“The ascension is harder to believe in than the resurrection.”
Someone made the above statement in a conversation we were having, and I immediately thought of something mentioned in chapter 5 of Keith Ward’s book The Big Questions in Science and Religion. After discussing briefly some traditional notions of time and space in cosmologies of previous ages, Ward writes (p.107), “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed)”.
I then found myself thinking about Iron Man – specifically, the scene where Iron Man is fighting another “iron man” in the upper atmosphere and asks him how he dealt with the problem of freezing. A literalist might want to ask Jesus the same question. Many Christians emphasize that the risen Jesus returned to a physical, bodily existence. But not only his appearance in locked rooms, but his apparent lack of any need for oxygen, defiance of gravity and resistance to the cold and radiation of space suggest that whether one opts for extreme literalism or approaches the Bible using the historical critical method, the outcome may be the same, namely to question whether there is any sense in which Jesus in the post-Easter period may be said to exist physically. Sure, we can discuss whether or not he was manifested or experienced physically, but that is not the same as saying that he is inherently physical and/or bodily.
This discussion takes us quite far from the primary focus of Ward’s chapter in certain respects, but in others it highlights one of Ward’s key points, as for instance when he writes (p.109), “Sacred space is primarily symbolic space, and it is possible that the literalization of such symbols already presages a loss of archaic religious sensibility.” The idea is that literalism, far from being a quest to preserve the past understanding of sacred texts and ancient cosmology, badly misconstrues them. Conscious literalism is always something significantly different than naive literalism, as Borg helpfully points out.
The key focus in this chapter of Ward’s book is that the language traditionally used about God and spiritual things has been explicitly acknowledged by theologians then and (for the most part) now as being metaphorical, symbolic, pointers to a reality that is infinite and indescribable. Attempts at literalism do not, therefore, simply lead to bad science and cosmology. They represent a radical departure from what religion has meant in the past, too. The irony is that those who claim to be “literal” also claim the label “conservative”, and yet the approach of fundamentalists is thoroughly modern and departs from the historic perspective of their faith tradition in important ways.