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:
- 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.
- 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.