SBL Reflections (II): Accounting for Resurrection Beliefs

Another SBL session I enjoyed was the social-scientific and cognitive-scientific approaches to Jesus’ resurrection. The first two speakers in particular had my rapt attention: Pieter Craffert, who analyzed the resurrection from a neuro-anthropological perspective, and Colleen Shantz, who looked at the variety of early Christian resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary psychological angle.

Craffert’s approach was already hinted at in his 2008 publication, The Life of a Galilean Shaman. He argues from the view of neuro-anthrolpology: that the dichotomy between seeing (vision) and hallucination (visions) doesn’t hold everywhere, and that in polyphasic cultures like Jesus’, visual perceptions which lack external stimuli aren’t necessarily hallucinations. They can be as real as perceptions grounded in external stimuli. Ultimately it’s not the brain which determines the reality of a perception (as it does among monophasic Western people), but rather the “consensus reality or intersubjective validation a community is the final arbiter of reality”. Thus visions experienced through altered states of consciousness, if approved, are understood to be as real as anything seen objectively in the space-time continuum. Jesus’ baptism experience involving the dove, and the disciples’ witness of his resurrection, don’t need to be categorized as tangible events recordable on a videocam or bogus hallucinations.

Craffert emphasized that the people of Jesus’ culture could make distinctions between real seeing and visions as much as we do, but the point is that if the latter were approved, they were regarded as equally real, yet without being elevated to the status of an objective event. In my view, this all seems to be a roundabout culturally sensitive way of legitimizing hallucinations, and I wonder if the term can still be valid if used non-pejoratively.

Shantz looked at early resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary perspective, in view of how the mind deals with violations of ontologies. Drawing on the work of Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Jesse Bering People, she explained how people across all cultures find the violation of ontologies fascinating — talking rocks, weeping statues, men who can fly, etc. are like “brain candy” — provided that the violations aren’t too numerous. In other words, something like a talking rock raptly engages the mind, but a talking rock that sprouts hair and then melts into a puddle will more likely be greeted with indifference and boredom. The evolved mind is evidently alerted to modest violations, probably having adapted this way in order to flag potential hazards from the unknown, but it also shuts down when violations get too out of hand to be taken seriously. Cognitive optimal religion involves beliefs in modest violations of reality, while cognitive costly religion involves beliefs in multiple violations of reality — and requires a heavy infrastructure and ongoing reinforcements to keep such beliefs alive.

Thus, according to Shantz, evolutionary psychology cannot well account for Paul’s view of the resurrection because it’s a cognitive costly position, involving multiple ontological violations. Paul believed that Jesus was good and properly dead, that his body rotted, and he was raised into a non-fleshy spiritual existence; likewise, believers were fully dead but would be raised in the same way at a later time. Paul’s views were hard to keep hold of, which accounts for the creative (and sometimes convoluted) explanations of I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (a) To be totally dead (b) until some future time, (c) with the new existence involving serious discontinuities with life as we know it, was a costly belief, and it’s little wonder that afterlife beliefs became more optimal after Paul — as with meal accommodations at grave sites (now understanding that the dead needed food and drink), and more fleshy accounts of resurrection appearances in the gospels. Shantz noted that even Paul himself may have minimized his violations at times, as when he talks in Philip 1:23 of his “desire to depart and be with Christ” — does that remove the intermediate phase addressed in I Thess?

It was an informative session.


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