By Elizabeth Anderson
There are a handful of predictable theological debates that seem to crop up at certain times of the liturgical year. Is purple the appropriate color for Advent, or is it blue? What theology underlies our endless debates about the sanctoral calendar? And, like clockwork every Easter, there comes the annual debate about what it means to believe in the Resurrection. Many Christians insist upon the absolute centrality of the literal, flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus Christ. Others consider the paschal mystery to be more of a metaphor, a grand myth that gestures symbolically at profound truths rather than a historical event.
These perennial debates tend to hinge on the word “literal.” Do we believe that the Resurrection “literally” happened? Or do we insist that it was instead “spiritual” — even if such an assertion looks suspiciously like not believing in it at all?
It can be easy for those on both sides of this debate to fall into a kind of caricature of themselves, both of which seem equally far removed from anything that Christians in most previous eras of history would recognize. That is perhaps most obviously true of those who would deny the bodily resurrection, seeing a need to demythologize the claims of Scripture and tradition, in order to stress instead the belief that hatred can never overcome love, and that life ultimately triumphs over death. While those are certainly profound truths, if they are not grounded in a historical event but only in a subjective feeling that the presence of Jesus somehow endures among us in spite of his death, then they would seem to offer little concrete hope for any of us embodied creatures, but merely a comforting sentiment.
And yet, the defenders of Christ’s bodily resurrection often seem to stress its physical (or “literal”) nature to such a degree that it sometimes seems like what is being discussed is merely a resuscitation, fundamentally no different in nature than the raising of Lazarus. Jesus was dead, and then he got up and walked around, in precisely the same body as before. Indeed, in teaching college freshmen, I have found that this is precisely what all of them (both Christians and non-Christians) think that Christianity teaches: The Resurrection does not herald any kind of fundamental change in Jesus’s body, but rather, his restoration to life is merely the proof that he was who he had claimed to be. (Of course, this belief that the bodily resurrection, whether Christ’s or our own, simply offers a return to the status quo ante, rather than a more dramatic disruption of some kind, is only good news for those who would see mere continuity of the present, only this time without death, as something to get excited about — which is the kind of theology that tends to spring from privilege.)
But of course, what actually seems to be (literally!) described by the Gospel accounts is something vastly stranger than either the mere resuscitation of a corpse or the mere subjective experience of Christ’s enduring presence — although, to be sure, either of those things alone would be a remarkable event. The Gospel accounts seem keen to stress that Jesus is not simply a ghost, or a figment of anyone’s imagination, or merely a felt presence. He can be touched; he still bears his wounds. And yet they are likewise clear that he has an uncanny ability to appear and disappear at will, unhindered even by locked doors, and that even those who had been the closest to him seem to have a difficult time recognizing him. These rather strange descriptions are actually the “literal” close reading of the text, and they depict a reality that seems to diverge as much from the “literal” everyday life of ordinary people as it does from an incorporeal subjective experience.
What these debates often unmask is the underlying modern assumption that real things are, by definition, physical things. A resurrection that was not physical would, for most modern people, simply not be real at all. Real things are concrete, material things — things that can be apprehended by the bodily senses. To identify the Resurrection as fundamentally spiritual in nature would be to “mock God with metaphor” (in John Updike’s marvelous phrase), and to reduce it to the purely subjective vagaries of human imagination and emotion.
And thus those who insist upon a so-called “literal” resurrection actually run into the same dilemma as those who seek to spiritualize it: all of us alike are fundamentally trapped in modernity. After all, almost no one in the premodern world thought that spiritual things were fundamentally less real than material things. Rather the opposite, in fact. Spiritual things were the most real of all. But now, the concept of the spiritual has become so deracinated from the kind of metaphysics that could have imbued it with weight and meaning that we seem to be left with a choice of mere subjectivity (a “spiritual” resurrection) or simple materialism (a “literal” resurrection).
This problem of terminology is not unique to the question of the Resurrection, of course. If I were to say that I think Christ is spiritually present in the Eucharist, most contemporary people would doubtless hear me saying something more like “I do not think that Christ is actually present in the Eucharist, but I subjectively feel Christ’s presence when I participate in the Eucharist.” If I were to say that the Bible is meant to be interpreted spiritually, I imagine most people would suspect that I simply wanted to make the Bible mean anything I wanted it to, in wanton disregard for the narrative meaning of the text.
And yet, whenever they speak about the Bible, or the Eucharist, or the Resurrection, ancient and medieval theologians tend to emphasize that these are primarily spiritual realities. But by “spiritual” they did not mean “spiritual to the exclusion of the material,” and they certainly did not mean to suggest that any of these things were individual subjective experiences rather than objective realities. But rather, they meant that none of these things were fundamentally true because they were “literal”. They were primarily true because they were spiritually true, and material things reached their perfection in being united and conformed to that more fundamental spiritual reality.
This year, these debates about the nature of the Resurrection have taken on a new urgency, because they have played out in a very different context than usual: most of us, isolating in our own homes this Eastertide, are unable to receive the Eucharist physically, and can only practice spiritual communion.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer assures those who desire to receive communion but who are unable to physically receive the elements that “all the benefits of Communion are received even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth” (BCP 457). This tradition of “spiritual communion” has antecedents in the early church, but received its most famous comprehensive explanation from Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. That is to say, it is a practice grounded in an era that had a much more robust understanding of “spiritual” than what most of us instinctively operate with now.
I have perhaps had more opportunities to practice spiritual communion as a discipline than many Anglicans, because I have spent significant stretches of time in places like Yemen, where I was far from any kind of Christian sacramental community. As a spiritual practice, I confess that I have always found it to be personally comforting, and yet also somewhat problematic. I want to be like one of those premodern theologians I study, who understood that while properly the spiritual and the material should always be united, it was ultimately the spiritual that was the most real, and which therefore determined reality when spirit and matter were not aligned. I fear, however, that I am (alas!) quite thoroughly modern, and that therefore the category of “the spiritual” can very easily slip into the category of “the imaginary.”
I have joked (but only partially in jest…) that during these first few weeks of quarantine, I have developed an admirably robust practice of spiritual writing. I have earnestly desired to write things. Multiple books! Articles and essays by the dozens! I have thought a great deal, at very considerable length, about all of the particular things that I will write. I eagerly anticipate the day on which I will finally sit down and literally write some actual words upon an actual page. And if I am temporarily impeded from writing by constantly staring at news updates in horrified dismay, well… as long as my very sincere desire to write was there, it obviously counts… right?
It does not count, of course. But if I am honest with myself, that flippant label of my practice of “spiritual writing” and my deeply sincere practice of spiritual communion look a little bit too close for comfort. Both seem to be fundamentally grounded in my own desires and my own imagination rather than in the physical world of embodied actions. Both risk drawing me into the isolation of my own mind rather than more deeply into human community, with all of the aggravating realness imposed by its mutual obligations.
I frankly see no easy solutions here. But at least one small part of our problem seems to be linguistic. Terms like “literal” and “spiritual” poorly reflect the multifaceted realities that we are attempting to describe, and that defect in our language results in a defect in our imagination. This means that we are easily left with a false binary in which the literal and the spiritual are opposed to one another as equally unsatisfactory alternatives. I don’t think we can maneuver our way out of this problem simply by some kind of clever linguistic trick, in which we merely swap out the problematic terminology for something more felicitous. But an effort to move away from simplistic binary labels towards more nuanced and complex descriptions might at least help soften some of the sharp edges of the debate.
Even so, as we trace our way through this Easter season nourished only by spiritual communion, I am left with a nagging uncertainty: Is spiritual communion as it was historically formulated still a coherent possibility in the absence of a metaphysics that gives sufficient weight or substance to the spiritual? Or can spiritual communion in the 21st century only ever be a purely subjective, affective desire that offers only an imagined shadow of what is truly real?
Dr. Elizabeth Anderson is an assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN.