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Responding to the Meaning of the Resurrection

Rollins Ecumenical Christian Vespers

Dartmouth College

May 3, 2010

Charlie Clark '11

 

I want to point out that our theme for this term, “The Meaning of the Resurrection,” implies a sort of leading question. It presupposes that there is such a thing as a “Resurrection” and also that this event is significant now and for this audience. That second presupposition is encoded in the word “meaning,” which I am going to play with for a few minutes.

“Meaning” is a much abused term in modern English. The reason for this abuse is that over the centuries some theological and metaphysical ideas have attached themselves to a word that ultimately serves a linguistic function. The original denotation of the word is “that which is indicated by a symbol or symbolic action,” and because symbols are readable, then the symbols themselves are meaningful, which is to say that they have significance or implication. The leap to the second understanding of “meaning,” the way it is employed in “the meaning of life” is clearly metaphorical. Only if you believe that life is itself symbolic, that our worldly existence encodes a message about a metaphysical reality, can one talk properly about “a meaning of life.” But this worldview is really one step away from the idea of a communicative, interfering, supernatural God, since no signification can occur without personal agency.

Yet people without any interest in this speaking God or even a metaphysical reality continue to use this word “meaning” in ways that bear this theological and metaphysical legacy without realizing their semantic error. From a non-theological, non-metaphysical perspective, it is nonsense to refer to the meaning of anything which is not the result of human communicative intention, and even then it is nonsense to retain the teleological implications of that reference, since the word has been reduced to its purely linguistic function, as in: the series of sounds “cow” MEANS “a large, milk-producing quadruped.” The existentialist project, therefore, is a rhetorical success but a logical failure, since it fallaciously equivocates between the two denotations of meaning.

So, where did meaning’s theological, metaphysical baggage come from. The case I will present is that “The Meaning of the Resurrection” is the original “meaning” in the large sense. I chose these twin passages from The Acts of the Apostles for two reasons. First, they represent a charming duality between the reception of the Resurrection in its Judaic religious framework and in the Hellenic tradition of rationalism. Peter and Paul both speak from the traditions of their audience, and we shall see that in both places the Resurrection finds a keystone position. On the one hand, Christ is shown to be the prophesied messiah, and on the other hand, The Unknown God, the Platonic theos who created and sustains the kosmos, and the Logos become flesh. In this way, Peter and Paul demonstrate that the Resurrection is that “event” to which Derrida referred by which knowledge, truth, and being became indelibly wedded to a structure, the logocenter being the Resurrection, by which the tribal significations of the pre-Christian world were unified, transformed, and perfected in the Christian metanarrative. Christ’s Incarnation, death, and Resurrection were shown to be symbolic of the very nature of God, and for the first time, everyone was permitted to think coherently about “the meaning of life,” which was identical with “the meaning of the Resurrection.”

The second reason I chose these passages is in order to tease out a final shade of “meaning.” In Acts 17 it says, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with [Paul]. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.’” From the beginning, the Gospel about Jesus and the Resurrection has been treated as meaningful, as the Athenians recognize, and that very claim should be surprising if not shocking. I have already argued that this event is the event by which “the meaning of life” became an askable question. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “ἡμεῖς δὲ κηρύσσομεν Χριστὸν ἐσταυρωμένον Ἰουδαίοις μὲν σκάνδαλον Ἕλλησιν δὲ μωρίαν,” “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” I want to point out those words “skandalon” (stumbling block) and “morian” (foolishness) from which we get our words “scandal” and “moron.” This should point us to the question we ought to be inclined to ask when presented with the Resurrection: not merely “What does it mean?” but “What is the meaning of this?” We should find the idea that this event is the central event of universal history troubling if not obscene, and peculiar if not ridiculous. If not, we have lost the ability to appreciate some of “the meaning of the Resurrection,” its ability to confound the wise and yet to complete and perfect their wisdom.

The final thing that I want to say about “the meaning of the Resurrection” is that when that paradox I just described hits home, when the iconoclasm and realignment of our paradigms has had its full effect, this “meaning,” this symbolic communication demands a reply. In Acts 2, after the Resurrection message has been presented, it says, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” I think one of the best descriptions I know of the reaction that “the meaning of the Resurrection” is intended to elicit is the motto of Professor Rosenstock-Huessey: “Respondeo esti mutabor,” “I respond, although I will be changed.” Those words seem very meaningful in light of the Gospel; for responding to the Gospel in the knowledge that it will change us, we find that the Gospel acknowledges all the deficiencies of our love and understanding that must change.

Last Updated: 8/7/11