Resurrecting the Resurrection in Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

I listened to a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in Vancouver on June 23, 2018, where Harris asked this seemingly simple question (which had been previously asked of Peterson): “Was Jesus literally resurrected?” Peterson said it would take him 40 hours to answer that question. Harris offered his own succinct answer: “Almost certainly not.”

I listened to a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in Vancouver on June 23, 2018, where Harris asked this seemingly simple question (which had been previously asked of Peterson):

“Was Jesus literally resurrected?”

Peterson said it would take him 40 hours to answer that question. Harris offered his own succinct answer:

“Almost certainly not.”

Harris was being generous, noting that nearly anything is possible, even if it has an infinitesimally small probability. But it is clear that he thinks that Jesus did not literally physically resurrect from the dead, his body did not die, go into the tomb, and then come back to life three days later. It did not literally physically happen. We can be almost 100% sure of that.

I agree.

Such a literal physical resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve learned and know about life and death, biology, the ecosystem, nature, etc. Organisms that die do not come back to life, and there seems to be nothing on Earth or in heaven that will change that natural order of things, or reverse it. Believing that they do, or at least that Jesus did, creates such a conflict of reason that it shatters all belief in any kind of consistent reality. It is things like this that make religion, and particularly Christianity in this case, look absurd.

However, what Harris doesn’t seem to grant, and which is where Peterson wants to take such a conversation, is that there is a very long history of beliefs, traditions, history, rituals, mythologies, and archetypes of resurrection throughout history (see here, here, and here, not to mention ideas such as rebirth and reincarnation, which I think are very much related). And these stretch to many millennia before Jesus ever walked the earth. The idea of resurrection, of dying and rising gods, is embedded in the cultural psyche of many civilizations, and perhaps even in our human biology.

I think Peterson could have answered the “literal” portion of the question easily, as Harris did, but then pointed out that there are much deeper questions about resurrection in general, and specifically in the life of Jesus, which cannot be so easily answered, and those that think they can are fooling themselves.

So then the question becomes, if resurrection is not referring to a literal physical resurrection, the reanimation of a corpse, then what on Earth is it referring to? What meaning could it possibly have? What truth does it contain? What are these stories and myths trying to teach us? What are they trying to communicate in their allegories? What could they possibly mean? Is there any truth in them that is real, factual, physical?

This is what Peterson wants to take 40 hours to discuss, and I think it should be discussed. For resurrection has had such a persistent existence in our collective consciousness (and perhaps unconscious) for so long, even long before Jesus, that there seems to be something significant in it, something deeply true, something that perhaps goes far deeper than any “literal” understanding of resurrection. It’s an archetype, and as an archetype it is pointing to a large pattern of reality that is part of who we are, and so it should not be ignored or explained away.

I’ve shared my thoughts about resurrection before, and you can see those articles listed under the topic in my new Topical Guide. There are many deeper, symbolic, metaphorical, mystical, figurative, and yet still very real and even physical ways that we may consider the meaning of resurrection, without resorting to the literal unscientific construction of a human body that dies, and then rises again a few days later. When we believe spiritual realities in a superficial literal way, I think we may do damage to them, and to ourselves, believing in fables; perhaps it is this kind of thing that the Apostle Paul warned against (see 1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4). This, I think, is also what concerns people like Sam Harris. The literal interpretation must go.

If there is something real and significant to be learned in the archetype of resurrection, and I very much think there is, then it will take more work from us to really explore it and consider what it might be trying to say. We may even need to dive deep into our spiritual nature to understand it. If I had to boil it down to a short expression of what I think resurrection means, it would probably be something like this:

Resurrection is the eternal dying and rebirth of life and creation throughout the world and cosmos; nature’s construction of forms and their eventual dissolution to be replaced by new forms continually; the infinite recycling of nature’s resources into and out of things, beings, structures; the life that always arises after death, both during life (as in ego death, or the many other ways the person we think we are must “die” and be “reborn” throughout life) and after life (in the formation of new life); the recognition of the inseparable nonduality of spirit and matter, of subject and object, of mind and body, coming to the realization of this oneness that is the Ground of Being in Reality, that Nature is one interconnected Whole, and we are That.

If I had to state it from a more theistic vantage point, relating it as closely to Jesus as possible, I would put it like this. When we realize our Oneness in God as Jesus did, we realize that even though this body returns to the dust of the Earth from which it came (“Adam”), new Life will arise from the very same dust, and this will also be One in God. It will likewise be Life. It will likewise be an expression of God, a manifestation of God, an emanation of God, a Child of God, not separate from God, but a reflection of God in God. When we transcend ego, this illusory “separate self,” and identify our true Self with and in God and all of Reality/Nature, then it is our very Divine Self, the Self of God, that resurrects in all of Life eternally. That is the God that resurrects, not any particular individual “separate self.” We are that God that resurrects, that has resurrected even in the Life we now currently enjoy in this mind/body, here and now, and we can come to realize this directly while we live, even as Jesus did, and as many other saints and sages have so realized. We can come to know and identify ourselves with the ground of all reality, that which includes all of the cosmos and universe, and this is Eternal. And this deep knowing, this identification, is resurrection, for we have realized we are One in God, Nature, Reality, the Cosmos, and always have been, and we (God) will continue to live and manifest our Self throughout all eternity. The Divine “I” will return, again, and again, and again, in each and every lifeform and creation that ever emerges in the universe.

Albert Einstein once intuited:

A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the “Universe.” He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this bondage is the only object of true religion. Not nurturing the illusion but only overcoming it gives us the attainable measure of inner peace.

We feel that we are a limited finite part of the whole that this this universe, usually feeling that we are living in this universe rather than being a part of this universe. We feel ourselves as completely separated from all the rest of nature, other beings, the world, and the cosmos. We feel like we are in nature, not a part of nature. We feel like we are in the world, not a part of the world. We feel like we came from God, but are not a part of God. But this is the “illusion” that Einstein notes in the quote. This persistent perception and feeling of being separate from the whole is not real at a higher level of perception and understanding. We are not, ultimately, as we typically appear to ourselves in our everday consciousness. The perception of being a “separate self” emerges in consciousness early in our childhood and grows throughout our adolescence, and it is the goal of all true religion and spirituality, and even of true science and philosophy, to help us transcend this limited conception of our self, to make the quantum leap of selfhood from being only this particular body/mind to being the Self of the whole universe, which is God.

We are not only in nature, but we are Nature. We are not only in the world, but we are the World. We are not only from God, but we are God, a “god” in God. We are the Whole, manifesting in each and every part of the Whole, and we are never, ever, ever separate from it, nor could we ever be separate from it. It’s impossible to truly separate ourselves from it (compare Romans 8:38-39). Our “separate self” egoic consciousness, our psychological “self,” and what we see as our particular body/mind, is a finite dualistic reflection of a nondualistic One Infinite Being. What we see “out there” is not separate from us, but is our Self manifesting in duality, emerging in multiplicity, in diversity. The Self is manifesting in me, and it is manifesting in you. It is manifesting in all things, forms, shapes, structures, inventions, creations, art, literature, invention, life, being, relationships, love. We are the Self reflecting itself in itself, like mirrors reflecting mirrors. In the consciousness that arises in our particular body/brain, the Self comes to know itself deeper and deeper simply by looking out onto the world, and especially so when it participates in the Life of the world, and ultimately when it realizes that it is its Self. When this shift takes place, we are no longer truly separate from anything, but we all belong to the very same Self, the same Body, that we call the Cosmos and Reality, Nature and God, the Father and Brahman, Buddha and Dharmakaya, the Tao. This is the pinnacle of Love, of Peace, of Liberation, of Salvation, of Awakening to our true Divine Nature. This is realizing Christ in us (Galatians 2:20). This is Resurrection.

Being an archetype, the truth of resurrection may be found on many different levels, and I believe it is in perfect harmony with the nature of reality and science. But it goes far deeper than surface-level literal interpretations.

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4 thoughts on “Resurrecting the Resurrection in Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

  1. Great read! It’s interesting to me that Harris has spoken extensively about the illusory nature of the “self,” yet can’t find it within himself to concede ground on this point. I enjoy his work for the most part, but he seems to avoid reconciling some glaring holes like this one. Once we depart from a literal concept of the “self” the meaning of the terms “literal” and “metaphorical” become blurred themselves. He is switching back and forth between lenses without acknowledgment.

    1. Thanks Gideon!

      Yes, Harris knows a lot about the nature of the “self,” and I really like the work he has done on this and spirituality in general, but he can’t seem to make the connection between the East and West, and that the same ideas of the “self” may have been expressed in the West’s mythologies as well. I agree with Harris that we need to graduate from literal interpretations of these things, which can be dangerous intellectually and socially, but we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water. I think it would help if Harris tried to articulate how the true nature of the “self” may have been couched in these mythologies, the real psychological truths in the rubble of the religious institutions as he’s said in the past, and where these understandings went off the rails, rather than trying to simply abolish the whole thing as it seems he wants to do. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of Christianity any time soon, so I think it’s a non-starter for Harris to think, as he seems to think at times, that it or Islam or any other of the major religions will just go away. A better approach, I think, is deeper understanding, better interpretations of the myths, knowing how they arose, and to what truths they may point, and direct experience of that truth, which is where I appreciate approaches such as Peterson, taking off from the work of Joseph Campbell and many others. Yes, literalism won’t do, I agree, but there is still much meaning to be found in these mythologies.

      You are right that the meaning of literal and metaphorical can also be blurred when we look deeper into the nature of these things. It’s not as if these things simply become wispy, unreal, conceptual, abstract versions of their “literal” meanings, but in many ways they become even more real, more universal, more physical, more penetrating, more meaningful than they ever could before. As Peterson has said, they can become even more real than real, or “hyper-real.”

  2. Interesting post as always, Bryce. I especially like the last paragraph on the Self, but I would disagree with your reason for dismissing the notion of a literal resurrection. As you know many Christians would say that the whole of the Christian faith stands or falls with one’s belief in a literal resurrection. I myself wouldn’t go that far, and in fact I don’t think it really matters whether the resurrection was a literal one or not. Some Christian scholars would find my stance indefensible, and so be it, but unless we wish to wrongly project limits onto God’s potential, then we should at least not discount the POSSIBILITY of a literal resurrection. You, I, or anyone else is perfectly free to accept or dismiss it as true — it’s a topic that the brightest theologians of the last 2000 years have debated and continue to debate with no signs of slowing down — but to argue against it because it is contrary to our experience of reality is to miss the point of the Christian message, which is to do exactly what you said — to shatter out understanding of reality.

    1. Great thoughts, Walt. As Gideon noted, words like “literal” become problematic at some level. Does “not literal” mean not real or actual? No. I think resurrection is very real, perhaps the most Real thing there is, but not in the way we usually think. We’ve interpreted the words of scripture in their most basic plain sense, but this is not how they were intended. It’s not that resurrection is false or untrue, it is that our traditional interpretation of it is incorrect, in my view. It’s actually far greater than we could ever imagine, and even my words fall far short of approaching its reality.

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