Classical writers in all religious traditions tell us that there is a secret to growth, namely, when we reach a certain point, we must let grace do the work. It isn’t that we cease making an effort; it’s just that we need to let our efforts be augmented by something beyond us.
Etty Hillesum, in her diaries, explains this: “I don’t have to tinker with my life [anymore] for an organic process is at work. Something is growing, and every time I look inside, something fresh has happened, and all I have to do is to accept it.”
Is this what we call “the resurrection”?
For many people the resurrection is a metaphor, the faith equivalent of the Phoenix-myth: Deaths aren’t final and we can, if we do it right, rise from our own ashes.
What gives us the power to rise from our own ashes? In this view, proper will-power and positive thinking. The idea is that if you think positively, good things will happen to you. If you believe strongly enough in something, it will happen. If you preserve long enough in hope the good thing wished for will be given you. Faith, hope, and positive thinking make good things happen and resurrect life from its many deaths.
This is the basis for many self-help philosophies and a lot of religious groups. They base themselves more on the power of the human spirit than on the power of transcendent grace. For them, the resurrection is the Phoenix-myth, upgraded a bit by psychological and religious language.
And there is some depth and truth in this. Among other things, the resurrection is about positive thinking and the belief that positive energy makes good things happen, just as self-defeating thoughts are also self-fulfilling. Positive thinking creates positive energy and that energy can help bring life out of ashes. This is true even physically. Sometimes in a serious illness the right attitude is just as important for a cure as the right medication. This is not just wishful thinking; proper attitude lets the right physical, emotional, and spiritual energy flow into the world and into the body.
For many people, this is what the resurrection means, it is a metaphor for the transformation that positive energy can bring into this world..
But it is more than that. The resurrection is not just about the potential effect of positive human energy within us, it is too, and especially, about the power of God, miraculous energy, energy that can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, energy that can do for us what nature, all on its own, can’t, The resurrection is about power entering our world and our lives from beyond.
How might we understand that?
Paul Tillich once made a distinction between what he termed: Pseudo-religion, Quasi-religion, and Real-religion.
Pseudo-religion is when we use the language of religion (God, revelation, grace, resurrection) but in essence, use those words to refer to what is highest inside of our individual consciousness. And that, at its best, can take us to human maturity and altruism, just as at its worst it can take us to narcissism and grandiosity. In either case, in the end, we are recycling human consciousness, and will-power and positive thinking play the pivotal role in any growth and transformation.
Quasi-religion, on the other hand, does not use the language of religion but uses instead the language of social analysis, psychology, philosophy, economics, and anthropology. And what it calls us to is to what’s highest, not in individual consciousness, but inside of the collective consciousness. Like Real-religion, it calls us beyond ourselves to the transpersonal. Quasi-religion, in its best expressions inside of some political and social ideologies (Marxism, Green Peace, NGOs, Social Justice ideologies), like Real-religion, calls us beyond ourselves, but, unlike Real-religion, it doesn’t ultimately bring transcendent air into our lives. It still only touches what is highest inside of us and our own will-power and positive thinking remain the real driving force behind any transformation either in the world or inside of ourselves.
Real-religion might use or not use the classical words of religion, but, in either case, what it opens up for us is not just what’s highest inside of ourselves and what we can achieve through will-power and positive thinking. Rather it opens us to a power and grace beyond us. It doesn’t simply recycle the air inside of our universe; it brings in air from beyond, divine, transcendent air.
The resurrection has a place for positive thinking and emphasizes the importance of appropriate will-power. But it’s much more than that. Ultimately, it is about the transcendent power of God breaking into nature and into our lives and doing for us what we can’t do simply through will-power and positive thinking. It is a power that can re-arrange the very atoms inside of our physical bodies, our aching emotions, and our divided world and raise up new life from the ashes.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.