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The Jesus Seminar


I happened to be in O’Hare terminal on Easter week-end of April 9, 1996, and while I was waiting for my plane to San Francisco, I noticed the editions of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report side by side on the magazine rack. They all featured cover pictures of the risen Jesus. So I bought all three of them. The cover stories of these “secular” journals were all on the same subject: the impact on christianity of a group of theologians who gather periodically in a format called The Jesus Seminar. The members of the Jesus Seminar — who teach theology at divinity schools or departments of religion in various places in the U.S. and Europe — hold the opinion that after all is said and done, the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily, historical event, simply did not happen. They agree with the pithy pronouncement of the German theologian Gerd Ludemann that the resurrection is “an empty formula” that must be rejected by anyone holding “a scientific world view.” The Newsweek article made the following observation about the approach of the Jesus Seminar without further comment: “According to this elaborate academic protocol, the Resurrection is ruled a priori out of court because it transcends time and space.” (p. 65)

I had several reactions to these articles.

In the first place I noted with interest that there is still a group of people in Christianity who cannot handle the Resurrection. The doubt of Thomas endures.

Secondly, this group manages to get a widespread hearing, not just among non-Christians, who might be expected to think there is something vaguely fraudulent about the foundations of Christianity, but among people who consider themselves to be believers in Jesus.

Thirdly, a leading spokesman for the group blithely identifies the key issue of the debate as an issue which he seems obviously not to understand has been at the heart of European philosophy for most of the twentieth century, namely, Being and Time.

I found myself wondering if the German Gerd Ludemann had ever even heard of the German Martin Heidegger, whether the American members of The Jesus Seminar had heard of him, and whether the editors of Newsweek had. I mean, these people are theologians, they are experts on religion. They have educations.

And lastly I found myself thinking, “Wow, I must be really missing something, because I have always thought that what was precisely most interesting about the Resurrection of Jesus is exactly this issue of what it says about the nature of space and time, that is, the body. I mean, isn’t that The Basic Question? Do we exist entirely encapsulated within space and time, or does the human condition extend beyond that enclosure? So, who are these dorks who are going around the world saying that the question is not even worth thinking about, and why are they not being challenged about it? Has Christianity gotten really stupid? Has American culture gotten really stupid? Are the editors of Newsweek really stupid?”

I have since concluded that the people who write about Christianity for Newsweek do not really have any existential inwardness. They are probably dyed-in-the-wool Stage Fivers. (Time and U.S.News were the same.) This is a bit distressing. It says that the literate secular culture of today is introspectively innocent.

Perhaps if we review the historical data, we can introduce some Stage Six dimension to the discussion. I said above that there are many empirical faiths in Christianity, but only one event that they all refer to. The Jesus Seminar does not accept this. They say there was no event. Nothing happened.

Of course, there has always been an element of precisely this kind of doubt in Christianity. It is present in the gospel accounts themselves in the reaction of Thomas to the reports of his colleagues. It was a lively issue among the very first generation of christians in the time of St. Paul as reported at length in the first letter to the Corinthians where Paul responds passionately and at length to his own rhetorical question: “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15, 12) And although Thomas appears to have been brought around to the majority view by a subsequent physical contact with Jesus, there is no report on the effect of Paul’s remonstrations on the doubting christians of Corinth.

So, the Jesus Seminar is just today’s form of a point of view that has always been around. The scent of doubt continues to hang over the event. And the doubt gets all the ink in the Easter issues of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

The trappings of the minority view today are perhaps more elaborate than they were in the distant past. The members of the Jesus Seminar write large books and scholarly papers with hundreds of footnotes. And those who disagree with them also write extensive tracts on the other side. It seems to me that the books are actually a smoke screen that conceals the true foundation of the difference of opinion.

For it seems that the opinion as to whether Jesus rose from the dead or not was originally a bodily perception that preceded all thinking. The resurrection of Jesus, if it actually occurred, was undeniably a bodily event. Perhaps no event in human history is so critically and essentially somatic. So, the way some one has to know that the resurrection is “real” or not is the same way that some one knows that the food is good or the air is bad. There is a bodily way of knowing things to which the story of the resurrection makes either a valid or an invalid appeal.

If the resurrection of Jesus did really happen, then it had to come about something like this: (1) A network of intimate personal relationships forms (between Jesus and his followers) in which full, normal body contact is completely verified. This would include odors and pheromones. (2) A very public death occurs (“and there came forth blood and water”). (3) A bodily experience occurs after the death that is perceptually identical with the bodily experiences of companionship before the death. This also had to include odors and pheromones. (4) A resulting shift of inner-outer perceptual standards occurs that the New Testament called metanoia and which is certainly some sort of shift in personality structure. In this shift, the observer is thrown into an unprecedented conflict between his/her somatic perceptions of reality and his or her mental constructs about reality. In this conflict between sensing and thinking the observer encounters the part of the body/self that does not die. In order for there even to be a debate about the matter, something like this had to happen.

If the story of the resurrection does not engage your senses in the same way that it did for the original eyewitnesses, then you stay in your head. The proposition that the body can exist outside time and space is illogical. If you are inclined towards study, you might easily spend numerous hours in libraries, get a degree, and write a book that “proves” that the resurrection is not real. On the other hand, if the story of the resurrection does engage you somehow on the somatic level, then you gravitate towards the opposite opinion. Again, if you are inclined towards study, you might write a book that makes that case.

But the books are just devices to make the decision look more rational than it really is. They are most powerful for those who live in their heads, not in their whole bodies. They are currency for a head-tripping sub-culture, and it should come as no surprise that in this culture at this time a head-tripping sub-culture should have a considerable following.

So, I don’t actually read the books. I may look them over cursorily to make sure they contain all the elements of rationalization I have learned to expect from them. But I don’t read them with any genuine interest. Their conclusions are after all completely pre-formed. There is no drama in the arguments. Nothing new is ever uncovered by the mental process.

But what does interest me acutely about the resurrection debate is the light it throws on the extent of doubt among christians about the source event of christianity.

The Newsweek article also notes that “a Harris poll taken in 1994 found that 87 percent of Americans believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.” (p.62) That prompts me to ask about the modality of that assent. Eighty-seven percent after all is a very high figure. I’m not sure that you could get that percentage of the American population to affirm that the world is not flat. So it seems very reasonable to ask: what kind of assent are we tapping here? Is it a more or less unthinking, automatic notional assent based on reflex cultural conformity? Or is a transformative, real assent based on an actual bodily experience? Or, more intriguingly still, is it somewhere in between?

Of course our experience with the distribution of opinions in any social body would lead us to hypothesize that the opinions of those 87 percent of Americans who say they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead are normally distributed between the poles of unthinking, notional assent on the one hand and somatically grounded real assent on the other. This means that there would be a relatively few people at the extreme ends of the distribution, and many people towards the middle.

This means that most of the 87 percent of Americans who say they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead do so because they have heard it often from authorities they have chosen not to doubt. It has the status of conventional wisdom. They are like Brazilians who “know” what snow is without ever having had the somatic experience of it. If you take one of those Brazilians to Minnesota in January and have them wake up to a snowy winter morning, then he or she would go through a transformative experience, as the idea of snow turns into the somatic experience of snow, as notional assent turns into real assent. This would be an event of true revelation and of true enlightenment with respect to the nature of snow.

The same is obviously true for a shift from notional assent to real assent in regard to the resurrection. If my gut guess about the culture is correct, then there is much room for such a shift. Real assent to the resurrection of Jesus requires a somatic experience. And that has interesting implications for the nature of Stage Seven and beyond. It would seem that it is the body that can live outside of space and time as well as in it, not the mind.

And so the question naturally arises: how does one at this point in history, put the body back into the resurrection? I think there is in each of us a somatic sense that does that. Here is how it happened for me.

“Somatic grasp” might best be understood by remembering how words actually work. For words to work, we have to hear them with our diaphragms. Consider the difference in the tonus of your diaphragm while listening to a “paid commercial message” on television versus listening to the Gettysburg Address… “We are now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, can long endure…”

In the first instance your diaphragm is tight, and in the second, much more relaxed. This difference — between a distraction-avoidance response and solemnity-receptivity — is just one example of somatic responses that are going on in our lives all the time. It is important to increase our awareness of them.

There is somatic bias and habit. We set up our lives, and culture sets up our lives to form our somatic responses to external events in a “safe” way. So, if you are a member of a very conservative religious group for example, there are things in the world that you just never actually hear, such as for instance the pronouncements of science. There are groups such as the Amish who do not even go to high school, and groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who draw the line at college. Can’t be having our members exposed to too much “reason.”

But more mainstream sub-cultures also have their filters, and so everybody has somatic habits and biases that control what information they take in. And “criticism” is of course one of the information sources that are most often filtered out. There are not many people who fully appreciate the Buddhist maxim, “Learn from your enemies.” It is a very tough piece of wisdom.

And I would submit that what makes words “safe” is preventing them from being received too far down in the body. If you hear things just “with the top of your head” you can file them away disconnected from all sources of action in your life. As you let them more fully into the middle of your head, then of course they will start using all those mid-brain and reptilian brain connections with the motor and autonomic functions dispersed throughout the body. Any “head-trip” can be fire-walled off from other parts of the body. The completeness of information’s reception increases as it is registered in the neck, the thorax (heart), the belly, and the lowest part of the body trunk (the sexual organs, yes, but even more important, the perineum and the pelvic floor, the seat of the First Chakra and basic survival mechanisms).

My opinion is that there is a lot of cranial grasp of the resurrection of Jesus in this culture, much of it way at the top of the head, some of it more in the middle of the head, but virtually all of it ONLY in the head, and creating the basis for nervous, authoritarian, defensive, bodi-less social bodies.

But not much somatic grasp. Particularly not a grasp that is felt “in the pit of the stomach.”

My second point is that originally the experience of the resurrection of Jesus did have this full somatic quality. That is what made it such a powerful social, historical force. But, it was so powerful that it overwhelmed the unfinished ego-structures of the culture of the time and had to be relegated to the head. [This is, of course, what much of my writing in Resources is about.] But now, I say, ego-structures are generally stronger, fuller, more complete, and so it is a good time to return to the full somatic experience of the original event.

The mechanism for this is very simple. Do a meditation on John 20, 19 “…and the doors of the room being locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst.” Entitle the meditation simply, “What happened?” Compose yourself. Move from the habitual stance of distraction-avoidance and towards the stance of solemnity-receptivity. Expand your body-sense. Breathe. Do the verse from John (an eyewitness account). Let the effects sink down to your pelvic floor.