Skip to content

Resurrection and Revolution: Some Ontological Considerations

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.”

9 Comments

  1. Nick Norelli wrote:

    I can’t think of a thing that could be added to what you’ve said here. When I read things like this I am even more amazed by our Triune Creator/Redeemer.

    “theological discourse is a doxological and evangelical practice of bearing witness to the reality of God as defined in Christ”

    I’ve never thought of it that way. Thank you for these very thoughtful words.

    Saturday, October 27, 2007 at 10:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    I find this whole debate fascinating…having learnt theology in the Torrance tradition, I gleaned something of what you are saying. But the issue clarified for me with reading James Alison’s early book ‘Knowing Jesus’ in which he spells out various ways in which the resurrection is source of faith and theology. Do you know this little book?

    Sunday, October 28, 2007 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  3. vassilip wrote:

    theology as doxology

    that’s the point!

    i’m happy to hear it, dear friend.

    may He keep you in that path always!

    peace

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  4. I’m trying very hard to understand what all this is about. Does it boil down choosing one of two propositions:

    (1) The resurrection can be “explained” in light of other facts about God.

    (2) The resurrection is an impossible-to-derive fact that explains other things we know about God.

    Is this close?

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 4:31 am | Permalink
  5. Andy wrote:

    Halden,

    Thanks for the fuller response to my challenges. Let me try to push you a little. If the resurrection is always a novum, which in your descriptions seems to imply a “no” to every closed metaphysics, can it really be a surplus? If the resurrection is a surplus of meaning, should it not rather embrace a number of metaphysical systems? That is, rather than a perpetual “no,” should it not be a “yes, but also…”? That is, rather than postmetpahysical, should it not rather be pluri-metaphysical? Should it not be, well, catholic?

    I also wish to challenge your assumption that the resurrection is a revolution. An apocalypse, yes. A revolution against the reign of death, yes. A subversion of everything? No. Why? Because we must allow that the resurrection does not overturn truth. Novum or not, truth remains. Does the resurrection interrupt truth itself? This is related to my suggestions of differance and ontology of the void. The resurrection you take as a negative sign in all its positivity. It seems to be a pure “no!” This is what I meant by an ontology of the void. If the resurrection is only a revolutionary category, then it is always de(con)structive. And if so, then it is the incarnation of differance. I’m afraid I must ask you to do more than deny it and actually demonstrate that I am wrong.

    Finally, consider that it is possible to build a metaphysic on the creation. I myself have argued against James K. A. Smith’s creational ontology, but only because I do not think it was properly executed. If God is the creator of the world, then there is a logic in the created order. This logic, I propose, was interrupted by sin and death. The logic of sin and death, I further suggest, was overturned by the passion and resurrection. Even so, does not something of the original creation remain? This is not to suggest that metaphysical truth is known prior to the resurrection. Rather, we can only know the true state of affairs through the Christ event from incarnation to ascension. A true metaphysic is only found in the wake of the novum of the resurrection. Because of the Fall, I have argued that original creation can only be known from new creation, which is only known in Christ. So a creational ontology can only be known through the Christ event.

    Just some thoughts for you. Hope they are thought-provoking.

    Best,
    Andy

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Pardon my interruption of this discussion, but I have a question about the term novum. As a connoisseur of the use of pretentious untranslated words/phrases in ancient languages, I’m a little surprised to find one with which I am unfamiliar. The intended meaning is clear by the literal translation of the word and the context of it’s use, but what is the history of this use? Is it particular to a particular theologian’s body of work? Have I missed something?

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden,

    I am a late-comer to the discussions—both here and over at Ben’s site, so forgive me if what follows has come up already. My sentiments while reading your post edge toward what Andy has said.

    However we grapple with the resurrection, it must also be a discussion of continuity as well as discontinuity. This holds true ontologically as much as anything else. We may only recognize that continuity from the vantage point of the community of disciples after the resurrection, but the continuity is genuine nonetheless. Your post waxed eloquent about novelty, revolution, overturning, disruption, etc., but as I read, I kept hoping for something more than a token statement of balance.

    Certainly, whether we recognize the resurrected Christ at first sight or not, we must speak of the continuity of Person-hood. Both the disciples hobbling on down to Emmaus, and half-clad Peter come to a moment of utter surprise, “It is the Lord.” That surprise is rooted in continuity that has overcome discontinuity.

    They were in despair precisely because they thought that their hope had been totally misguided, and that now, after three years of mysterious light, it was back to the drawing board. The resurrection transforms their dashed messianic hopes, yes, but it also revives them.

    In addition we must speak of the continuity of bodily being. The wounds of Christ persist in his new life. “Behold the Lamb!” springs from the mouth of both John the Baptist and John the Revelator. To jump metaphors, the seed that falls and dies, finds new life within the weathered husk and rises green again from the ground in which it fell.

    I am sympathetic to your argument. There is no way, even hypothetically, for the disciples to have reasoned out, predicted, or counted on Jesus resurrection. We get the story wrong when we “middle” them into a narrative of which we already know the end. But that said, the resurrection does not constitute an un-doing, but a doing that makes new. The analogy points not only to creation ex nihilo but to the new heavens and new earth as well.

    I worry that I’m missing the ontological point of contention by focusing on the aspects of continuity in the narrative. If that is the case, forgive me. But on second thought, shouldn’t the narrative itself be driving our metaphysical claims?

    Eric

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Andy, thanks for your continued engagement with this question. Let me attempt a brief response.

    Is the resurrection a “No” or a “Yes, but…”? I think we should follow Barth in seeing it as at once God’s “No” and God’s “Yes” to the world. It is his “No” to sin and death and the ways in which they have permeated all of creation, and his “Yes” to the eschatological new creation of all things in Christ. What does this mean for our constructions of ontology? I think it means that we cannot have any sort of totalized metaphysic because of how thoroughly sin and death have become woven into the fabric of fallen creation. The new creation, though anticipated now, is still very much not yet. That is why any attempt to give an account of created being must, under the conditions of fallenness be eschatologically interrupted by the invasion of the new eschatological life of the resurrection. That new life is always beyond us, always exceeds our ability to understand it, that is why it is not categorizable within a totalized metaphysical framework. It is a surplus of meaning, but it is always one that is beyond our reach, drawing us further into its infinite depths of life. Only the Spirit of God can search out these infinte depths, we can only continually traverse them in union with Christ in our never ending journey toward participation in the infinite life of the Trinity.

    Now, your question about does the resurrection subvert truth itself. The answer is that it does not precisely because the resurrection is truth itself! What is false is creation under the sentance of sin and death. The resurrection is the invasion of the truth into the world of falsehood, domination, and death. There is a sense in which the resurrection is always deconstructive, but it is deconstructive in the intrest of the divine reconstruction of all things in Christ, and ultimately in the life of the Trinity – the beatific vision. The problem is that this reconstruction is not something that we can grasp or sythesize into a metaphysics that could give a full account of divine and created being. Or, to just throw a Scripture at this conversation, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 Jn. 3:2) It is only from that eschatological vantage point that we could have a full account of being. Prior to the consummation we speak in stutterings and stammerings, trying to come to terms with what has been revealed in the Christ event (which includes incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and the whole – the issue that it is the resurrection which is the climax and determinative center of the whole: If Christ has not been raised then God is not God and we are still in our sins.)

    As to your last comment, I think I have addressed that a bit already, though perhaps not satisfactorily. I agree that the passion and resurrection of Christ overturns the logic of sin and death, but the consummation of that overturning still belongs to the eschatological not yet. For the time being creation still groans, awaiting eschatological redemption. Only then will that logic be forever vanquished. Only in the light of eschatological new creation and the visio dei could we truly come to any sort of totalized idea of the nature of created being, because only then will true, authentic creaturely being be actualized in relation to God. We have anticiaptions of that future proleptically realized in the present in the church, but that prolepsis is always the site of conflict, of battle between the forces of death and the forces of resurrection. We cannot purge the logic of sin and death from ourselves in the now, we can only wait for the Triune God to do that in the eschaton. Thus, I don’t see how a “creational ontology” is possible in the present state. We just don’t have access to the fullness of creation until the coming of the new creation.

    Thanks for the continued dialogue. This is all very helpful and thought-provoking stuff!

    -Halden

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  9. Andy wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    Thank you for your response. I’ve enjoyed this exchange very much. I need to bow out due to other responsibilities, but if you have the time, you might look up my posts on James K. A. Smith’s attempt at a creational ontology , and especially my exchange with Larry. You may find it thought provoking. The most relevant posts: here, here, and here.

    I look forward to more.

    Best,
    Andy

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site