the resurrection with a permanent sense of deferral, or Derrida’s differánce. The resurrection is actually quite the opposite. It is the overabundant surplus of meaning, not its deferral. The resurrection is not the end of theological discourse, rather it is it center and ever-new beginning. The point about the resurrection being a perpetual disruption in the logic of metaphysical discourse indicates the way in which the subversive nature of the resurrection can never be transcended in our theologizing. We can never construct a metaphysic into which we can “fit” it. This does not mean the end of ontological pursuits in the least, what it does mean is that any understanding of “being” must always be thought and rethought in reference to the resurrection as the revelation of the Triune God.
Nor is this an “ontology of the void” in which the ontological integrity of created being is torn asunder into a constant event of antagonism and rupture. Rather, it is precisely the resurrection that prevents such an ontology. If we take the doctrine of creatio ex nihilio seriously, then the utterly gratuitous and non-necessary event of the resurrection is the only thing which offers an alternative to such a ontology of the void. For if we all come from “nothing”, there can be no metaphysic within which we can render a theological account of being, let alone one into which we would fit the resurrection. It is the resurrection alone which holds us back from falling into the nihil from whence we were created. If there is an ontology that flows from the resurrection is always and only an ontology of grace, where our be-ing is located completely outside ourselves in the sheer gratuity of God’s self-giving in the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is the de-centering center of any viable theological ontology, establishing our being just as it renders impossible any sort of metaphysics in which being can be narrated as intelligible in and of itself. The resurrection requires an ontological revolution that can never become a stable system precisely because our be-ing is located extra nos in the utterly gratuitous act of the resurrection.
To make yet another feeble attempt to clarify the matter, theological discourse is not supposed to be the exposition of a metaphysic within which Christian claims (such as the claim that Christ was raised) become intelligible. Rather, theological discourse is a doxological and evangelical practice of bearing witnessto the reality of God as defined in Christ. This act of witness is always a stuttering and stammering enterprise which can never have the closure and completion of “metaphysics” as classically understood. Christians are always limping towards Emmaus, rather than coming in clouds. We cannot quest after some sort of security, ethically, theologically, or ontologically which goes beyond what God has given us in Christ and the Spirit. We cannot take refuge in a logos asarkos or any repristination of classical metaphysics. Rather, all we are given is the security of the confession of faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”