The risen Christ as saturated phenomenon—Part 2

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I’m nearing the end of Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection. Wonderful book. I’m slow, so it will take me a second reading through, and a third for some portions, to process what are theologically rich and practically challenging insights. In Part 1 I presented a portion of Robinette’s appropriation of Marion’s notion of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ as a way to understand the resurrection of Christ. In this Part 2 I’d like to finish that summary. Robinette’s comments are indented. Mine are not.

[T]he resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the saturated phenomenon par excellence in being unforeseeable, unbearable, unnamable, and unconstitutable by the subject [Marion’s four marks of the saturated phenomenon]…

Unforeseeable: The Resurrection as Unexpected Fulfillment
Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of salvation history, the eschatological fruition of creation. And yet Easter does not always conform to prior expectations. Its truth comes by way of transforming our expectations, by opening up hitherto unknown horizons of possibility and meaning. The revelation of the risen victim is a reality to which we must accustom ourselves. It summons us. It offers new expectations and desires. What it would teach us is something we cannot fully grasp on our own, even if we may glean aspects of it here and there. To put a fine point on it, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is something we must learn. The gospels consistently present Jesus’ appearances as events that catch their recipients off guard, in various modes of misunderstanding, surprise, and sometimes fear. However much enthusiasm attended the early Christian proclamation “He is risen; he is not here,” its initial in-breaking upon the hearts and minds of Jesus’ earliest followers came as a jolt that initiated a shift in understanding. This shift is evident in the story of scripture itself. Though eventually regarding by Christians as the fulfillment of salvation history (the ultimate antitype to the exodus), the irruption of Easter was not wholly foreseeable but only subsequently seen as “necessary.” As Marion puts it: “The phenomenon of Christ gives itself intuitively as an event that is perfectly unforeseeable because radically heterogeneous to what it nevertheless completes (the prophecies).”

Robinette does foresee certain objections to the idea that the resurrection was not foreseeable. The earliest Christians regarded the resurrection as the fulfillment of scripture. Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures” (1Cor 15.4). That doesn’t look like the resurrection was beyond anticipation. He also addresses at some length Jesus’ explicit anticipations of his own resurrection. Surely Jesus’ resurrection was not unforeseeable to him. But even at this junction, Robinette wants to maintain some openness and ambiguity to Jesus’ expectations. Robinette explains:

…Jesus’ resurrection is not…the inexorable outcome of a prior narrative context. Neither is its meaning exhausted by the preceding metaphorical elements that nevertheless help us to make sense of it…[A]s the early Christians searched the scriptures for illuminating the meaning of this novum ultimum [ultimate new thing] in terms of creation, exile, and restoration, they were very much reinterpreting these terms from the new perspective given by this novum ultimum. The resurrection established for them a new hermeneutic that helped them to creatively re-envision the governing plot of the Jewish scriptures.

What of Jesus’ own expectations regarding his vindication? Here Robinette recognizes the link in Christ’s teaching between the Kingdom that he preached and his own personal destiny. The Kingdom’s arrival and eventual fulfillment, Jesus believed, are inseparable from his fate. Robinette:

…though there are good reasons [to be confident] that Jesus believed his death and hoped-for indication were central to his Kingdom message…the passion predictions…faithfully portray Jesus’ own sense, however, inchoate, that his personal fate was utterly bound up with the Kingdom of God—that his person was intimately connected to Israel’s final restoration from exile…

But even if we take a maximalist position on this issue and argue that Jesus explicitly hoped God’s vindication would take the form of his resurrection, and furthermore that this unprecedented act would deliver God’s eschatological judgment and salvation for Israel; even so, his resurrection—its actual occurrence, its incident and attestation to others, its impact and history of effects—would necessarily remain unforeseeable to Jesus himself. Let this be properly understood.

…This, according to Marion, is “expectation without foresight”… Jesus may hope, even expect this vindication via resurrection, but such expectation was without foresight, for its intention could have no perceptible terminus. It could only extend indefinitely into the non-doing and non-being of death, and ultimately into the silent incomprehensibility of the Father. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

I’m less convinced that we have to subject the scope and depth of Jesus’ own insights into his fate to the precise limitations of his disciples. Jesus does not come to faith or a genuinely new perspective or awareness of himself on the other side of his own resurrection. That is, the resurrection is a saturated phenomenon for us to whom Christ appears and who by faith live in and to its fullness. That’s not to say Jesus sustains the same relationship to his own resurrection. I appreciate Marion’s point here – viz., as Christ approaches and endures the Cross, his consciousness cannot be so supernaturally flooded with certitude regarding his vindication that he has no need to ‘trust’ and ‘hope’. As the representative human, Jesus endures the Cross by faith. But this is said easily enough without supposing his faith and hope could not have taken the shape of an expectation of vindication close at hand. Given the convertibility in Jesus’ mind (and not his disciples) between the ‘Kingdom’ and his ‘personal fate’, shouldn’t one assume Jesus expected vindication rather immediately? Could Jesus have imagined the Kingdom advancing indefinitely in his absence? I should think not.

blindUnbearable: Easter and “Bedazzlement”
The eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be borne by those who are its witnesses, but saturates and “bedazzles” their capacities of perception and comprehension. “In terms of quality, writes Marion, “the figure of Christ obviously attests its paradoxical character because the intuition that saturates it reaches and most often overcomes what the phenomenological gaze can bear.” Easter’s unbearable character is evident in two related modes: the empty tomb and the appearances.

The Empty Tomb as Christological Apophasis
In the empty tomb stories, the saturation of intentionality (the “gaze”) occurs through a striking absence. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel (16.1-8) we are told that upon their discovery of the empty tomb the women were seized by ‘terror and amazement.” Instructed by the mysterious “young man” in a white robe to tell the disciples in Galilee what they see, or rather what they do not see, they leave post-haste, saying nothing to anyone “for they were afraid”…

The narration of bodily absence in Mark is constructed to provoke its readers. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (v. 6). It may be, as Robert Gundry observes, that Mark’s Hellenistic-Gentile audience would have been sufficiently impressed with an immortalizing of Jesus without bodily resurrection. “But no, compensation for crucifixion demands and gets more. The [soma], ‘body’, and the [ptoma], ‘corpse’, that was taken down from a cross and entombed has been raised to new life with the result that Jesus is going ahead of his disciples in re-embodied and therefore visible form.” The ostensible crudity of such bodiliness “is exactly what Mark wants his readers to understand”…

But this “nothing” the women “see” is no mere lack. It is the negative impress of an excessive “something” that cannot be borne by intentionality. In verses 6 and 7 we are introduced to an oppositional structure in which geography functions as a kind of phenomenology. “He has been raised; he is not here…But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The “there” of Galilee, which is where the risen Jesus is, is opposed to the “here” of the tomb in Jerusalem, where Jesus is not. What stretches from Jerusalem across to Galilee is more than a geographical distance. It is a perceptual and affective distance, a “space” that elicits anticipation and yearning, an attitudinal openness for beholding the as yet unrecognizable form of the bodily risen Lord…

Francis Watson warns against reading the fragmentary character of this “ending” as somehow accidental to Mark’s overall meaning. Helpfully, Watson calls for a style of interpretation that reads all of the resurrection narratives “precisely in their fragmentariness, and not in spite of it.” Such a view, so closely aligned with my own, presumes that the narratives and the traditions from which they stem are “included within the sphere of the event itself, so that the generation of an appropriate testimony to itself would be integral to the event.” In the case of Mark 16.1-8, the reticence in not narrating the resurrection is complemented by the non-narration of the post-resurrection encounters. The story of the women at the tomb is thus framed by two non-narrated events – “events” that nonetheless stand as the gospel’s climax. What we are left with is not an “object” that would satisfy intentionality but the hollowing out and intensification of desire for the crucified-and-risen One who becomes “present” by “going ahead” of them. That is to say, we are left without stable images or concepts that would comport with the capacities of the intending subject, but only the phenomenological attitude appropriate to an event that manifestly overwhelms those capacities—“terror and amazement.”

The Appearances as Christological Kataphasis
If the empty tomb story in Mark performs a contemplative and critical distance, we should not conclude that the appearance traditions, which narratively permit us to “see” the transfigured Christ, enclose or negate this distance. If the Marcan empty tomb is more apophatic in character, and the appearances more kataphatic, we should understand both of these modes as very closely linked. They are distinctive yet complementary attestations to the one eschatological Gift of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Just because the risen Jesus becomes communicative and interpersonally “present” to Mary Magdelene, the disciples, Paul, and the five hundred, revealing himself in ways that include visual, auditory, and even tactile aspects, never is this presence something ready-to-hand or fully comprehensible. For all their diversity the appearance traditions are remarkably coherent in articulating that the witnesses “see” and “touch” precisely in the midst of their “not-seeing” and “not-grasping.” They recognize the risen Jesus as a “stranger.” They identify him through a process of mis-identification, frequently coming to faith through doubt, and thus through the purgation and transformation of their surface desires. In each of these vignettes, and through the sum of them, the risen Christ becomes epiphanous while overshadowing their perceptual and cognitive horizons. The perceived absence here is the result of an excessive presence, and extreme surplus of givenness that cannot be anticipated or absorbed by those who will nevertheless become its transformed witnesses…

But we should not understand this “both-and” dynamic as implying some sort of equality between these two sets of terms. The relationship is not linear, as though presence stands “side by side” with absence in equal measure, or with the same significance. The mis-understanding and mis-identification described in the narratives result from an unreservedly positive givenness that, by its antecedent and extreme intensity, produces a “negative” impress due to the perceptual limitations of the witnesses who cannot fully absorb it. Like the blindness that results when unadjusted eyes are flooded with intense light, the appearances of the risen Christ in his glorified corporeality “bedazzles” witnesses. The perceptual obscurity here is the subjective correlate to the objective surplus of givenness. Apophatic “formlessness is a modality derivative of the inexhaustibly beautiful “form” of Christ. This in essence is what Jean-Luc Marion means by “bedazzlement”…

On the one hand, the empty tomb and appearance traditions together will not permit us to speak of the risen Jesus as simply returning to his former state of existence. The resurrection is not resuscitation. That Jesus first appears as a stranger, as one not limited by the partitions of ordinary space-time existence, as one who ascends from view in glory, etc., reveals the error of this extreme—one that would simply annul Jesus’ death. The resurrection is more-than-historical. It cannot be plotted within history without remainder.

On the other hand, the risen Jesus has not been transposed into a reality completely discontinuous with this embodied history, as though his humanity were only the penultimate stage in his bid for a formless eternity. His resurrection is not a disembodiment but the admission of his total historical-embodied humanity into eschatological fullness. The empty tomb tradition makes this point abundantly clear. That we are instructed to speak of continuity in the midst of discontinuity is evident in the narratives’ insistence on the familiarity and tactility of the risen Jesus, in ways that even include the identifying marks of his death.

Jesus’ resurrection is and is not historical, and this requires simultaneous acts of saying and un-saying. With this “both-and” structure, the narratives present us a set of grammatical rules to help us speak of the resurrection with relative adequacy, with proper ballast. We are not granted a stable and definitive mental picture that would allow us to identify the risen body’s quiddity. But this we do not need, nor should we expect it…

Though it may be difficult to grasp, the risen Lord is “simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord.” As James Alison observes, “the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time….[T]he resurrection life…is able tot include both the life and death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both”…this simultaneity is exactly what makes Jesus’ resurrection God’s definitive and non-violent offer of forgiveness. It is also what makes the resurrection God’s victory over death as opposed to its mere negation. But what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension most radically mean is “the introduction of a novelty into heaven: human nature. Being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God.” This insight, which is the very boldest of Christian insights, means that the body, particularly the flesh (caro) is the hinge (cardo) on which salvation turns….

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Unnamable: The Resurrection Pluralizes Horizons
As I have argued thus far, the empty tomb and appearance narratives are “eschatological signs”: historical vestiges and afterimages, revelatory traces of an “event” which, because of its historical and trans-historical reality, leaves its impress upon history, imbuing it with eschatological promise and dynamism, yet transcending the historical effects it continually shepherds. Such a reality could only be signified with relative adequacy to the extent that it includes complementary acts of saying and un-saying, rendering while not-grasping, disclosing while self-effacing. The presence-absence structure of the narratives echoes and analogizes the historical aporia of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Their style of presentation (their form) is marked unmistakably and uniquely by the sui generis “event” they seek to reveal (their content). Far from reflecting a deficiency in the risen Christ’s self-attestation, the tensions, ambiguities, and plurality of the resurrection narratives result from a brimming excess that produces harmonic, serializing patterns in the oral and textual traditions that enshrine without ever encompassing it.

While it is customary for apologetic defenses of the resurrection to emphasize the points of convergence between the resurrection narratives, no doubt because non-contradiction and multiple attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical reliability, the differences and asymmetries between the narratives are just as important for appreciating their peculiar nature. Certainly patterns across the traditions do emerge. For example, most of the appearance traditions describe a process that works something like this: (1) the disciples find themselves in a state of desolation and shattered expectation; (2) Jesus appears to them, typically under the aspect of initial obscurity and shock; (3) Jesus greets his followers, offering them a word of shalom; (4) the disciples come to recognize him, sometimes worshiping, sometimes still doubting; (5) Jesus gives the disciples a word of command and/or mission; and, finally, (6) Jesus withdraws from their field of perception. Despite this general coherence, however, important differences emerge, just as they do with the empty tomb narratives…While some of these differences are open to some harmonization, overall the various traditions resist a single sequence. This is by no means a concession to incoherence, as if he sometimes-irreconcilable aspects of the narratives yield unreliable testimony. Indeed, several critics have noted that the divergences and disagreements serve to support their reliability, historically speaking, since they show the witnesses are not in collusion to make it up…this is what eyewitness testimony looks and sounds like. And in such cases the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion… [E]ven in their final redactions, the gospel writers allow the asymmetries to stand “warts and all: this was how their community had told the story from the very first days.” But this plurality is more than a consequence of surface factors of historical and textual transmission. We will find in it a deeper theological significance.

In the Philippians hymn, God is said to have exalted Jesus, giving him “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2.9). As Marion observes, this exaltation above every name reproduces “the property of God himself admitting all names and refusing each of them…the property of summoning an infinity of nominative horizons in order to denominate he who saturates not only each horizon, but the incommensurable sum of the horizons.” Christ, just as the Father, cannot be properly named within a single horizon, or the sum of them, but draws all perceptual and linguistic horizons towards himself, transcending and pluralizing them. His Kingdom remains “not of this world,” even if it is always irrupting within and through it. He neither conforms to our categories, not do the christological titles finally manifest his essence. Citing the end of John’s gospel, where we are told that the whole world cannot contain the books necessary to describe all that Jesus did (21:25), Marion points to the plurality of the gospels and christological titles are traces of an eschatological excess. If the New Testament canon is “closed,” it remains internally diverse and inexhaustible…

The incommensurability of the gospels may create certain difficulties for their historical valuation, at least the kind of valuation that is the hallmark of so much modern criticism, but no independent substrate can be extracted. No homogenized version of the gospels is possible, even if it were desirable. Such pluralization does not however lead to deconstructive undecidability, as through the differences in scripture result in endless différance. Viewed post-critically, and in recognition of the semantic surplus involved in all interpretation, the plurality within the canon is theologically pregnant. In the multiplicity of textual bodies that arise in the “space” of a gracious withdrawal (Christ’s bodily “resurrection” and “ascension”), we glean something of the boundless fecundity of their ultimate referent. The multitude of imagines in the appearance traditions, rather than providing different pieces for a single, puzzle-like image that would work together to satisfy our desire for conceptual stability, instead generate an ungovernable turbulence that renders each and every image incomplete and overexposed. Here apophasis and kataphasis are virtually indistinguishable.

paulUnconstitutable: Resurrection as the Giving of a “Self”
We have at last reached the fourth and final characteristic way Jesus’ resurrection reveals itself as the saturated phenomenon par excellence

The fourth and final aspect is directly related to the first three, but allows us now to focus more clearly o the ecclesial and apostolic dimension of the resurrection narratives. We may put it this way: Easter faith is not constituted by the “subject” who believes, but rather gives birth to a new “self” that may be received only in hospitality to the crucified-and-risen Other. The emergence of this new self follows a process of conversion within a new contextual setting, a new habitus in which Jesus’ resurrection is embodied through proclamation, worship, and ethical praxis. This habitus is the church—the “body of Christ.” And it is only in the realm of the church, through participation in the community’s mission of “being sent” into the world, that Jesus’ resurrection “makes sense”…

Coming to know Jesus as risen implies participation in a social-theoretical-practical space where Jesus is already affirms as the risen One and were the act of knowing Jesus as risen is sourced through a constantly renewed memory, materialized in performance, and propagated through the instruction and “showing how” by its more competent members. In short, knowing Jesus as risen means knowing ecclesially, as church.

9 comments on “The risen Christ as saturated phenomenon—Part 2

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    “the earliest Christians regarded the resurrection as the fulfillment of scripture. Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures” (1Cor 15.4). That doesn’t look like it absolutely unexpected.”

    As long as we keep firmly in mind that the NT was written after the resurrected Jesus taught them that his resurrection was the fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets.

    The disciples gave accounts of Jesus’ anticipations of his own resurrection after he was resurrected.

    Robinette and your main point remains – Jesus wasn’t surprised, nor does the resurrection necessitate re-evaluation of the scriptures on His part.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Right. It’s all already post-resurrection. And it’s impossible to peel the layers away to separate historical statements from the interpretive act that shapes the content. I’m still not sure whether Robinette thinks the explicit reference to “on the third day” by Jesus is post-resurrection fabrication (not in a nefarious way, but still reflecting only a post-resurrection dressing (after the fact) on what must have been a historically more ‘indefinite’ announcement by Jesus: “I’ll be murdered this weekend, but at some point, sooner or later, God will vindicate me”) or not. He’s not that clear. I don’t think the way Jesus viewed ‘God’s Kingdom’ in the world as inseparable from his personal fate makes that kind of indefinite prediction plausible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    What does knowing Jesus as risen ecclesially, practically speaking in 2017, mean?
    We are still stuck with the ‘according to whom’ conundrum.

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    • Tom says:

      Great point. I wonder if the ambiguity of that conundrum is part of the ambiguity (inherent to the experience of transcendence) which faith opens up – i.e., the Church embodies transcendence, so the same ambiguity that characterizes faith’s apprehension of the risen Christ will characterize the community that proclaims the risen Christ. What, in other words, would happen to transcendence if the ‘according to whom’ was made unambiguously obvious?

      Does that make any sense?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        My opinion is that it cannot be made unambiguous, it comes down to judgment and sensibility, by reason of the claim and the nature of faith. Even when confronted with Christ himself (I mean how much clearer can we get??) it was a matter of a claim which required faith, ‘If you had believed Moses, you would believe Me, because he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’ John 5. Cold, unbiased, empirical and scientific methods of knowledge (purportedly yielding unambiguous ‘data’) don’t have any purchase here, for how will the claim that the carpenter is God be scientifically demonstrated? He walked on the water, healed the sick, open blind eyes, rose from the dead – but we can explain all these things away. There are abundant historical facts with the claim to his resurrection and claims to paradosis, no doubt, but those alone won’t settle the score.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    To answer my own question – in my judgment to undo the ‘according to whose version’ conundrum, the complete matrix and historical process of paradosis has to figure large in any consideration of what it means to know Jesus ecclesially. Coincidentally. I believe this to be no different in AD 2017 as it was in AD 35. Same dynamics, same challenges to epistemology.

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  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    That may point to the blessedness of a childlike faith which does not demand the hard evidence Thomas required. I have not seen that translated to mean a greater blessedness (‘more blessed’) however, so there we must be careful with that. I don’t see it as a bite, so much as a promise for those of us who haven’t seen. Either way, Thomas had to believe, and so do we. Notably, Jesus says ‘you have believed’ and not, ‘you have knowledge.’

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