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Ralph Hancock: Easter and the transformative conception of salvation

An image from the Church's Bible video series depicts the Resurrected Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene.
An image from the Church's Bible video series depicts the Resurrected Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Searching with only the mind may find out God, but only as a vague general principle — not the personal, redeemer God whose victory Easter celebrates.

Reason could not have predicted the glorious miracle of Easter. Philosophy by itself, even at its best, knows nothing of a God who so loved the world that he gave his Son in order to conquer death and hell. Even among God’s chosen people, with the benefit of centuries of messianic prophecies, few recognized the King who came as a suffering servant.

But once the salvation of humanity was revealed in the person of God’s Son, it became clear that philosophy had left open a gap, that there was a Christ-shaped hole in the best and most honest human reasoning, a big question and an immense longing that only the personal gift of a Savior could answer.

The best philosophers, beginning with the ancient Greeks such as Plato and his student Aristotle, understood that the world must be more than the result of accidental combinations of blind matter. How can reason about the nature of reality fail to take account of the existence of reasoning beings – namely, we humans? Thus natural reason already affirmed persuasively that human beings have a purpose far nobler than the mere satisfaction of bodily desires or the mere deferral of inevitable death.

Such reasoned convictions concerning man’s higher purposes led naturally to speculations about the immortality of an immaterial soul. But here the philosophers’ pride limited their understanding; they identified the immortal soul too exclusively with their own intellectual activity, their excellence as steady, self-controlled thinkers, and so they understood divinity on the model of the mind’s ideally pure, disinterested and impersonal contemplation.

In the Easter event, the glorious reality that God is not only pure intelligence but also infinite love claims the human soul. And once God had revealed himself as love, then the universe made sense to human reason in a way that the ancient philosophers could not have supposed (and which modern “rationalists” have tried to repress). Not only is the rational soul part of a larger meaningful whole, but the human existence itself is an image of a personal, loving creator. The loving labor, the hopes and fears, the joys and griefs of “ordinary” life, and especially the discerning exercise of moral agency — all these essential tasks of our humanity are central to the very reason the world was made.

In St. Augustine’s (354-430) foundational work of Western Civilization, “The City of God,” we can see close up the fundamental, even violent reworking of impersonal Greek philosophy in order to make room for the Christian revelation of the image of God in every human being. In Book X of this monumental work, the bishop criticizes the Platonic philosophers (whom he otherwise esteems so highly) for the philosophical elitism that distorts their understanding of the soul’s good: How can the philosopher’s way to the liberation of the soul be a true way if it is not a universal way, a path that is in principle open to all human beings, and not just to a few philosophers? The true way of salvation can only be one that “purifies the whole human being, not just the intellectual part.” This is why the “Savior took upon himself the human being in his entirety.

Such a conception of salvation necessarily transforms our understanding of the natural order, and thus of the very meaning and vocation of reason. If the human mind, the actual mind of a living and loving person, truly has access to ultimate truth, then this truth must be, not only the philosopher’s ideal of an eternal order of pure intelligence, but a living and loving God. It all makes sense — it adds up for the mind because it also calls to and transforms the heart.

N.T. Wright, the Anglican biblical scholar and theologian, has written: “Jesus came, in fact, to launch God’s new creation, and with it a new way of being human, a way which picked up the glimpses of ‘right behavior’ afforded by ancient Judaism and paganism and, transcending both, set the truest insights of both on quite a new foundation.” Those who opened their hearts to a purpose “the like of which Aristotle had never imagined” would set themselves on this new foundation and “find their hearts cleansed and softened, find themselves turned upside down and inside out.”

The philosophers’ lofty virtues and idea of a higher truth still merit our praise. But in the light of Easter — the victory of God’s beloved Son over death and sin — they take on new meaning. A philosopher could not have conceived Easter, but with it human reason can — and must — re-conceive everything.