One reader responds to my “On the Square” column for today, A Great and Glorious, but Debated, Assumption , with the old Bultmannian criticism about the alleged incompatibility of the Ascension (against which it’s usually made), which he extends to the Assumption, with the modern understanding of the universe. The Assumption, he writes,
doesn’t seem to fit with 21st century cosmology, in which we don’t think of hell below us and heaven above us. In order for Mary’s body to be in heaven, heaven has to be a “place” where physical bodies can reside. Mary and Jesus would be the only two physical beings there. Of course, that is thinking of the dogma very literally, but it seems to me it is stated as a physical fact.
This really isn’t a real problem. Bultmann famously claimed in Kerygma and Myth that “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits,” ignoring the fact that lots of people do, and that some of those who do are scientists intimately familiar with the science behind the electric light, the wireless, and modern medicine.
How the manipulation of nature for our own purposes destroys our ability to believe in a supernatural world is somewhat hard to see. One might easily be standing at the controls of a nuclear power plant or teaching a doctoral class on physics at MIT with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another, to borrow an image from the old cartoons. Both spirits will be working on your will, whatever material you happen to be thinking about at the time.
Anyway, to the question of the Ascension being now unbelievable: why would it be? If God condescended to our capacities in the Incarnation itself, He could easily have condescended to them in the Ascension of that Incarnate Son. How else would onewould Godsignal the end of this phase of Jesus’ life and His return to His Father except through a rising into space? I can’t think of a better, a more dramatic and fitting, way of making the transition obvious and final. It’s like the curtain coming down at the end of a play or the screen fading to black at the end of a movie.
C. S. Lewis goes a little farther than this, farther than I think one needs to go, but here is his answer to the charge. At the Ascension of Christ,
a being still in some mode, though not our mode, corporeal, withdrew at His own will from the Nature presented by our three dimensions and five senses, not necessarily into the non-sensuous and undimensional, but into, or through, a world or worlds of super-sense and super space. And He might choose to do it gradually. Who on earth knows what the spectators might see? If they say they saw a momentary movement along the vertical plane - then an indistinct mass then nothing who is to pronounce this improbable?
And while we’re on the subject, what exactly is wrong or unbelievable about Heaven being a place, if a place whose “placeness” is beyond our understanding? Nothing, nothing at all, if one doesn’t genuflect to some abstract “21st century cosmology.” If we are to be given transformed bodies, those bodies will have to occupy a new space. That’s part of the fun of the Christian promise.