The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
This week I heard a song on the radio extolling the virtues of "true love." Usually, when we think about something being "true," we think of it as being factual. But that's not always how we use the word. Can we really call love a fact? Reflecting on the phrase "true love," or similar phrases like "she's a true blue friend," or "my aim is true," made me realize that this kind of "true" is less concerned about facts and more concerned about authentic experience. Those sorts of "truths" are more about recognizing what is real.
During Lent I shared with you on this blog the concept of life's "5 hard truths." Again, truths like "life is hard" or "you are not that important" are not cold, hard, verifiable facts. They're about the experience of reality.
On Good Friday we'll hear the Passion story from John's Gospel. Jesus says to Pilate, "I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice." Pilate then asks, "What is truth?"
Without being cynical like Pilate, I am asking us to consider the same question: what is truth? What does Jesus mean when he talks about the truth, or tells us he is the "way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6)? I do not believe he means exactly the same thing that we do when he talks about truth. Usually, we mean that if something is true then it is a verifiable fact. The ancients, however, did not think about truth in the same way. It was the scientific revolution and the enlightenment that gave us a desire for things to be factually verifiable. The ancients may have known that all facts were true, but were more willing than moderns to concede that not all truth is fact.
All facts are true, but not all truth is fact.
The Greek word aletheia found throughout the New Testament, and particularly in the passages from John I list above, is the word we translate as "truth." There is a lot about this word that really does get lost in translation for us, however. The root of the word is lethe that comes from Greek mythology and the river Lethe in Hades. Anyone who drank from the river Lethe would forget their life and their identity. A-lethe then (aletheia) literally translates as "un-forget" or "un-conceal." While I'm no expert in Greek thought, this makes a lot of sense, especially from a Platonic perspective, which roughly says that we don't actually learn things--it's all already there, it just gets "unconcealed." What is true is just there and it's true whether we know it or not or believe it or not. It's simply waiting to be "unconcealed," "unforgotten."
Have you ever learned something and felt that it made sense because it matched what you already knew from your experience? That is the sense I get every time we get to Easter and reflect deeply on the resurrection. We moderns want proof of Jesus' resurrection, but as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, "There are no proofs for the God of Abraham. Only witnesses."
"There are no proofs for the God of Abraham. Only witnesses."
I cannot prove to you that the resurrection is factual. I remember many years ago reading the book Who Killed Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan. The book was interesting, but it was the last couple of chapters that really shook me. Crossan was the first person I'd read articulate the idea that maybe the resurrection was simply a metaphor. My reaction was somewhat the same as Paul's who said, "If Christ hasn't been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless" (1 Cor. 15:14, CEB). The whole idea offended me. At the same time it made me ask myself some serious questions. If I knew for sure it were so that Christ was not literally raised from the dead, would I remain a Christian?
After much reflection, that question led me to two conclusions. First, yes, I believe I would still be a follower of Jesus even if I knew for certain that the resurrection did not happen. I trust in who Jesus is, and I believe he shows us the way to God. I also believe that believing in Jesus is about trusting in Jesus in a relational way, and I've found that relationship to be real in my life. So, yes. I would still be a Christian. The second conclusion, though, is that I do believe in a literal resurrection. Maybe you'd say my evidence is thin, but it's pretty clear to me that something dramatic happened to alter completely the trajectory of the apostles' lives. They went from a scared, scattered band of people, to being utterly and totally on fire for God--to the point of willingness to die for what they proclaimed. I'm not sure people would do that for a metaphor.
Here's the other thing I've come around to that makes me believe in the truth of the resurrection. It has nothing to do, however, with our modern idea of truth as verifiable fact. For me, it has everything to do with aletheia as unforgetting. I asked our own Greg Williams (who is an expert in the classics and biblical Greek) and he articulated better than I can what I mean here. He said, "The truth of the resurrection is remembering or recognizing that we know this. We've seen it everywhere already."
"The truth of the resurrection is remembering or recognizing that we know this. We've seen it everywhere already."
BINGO. That's exactly what I'm talking about. Death and resurrection is a recognizable reality in the world as we all experience it. We see it woven into the very fabric of creation as the seasons changes. The plants die, the leaves fall to the ground and crunch to dust beneath our feet. Everything looks dead. Then, come springtime, resurrection! Every night the sun goes down, we fall asleep in a practiced "little death," and awake to a new sunrise, a new day. We never remember falling asleep, and if we do not dream we suddenly are awake as if reborn out of nothing. Our bodies are rested, renewed. Caterpillars "die" in their chrysalis, only to be reborn as butterflies. Dying and rising again is a reality that surrounds and makes up the rhythm of our lives.
Even more so that this, all the growth we experience in our lives works the same way. The very muscles in our bodies grow and give us strength because the act of exercising literally tears them apart, and the body rebuilds them, which is why we get sore muscles. Though we are people driven to succeed we don't grow from success, only failure. There are many things in life that we need to "die" to in order to move forward. Death and resurrection is the "true" pattern of life. It is the "true" order of things. It is the stuff of dreams--dreams we pray will "come true."
I believe the resurrection is true because it conforms to my authentic life experience. It may seem unreal in some conceptual ways, but it truly is all about reality. I am a Christian who is not in any way obsessed with "proving" certain doctrines to be factually true. To me, I'm less concerned about asking "Did this actually happen? Is it factual?" The better question, I think, is, "Does this conform to what I know about reality? Does this conform to my experience?" While I've never seen a human being who was dead suddenly become alive, that doesn't mean it could not (or did not) happen. If God is God then God can do whatever God wants. But beyond that, I also see every day that death and resurrection is the "true" pattern of life, so when I hear the gospel story of Jesus' death and resurrection it appears true to me because I hear it and say, "I recognize this. I know this. I've seen it already in many ways," and I think that's more like what the New Testament authors had in mind. Aletheia. Unforgetting, unconcealing what already is.