Wednesday, 25 March 2009

What in the World Is Nathan Studying?

I know, I know, at first glance it seems like my PhD program is something totally foreign and obscure. But that's really not the case, exactly. All I'm doing is spending three years researching and writing a book about God. If it weren't for the fact that God isn't all that simple, and that the UK graduate studies system is convoluted, I'd say it's as simple as that.

My topic is this. I'm looking at the Christian hope - the afterlife if you will - what the Apostles Creed calls "the resurrection of the flesh." The Bible teaches (and the early Church upheld) that God will raise our bodies, and that for the believer in Jesus Christ this is the best thing possible, because in our glorified flesh we get to live with God forever in a renewed creation. This whole business of dying and going to heaven is no more than a footnote to the Christian hope, I believe. The future for the redeemed is much more worldly, bodily and lively than that. Our life in eternity will look an awful lot like this earthly life, minus sin and death. It will be like the garden of Eden, you might say, but this time God walks with us because, well, He, Jesus Christ, will be living in our skin.

Anyway, I'm approaching this doctrine as formulated by Karl Barth, widely believed to be the most important theologian in the 20th century. He wrote tens of thousands of pages of material, including a fourteen volume set of Christian theology called Church Dogmatics. Yes, that's a lot of reading. What makes it trickier is that I'm researching the general resurrection (the resurrection of all people), which Barth never wrote about directly because he died before getting around to writing his eschatology section of Church Dogmatics. Nevertheless, he wrote enough about the topic for me to extract and form into a thesis. And since my degree is in "systematic" theology, I'm showing how all of his other doctrinal and philosophical commitments end up coloring his doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh, and how the resurrection plays a key role in his whole theological system.

Karl Barth does a lot of cool things with Jesus' resurrection. He makes it very central to his whole enterprise by seeing it as the very epicenter of the way God reveals Himself, way back when at the first Easter, and to this day. The problem is that Barth ends up with a lot of baggage by equating resurrection and "revelation" too much. In the end his vision of the Christian afterlife, the resurrection of the flesh, ends up looking pretty otherworldly. I'm trying to figure out why this is the case. In the meantime I want to find out why so many Christians, even Reformed Christians, tend to deny or neglect their own resurrection in favor of a future centered around legal pardon and a disembodied eternity in the presence of God (read: justification and going-to-heaven). Aren't we missing out on the very hope God has for us - a hope irreducibly bodily, earthly, and concrete?

Practically what this requires of me are long days of reading, thinking and writing. I spend a lot of time in the library. I am wed to my laptop some days. By God's grace I have been able to do much of my research from Sioux Falls, though I go over to Edinburgh regularly for meetings with my advisors and certain conferences. There aren't any classes I have to take. It's just me, my advisors, and a lot of Karl. But come the end of summer 2010 I should be done with my thesis, amounting to a 300-page paper.

The reward? A single piece of paper telling me I'm a doctor. The greater reward? Getting hired at a university or seminary on that basis. The greatest reward? Getting the opportunity to think and talk about God for a living, the God who not only became flesh to save us, but the God who even now (!) lives in the flesh, and will raise ours to everlasting life.

Sunday, 15 March 2009