Memes, Magicians and Manichees

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter from my book Adventures in Orthodoxy on the resurrection.

If you like it you can buy the book through my website here.

Here goes:

Chapter Ten
Memes, Magicians and Manichees

… On the third day he rose again…

Some years ago there was an Anglican bishop who was asked his opinion about the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. The bishop said he believed in the resurrection, but not in any crude physical way. “The resurrection”, he stated, “was not a conjuring trick with bones.” What many people did not notice at the time was that this was a conjuring trick with words. The bishop, like many modern theologians was an expert at verbal legerdemain. What the bishop meant was, that he believed in the resurrection, but not the physical resurrection. This is like saying I believe in marriage, but not a marriage where people do anything so crude as to make love.


Many modern clergymen and women understand the resurrection in this way. Like most magicians, they use this sleight of hand to mystify and entertain their audience. So on Easter Day, Reverend Mandrake will stand in the pulpit and proclaim, “Today we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” What he means by this is that “In some wonderful way the teachings of Jesus were remembered by his disciples after he was dead.” However, what Mrs. Bloggins in the front row thinks he means is that he believes that Jesus’ body was brought back to life miraculously; that his disciples saw it, put their fingers in the nail holes, and watched him eat a breakfast of broiled fish and toast. With this verbal trick Rev Harry Blackstone Jr. is able to please both Mrs Bloggins and the bishop. In other words he is able to fool everybody– even himself.

A plain thinking person might be excused for distrusting the clergyman. “He has said one thing, but means another!” It is then understandable when the ordinary fellow in the street puts the modern clergyman in the same category as the politician, the used car salesman and the snake oil man. It is easy to criticize this clergyman for being dishonest, but we must forgive him. Like the naked emperor’s courtiers he has only believed what he has been told to believe. Furthermore, the modernist bishop and his clergy sincerely believe that by saying one thing and meaning another in this way that they are being more honest. So the bishop might say, “I am not so naïve or literal in my understanding as to expect Jesus to physically rise from the dead. Surely the true meaning of this belief is that he continued to exist in some spiritual manner.”

The problem is the old either-or dilemma. Those who deny the physical resurrection in favor of a spiritual meaning assume that those who believe in the physical must be so dumbly awe-struck by the miracle, that they miss its spiritual meaning. This is a mistake. The joy of believing in the physical resurrection is that you can believe in the spiritual meaning too. In fact the spiritual meaning of the resurrection is dependent on the physical event. It is the physical fact of the resurrection that makes the spiritual aspect jump up and dance a joyful jig. In the same way, a husband might say that his marriage has spiritual meaning because he and his wife enjoy making love. You could say that it is only because a husband and wife make love that they understand love.

Anyway, aren’t you suspicious of any theory that is all “spiritual”? It is too ethereal and
otherworldly. Any religion which “spiritualizes” away the physical aspect indicates a negative attitude to the physical side of life. This negativity towards anything physical was made famous by a third century thinker called Manichaeus. His followers were called Manichees, which makes them sound like a cross between a sea cow and a Chinese fruit. Despite the strange name, they believed something that is very easy to believe: that the physical is filthy and vulgar and nasty while the spiritual is clean and ethereal and nice. But I am suspicious of things that are easy to believe. If they are easy to believe it is all too likely that they are comfortable, and if they are comfortable they do not really smell true.

Manichaeus concluded that the physical was inferior because he thought that Satan had stolen particles of light from the world of Light and imprisoned them in man’s brain. The object of religion was to liberate these particles of light from their sordid physical captivity. The way to release the light imprisoned in the brain was to suppress the sordid physical realm with extreme asceticism. I doubt that the Anglican bishop I mentioned was a Manichee in the respect that he went in for extreme asceticism. The man I have in mind was plump, and somewhat of a bon vivant. I can hardly imagine him sacrificing his dining rights at high table to sit in a snowdrift in his underpants in order to liberate the particles of light from his brain.

However, inasmuch as he found the physical resurrection of Jesus to be distasteful he was a Manichee.I use the word “distasteful” because I suspect that educated and sophisticated people deny physical miracles not so much because they are incredible, but because they are an error in taste….

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    I read this book during Holy Week. It was full of valuable & unique insights by The Author, and presented in his accessible & engaging style.Not the usual apologetics book, thank goodness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00994686966058012959 Joee Blogs

    I’m reading it at the moment!!!


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