26 June 2014
Resurrection and Moral Imagination
It is staggering how little good recent theological writing on the Resurrection there is. You might expect that the pivotal element of the Christian Gospel would have been the focus of theologians’ attention for centuries; you would be disappointed.
Even when theologians eventually “remembered” the centrality of the Resurrection after François-Xavier Durrwell’s groundbreaking book in 1950, they treated it mostly as a matter of purely historical interest, whether positively or negatively: God’s validation of Jesus’ ministry and the proof of his divinity, a slam-dunk argument in a boring and ineffective apologetics.
Very rarely has the Resurrection been treated as theologically revealing in its own right. There are some notable exceptions: Rowan Williams, James Alison, Anthony Kelly CSsR, and most recently, Brian Robinette’s brilliant Grammars of Resurrection.
But now we have Australian philosopher-theologian Sarah Bachelard’s excellent Resurrection and Moral Imagination which boldly and astutely builds on all these theologians to forge an ethical vision from that most Christian of doctrines. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with the question of how to live in our world, whether religious or secular.
Bachelard’s game-changing vision is quite different from that of her fellow Anglican moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan’s earlier Resurrection and Moral Order. For O’Donovan, ethics must be founded on the Resurrection because it vindicates the created order and its morality; for Bachelard, the Resurrection gives a new world from which to act, and that world can be perceived even without explicit religious belonging.
Strikingly, it is from an avowedly secular outlook that Bachelard sets out: the moral thinking of Iris Murdoch and Raimond Gaita. Both are committed to a sense of absolute or transcendent goodness beyond the prosaic, but shy away from belief in God. For Murdoch and Gaita, a naturalistic ethic is an impoverished way of living in the world, stuck in a stingy calculus of predictable causes and effects, ruling out of court heroic virtue or altruism. But we do witness such absolute goodness, insist Murdoch and Gaita. Such experiences grip and inspire us, pointing us beyond ourselves, re-forming us and expanding our reality.
Crucial here is Murdoch’s conviction, which Bachelard makes central, that moral differences between us are not the result of making different moral choices within a shared world – choosing different items from the same menu – but rather because we perceive different worlds. We’re in very different eateries: the suicide bomber and the vegan live in different moral universes. Building on Wittgenstein, Bachelard emphasises how our unconscious background pictures of reality filter and unwittingly influence our every thought and action. The task of the moral life is to reveal the world as it really is and attend to it, avoiding the false consolations of attractive but illusory and facile views.
Our regular and predictable celebrations of Easter can deaden our sense of the utter strangeness of the Resurrection. Liturgical familiarity breeds not contempt exactly, but apathy or cosiness, a sense of “same old, same old”. We are now bored by the events that filled the early Christians with dumbstruck fear and awe, turning their conceptual universes inside out and upside down. Nothing was the same again, all re-constellated around the risen Jesus.
For Bachelard, the Resurrection reveals a different “world”, a new horizon against which to live and act. Jesus did not just bring an alternative set of commands, but a new world in which to live. This is the moral imagination of the title.
The old world is constantly overshadowed by death and marches to the grim dualistic rhythm of a zero-sum ethic and theology:
tit for tat, good defined over against bad, winners trumping losers, God as humanity’s rival. Morality here is set against a background of scarcity and moral choices are couched in terms of shoring up life and fending off death, conservation rather than generosity. Mortality is the measure of morality. In this world, love is driven by lack and fear, eternal life the reward for good behaviour.
By complete contrast, in the bizarre new world revealed by the Resurrection, we live a life after the pattern of Jesus. This is what the Spirit brings about. Not a life of prescriptions and proscriptions but a life shaped by a person, a person whose identity is constituted, not over against others, but by constant trust and dependence on the Father: an outward-looking life in which death is revealed to be a penultimate reality; a life sourced in God’s boundless generosity and grace, lived from and into the open and uncontrollable future.
If we receive our real identities from the risen Jesus who is always ahead of us as he calls us, this fundamentally alters our relations with each other. We cannot control our identities: we receive them as gifts. Likewise we do not possess goodness: we participate in it as it transcends us. For Bachelard, a moral life sourced in the Resurrection reveals the true depth of reality; it is always vulnerable because it lives from the unknown future and under God’s judgement alone, and it is therefore always compassionate, producing a moral discourse which doesn’t trade in easy certainties or wishy-washy niceness but is messy, unsystematic and painful.
There is much more in this very rich book. Bachelard has interesting and nourishing things to say about desire, sacrifice, secularisation, the need for the Church and theology to attend to the messiness of real life. Her prose is refreshing and crystal clear, deceptively simple, open, conciliatory, non-fluffy and imaginative. Her focus on practice is astute and the engagement with the secular timely. This book is a major contribution to theological ethics and deserves sustained engagement.
Reviewed by Philip McCosker
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