Christians agree that the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to their faith. But as soon as we try to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’, it becomes much more difficult to articulate this belief.
The early Christians grappled with this too and used a variety of imagery to express their experience. It is important to realise that the experience came first and the explanations came later. But if the experience is to be shared, communication is vital and words form an important part of this. Language is the key.
Poets are the supreme magicians with language, being able to conjure such breadth, depth and height from the same words as are used mundanely by the rest of us. We need the prosaic of course. But in our necessary struggles to understand, and particularly to appropriate that central tenet of the Christian faith – the death and resurrection of Christ – we may have tried too neatly to encapsulate in theory what is in fact far more mysterious and challenging than such theories appear to allow.
Formal explanations of the crucifixion and resurrection are known as atonement theories. The early Christians, whose witness we have in the Bible, were certainly looking for ways to understand and communicate the events that had taken place; events which had overturned their world. But the language they used was metaphorical.
Over the years, the process of trying to express the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection continued, and in different cultural contexts new theories emerged building on the language from the Bible, but seeking to be more rational and less suggestive.
My forthcoming book, Leaving the Reason Torn: Re-thinking cross and resurrection through R.S.Thomas, is not intended to say that such enterprises have been wrong or that they do not have their place. But some of us have found the theoretical approach to be insufficient. We need creative minds, including the poets, to help us grapple with the Easter events and to enter into this world with mind and heart.
The 20th century Welsh poet/priest R. S. Thomas is such a creative mind. His language is profoundly unsettling at times, courageously saying what some may think but feel unable to utter. He looks at things from more than one perspective, trying out one idea before moving on to another way of seeing. His poetry is personal in the sense that it is his own faith journey he is expressing: a continual wrestling with the God to whom he is totally committed but whom he struggles to understand in the light of a suffering but dazzlingly beautiful world.
Crucifixion and resurrection language permeates Thomas’s poetry and allows us to appreciate that crucifixion and resurrection is a way of being in this world; that Good Friday and Easter Sunday encapsulate a recurring dynamic.
Before going on to look at how this extraordinary Welsh poet helps us to see the cross and resurrection with fresh eyes, I give an overview of the main atonement theories and show why it is that these can only take us so far in engaging with the death and resurrection of Christ. Others have also found that the rich metaphors of the Bible have been somewhat tamed by the more rational analytical approach and want to open the doors to a less constricted approach.
It seems that the explanatory approaches that may have served people well in other times are not so appropriate in our current Western cultural climate, in our time which goes under the slippery and rather ill-defined term, post-modernity. We need the different voice of the creative artist to help us. That is what the book is all about.
© Alison Goodlad has been examining and reflecting on the work of RS Thomas for several years. She is currently undertaking postgraduate theological studies at Sarum College, and she is a member of St Stephen's Church in the Anglican Parish of Central Exeter (http://www.parishofcentralexeter.co.uk/). Alison's book Leaving the Reason Torn: Re-thinking cross and resurrection through R.S.Thomas will be published by Shoving Leopard, Edinburgh, in association with Ekklesia, in June 2011. Initial enquiries to: office AT ekklesia.co.uk, marked ‘Reason Torn’.