Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

The Elephant in the Tomb

Ah…the week after Easter, that magical time of year when so many progressive pastors post their Easter sermons.  They basically say something like, “no one really knows what happened that day, but something did.  Whatever you want to believe about it is cool and all.  Now, let’s try to capture the essence of resurrection.”  To which I think, “I was totally reading your blog and grooving on everything that you were saying, but now you’re telling me that part of growing up is learning to acquiesce to a world smaller than ideal.”  Then I feel this sense of revulsion that harkens back to a conversation with my father fifteen years ago.  He told me that my summer job at Burger King was good for me because I wouldn’t only take jobs that would “benefit humanity and save the planet, but be willing to take jobs better than Burger King.”  It was wise advice in that there are times we have to take those jobs to eat.  However, that was also the summer I almost became an atheist.  Somehow what I heard was that growing older means becoming a cynic and giving in.  My existential crisis was and still is that I do not want to settle for the world as it is, accepting suffering and injustice as necessary norms.  So I will confess right here that my personal bias is that I put hope first defined in such broad, liberal terms as longing for a world in which there is no suffering, everyone gets along, and everyone is fulfilled in some way – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Ultimately though, I think whether you’re on Team Wright or Team Borg has more to do with something inside of you than it does with who made the most logical argument with the most evidence.  I’ll pretend Jonathan Haidt and David Hume have a point about reason being subservient to the passions.  As Haidt says over and over in The Righteous Mind, we are about ten percent rider and ninety percent elephant.  The rider would be our conscious mind that uses rationality and logic and the elephant would be our intuition.  If I pull out a 742 page book by N.T. Wright to make an argument about why the resurrection likely happened, I’m speaking to your rider, but not your elephant.  I know this is bold, but this post is for elephants.  There are already countless books written for riders.  If you think this means that this means I live in postmodern fantasy land and don’t believe in objective truth, I will remind you that ultimately questions about Christology (Jesus being both God and human and how that works out) and resurrection are questions of faith.  Faith engages something beyond reasonable evidence and logical arguments.  

The first reason some progressives have a harder time believing in a literal resurrection is often that people who make such stringent arguments for a literal resurrection do so on the basis of three morals that Haidt shows liberals don’t value as much as conservatives.  Their arguments for believing in the literal resurrection are based in authority (the Bible says so), loyalty (that’s what it means to be on Team Jesus), and purity (people who don’t take the resurrection literally are heretics and should be voted off the island).  Of course, since liberals don’t put much stock in these moral foundations, these don’t actually sound like good reasons to them.  That is not to say that conservative arguments don’t have validity.  But one reason N.T. Wright is the most conservative some liberals read and the most liberal some conservatives read is that he connects to all six of Haidt’s moral foundations.  In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright makes it clear that resurrection has to do with the renewal of all creation, which relates the favorite liberal moral foundation of care as well as the liberty/oppression foundation. 

The second reason that liberals have a harder time with a literal resurrection has to do with myth and literalism.  I don’t know if Joseph Campbell made a statement declaring that this particular resurrection didn’t happen, but he has thoroughly schooled our society in the concept of taking myth seriously without actually believing any of it literally.  In Hero with a Thousand Faces, we learned that the Sumerian goddess Inanna descended into a hell and came back.  At the center of Joseph Campbell’s assertion is that myths share common elements and we connect to them on a subconscious level that gives us deeper meaning.  We have learned that stories can be valuable and meaningful, even if they didn’t actually happen.  We spend billions of dollars entertaining ourselves with fiction that provides more substantive levels of connection and meaning than the average church service and then wonder why church attendance is declining.  The literal minded people often don’t connect as much on these levels and argue for resurrection by reducing it to a historical event based on evidence.  However if resurrection is excluded from the realm of history and relegated to the realm of probable fiction, then that too is just as much of a reduction in its meaning.  If we actually want to talk about benefitting humanity and changing the world, then somewhere the ideal and the real must meet.  I believe they meet in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – or rather my elephant believes this and my rider philosophizes about it incessantly. 

So here are what I perceive to be the two biggest liberal fears about believing in a literal resurrection.  The first is that the resurrection is not first and foremost related to a moral foundation based on care and liberation from oppression.  The second is that if the resurrection is a real, historical event that somehow reduces its scope and mystery.  Neither of these fears has any actual basis.  But then the thing about fear is that it is reactionary.  Easter Sermons however should be proactive declarations of hope.



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