Do I Look Fat in This? Why Theological Liberals Will Never Answer the Question

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It’s a well-worn meme. The woman stands in front of the mirror trying on the sixth dress of the evening and turns to her husband with an important question:

Do I look fat in this?

The man, fulfilling every sit-com stereotype we could imagine, is wise beyond his years and answers with the skill that only experience can bring:

You look great.

It’s true. Mind you, he thinks she looks great in everything (and nothing). But what he hasn’t done is answer the question. He’s never going to answer the question because it turns out that yes, her bum is noticeable and if he ever makes that clear then things won’t turn out well.

No, instead he’s going to avoid the direct question and say something else. Something acceptable. Something that means he won’t have to actually respond to the critical enquiry made of him.

Something that makes it sound like he’s saying “no” when actually he thinks “yes”.

Welcome to the playbook of theological liberalism. The latest example walked onto the stage today as John Shepherd, former dean of Perth, sought to extricate himself from the inevitable furore that his appointment as interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome has brought about.

Shepherd has just issued a response. Before we read it let’s remind ourselves of exactly what Shepherd said in the 2008 Good Friday message that he chose to make public. He sat in his study and broadcast the following to the world:

The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.

Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.

Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.

Note carefully the argument that Shepherd is making. The Resurrection ought not to be seen in physical terms. The disciples may have “felt” his presence as if it were physical and “incorporated” this feeling into their gospel accounts.

It’s clear, therefore, that Shepherd doesn’t think the Resurrected body of Jesus is physical, just that the disciples “felt” it “as if it were” physical. He’s at pains to distinguish their “experience” from the actual reality. Besides, those records of experience can’t be depended upon because “they’re not historical records” but “symbolic images”.

It’s quite obvious that Shepherd works very hard here to distance himself from affirming a physical resurrection. Very hard indeed. For Shepherd the Resurrection is a symbolic expression of the disciples’ feeling. It is not a physical thing, nor something recorded as a historical event.

Now his statement from today:

Christ is Risen! There has been speculation in the press and on social media about my views on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Part of this is based on a sermon I preached in 2008. It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb.

Note that Shepherd does not clarify what he means by “Jesus rose”. It could mean any number of things, not least what he said in 2008 – the most reliable record we have of what he thinks given that he was unguarded.

The risen Christ was not a ghost – he ate and could be touched – but at the same time he appeared in a locked room (John 20. 26) and vanished from sight (Luke 24.31) and he was often not immediately recognised.

This might at face value be taken as an affirmation of the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection body except note that:

  1. The statements about appearing in a locked room, vanishing from sight and not being recognised can all serve to undermine the sense of physicality if that has not been clearly established. In the original accounts of Jesus’ resurrection they serve to reinforce the supernatural ability of the risen Jesus who had a physical body and yet could do such things.
  2. He states that Jesus ate and could be touched but he has previously asserted that “Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts.“. When Shepherd’s statement now is read in the context of that prior framework of “feeling as if it were a physical presence” we have zero assurance that Shepherd believes in a physical resurrection. All he’s telling us is that the New Testament record is of a physical encounter but he’s already told us that he thinks that record is not history and that the descriptions given are simply feelings, not what actually happened.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (para 646) ‘In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space.’ In my Easter sermon in 2010 I said ‘We believe in the resurrection of Jesus after three days, and in this faith we come to know God who raises us from despair to life, day after day.’ This remains my faith – that Christ is risen indeed.

Again, note that there is no actual affirmation that the resurrection of body of Jesus is real and physical. The language of “another life beyond time and space” can be read in any number of ways without clarification. Further use of the terms “resurrection” and “risen” are given, but we still don’t know at the end whether Shepherd thinks it was physical.

Or, in other words, we asked him if we look fat and he answered, “you look great”. It was designed to make us feel better, not to clarify.

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  1. Stephen Noll

    The most deceptive comment is here: “I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb.” Sounds orthodox. But note the negative formulation: “I have never denied…” Secondly, there are several theories which could include the Empty Tomb and no bodily resurrection. E.g., wrong tomb! Or “someone stole the body. Or simply, “I don’t know, but bodies rising from the dead defies the laws of physics (h.t. to Rudolf Bultmann). Finally, “empty tomb” could be taken metaphorically: I have never denied that “the empty tomb” has served as a touching symbol for unenlightened Christians.

  2. Chris Duff

    Yep. It is tragic and angry inducing. No wonder heresy made the apostles so aggrieved.

  3. John sandeman

    never denied the empty room? From John Sheherd’s original comments iin the west Australian in 2003 ““He said many traditional teachings had been added to Christianity to reinforce the message that Jesus was divine and to boost the Church’s authority. It was not necessary to believe the Gospel descriptions of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, as they were only symbolic stories.
    “‘Nor is it necessary to Christian faith to believe that Jesus physically and literally ascended to heaven after 40 days ,’ he said.”

  4. Arkenaten

    Interesting that you you use the analogy of the lack of truthfulness on the part of the husband and his wife’s big backside to chastise Shepherd.
    Taking this to its obvious conclusion as fa,r as I a understand it, can you please present the definitive evidence to confirm that there really was a physical resurrection and also the evidence of this tomb where the character was apparently buried thus demonstrating either Shepherd’s apparent .dishonesty of plain ignorance?


    1. David Ould

      Thanks for your comment.
      The OP is about the use of words to avoid actual meaning, not the truth of the Resurrection.
      I’m sure you’re well aware of the arguments surrounding the historicity of the Resurrection and, looking at your site, I’m sure you’ve also already long come to your own conclusions about that question. So let’s not troll, shall we?

      1. Mark Jennings

        Right. So you aren’t going to answer the question, then?
        The irony here is so sharp you could cut yourself on it …

        1. David Ould

          no, I answered it. “Arkenetan” has had these debates many many times. They know all the arguments, as I’m sure you do too. I have no interest in people asking trick questions or engaging in trolling. The OP is about Christian ministers having the integrity to uphold the doctrinal positions of their denominations.
          If you want to start a debate about the historicity of the resurrection then by all means write your own blog and see if people engage.

  5. Mark Jennings

    No, the OP is about theological liberals refusing to answer questions. Do you find the plank in your eye gives you many splinters?

    1. David Ould

      More than that. It’s about theological liberals being disingenuous as they go about avoiding affirming Christian orthodoxy.
      Mark, I make a point of not answering trolls’ questions.
      If you want to position yourself with John Shepherd in all of this (as it appears you do) then feel free to do so. If you need to throw mud in my direction then you can do that as well.
      On the other hand, as someone who takes payment to help prepare people for ministry in the Diocese of Perth, you might want to answer the question directly yourself and defend the historical bodily physical resurrection of Jesus.
      You do believe in it, don’t you?

  6. Mark Jennings

    Yep. As does John Shepherd.
    You accuse others of not answering questions, without doing so yourself. I consider your whole blog post, as well as your responses here, an exercise in trolling.

  7. Mark Jennings

    Since I’ve been outed, here is my profile at Murdoch.

    You’re welcome to read what I have written there, which includes several pieces for The Conversation and ABC Religion and Ethics which you can easily access, even if you aren’t employed by a university.

    The things I write go through a peer-review process. But if y’all want to keep reading comments made in an echo chamber, by someone so thin-skinned they respond to questions by outing the questioner, go ahead.

    So long.

    1. David Ould

      “Outed” is an interesting way to put it. You have a clear relationship with the Diocese of Perth which is not irrelevant to your interjection on this post.
      If you don’t want to deal with the actual subject matter of the post and, when pressed, show a remarkable unwillingness to defend orthodoxy, I’ll let others draw their own conclusion on who the troll is.
      John Shepherd openly repudiated the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia which he promised to uphold in his ordination vows. You prepare students to make those same vows. That was worth pointing out to readers, I thought. And now, called out, you retire with a flurry of accusations. So be it. Everyone reading along can come to their own conclusions.

  8. c. russell

    David, he denied the Christian faith. He is an unbeliever. As for “the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia”, we need to be clear about this. The Anglican Church of Australia, like many institutions of historic Christendom, is not recognisable as a Christian entity. It is recognisable, in fact, as the handiwork of Angel of Light.

  9. Lucy Barry

    In my encounters with Christians who seem to have a particularly liberal bent, I have noticed this tendency to avoid direct theological questions. Most often than not, I don’t ask direct questions, because they’re friends or attend my church and I’m loathe to be confrontational. Spineless no doubt. Also it’s the half truths that trip one up. ‘Did they say what I just thought they said?’. Too often suspect comments can be said in an offhand (although usually authoritatively), and it causes one to be put off guard. Many a time I’ve been so perplexed by what I’ve just heard, that I’m unable to think of what to say in the moment. Woe is me….

    Down here in Tasmania, clear biblical teaching has been neglected for a long time. Decades. There are also many Christians who have been mislead by worldly ideology, sometimes quite flagrantly.

    That being said, I’ve made more meaningful and encouraging relationships that I ever did in Sydney. There are so many faithful, kind and caring Christians here in Launceston. So much scope to preach the truth and start a massive revival.

    Godly, reformed Christians needed who are sensitive to cultural differences and without egotistical plans to ‘fix up’ our State.

    Totally off topic, but can’t hurt to say it…

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