Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday: 'So, you think you're alive, then?'

Easter Sunday, 2001

As long as you do not know
How to die and come to life again,
You are but a sorry traveller
On this dark earth. (Goethe)

Those of you who have travelled on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) in the last few weeks will no doubt have seen a poster sponsored by some Christian group or other advertising a number of screenings of a video with the title ‘The Evidence for the Resurrection’. The poster appears at Easter time every year, and I have been tempted to attend, but I’ve always resisted the temptation because I am familiar enough with the arguments they are likely to bring forward and, since I’ve never found them convincing when I’ve encountered them in print, I’m hardly likely to be impressed by them in a slick and simplified video version. How anyone thinks it possible to provide, in the total absence of any physical evidence, proof of any event in the past, let alone one as inherently implausible as the resurrection of a person from physical death, defeats me, but it is a constant preoccupation of a certain type of Christian outlook, which seems incapable of finding any meaning in these stories unless they can be understood as having a literal, factual, historical basis.
It is, of course, the very implausibility of the story that the argument will exploit: it must have occurred, they will say, because without it the history of Christianity is unintelligible. Why would the early Christians have taken as the central tenet of their religion an event so unlikely, so unprecedented, if it did not happen? And even more pertinently: why would Christians have been prepared to suffer persecution and martyrdom over something which was explicable as either pious fiction or deceptive fabrication?
Victims of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978
Such has been the argument of those who uphold the literal truth of the resurrection stories from time immemorial, and while it might have carried some weight in the past, we have every reason to be suspicious of it today. Contemporary events have shown us, again and again, that religious movements do not begin and do not grow because individual devotees assess historical and theological evidence dispassionately. Only a few years ago, apparently intelligent people, members of the so-called Solar Temple, committed suicide, confident that a space-ship was waiting for them behind the Hale-Bopp comet; Waco and Jonestown are further examples of the non-rational nature of religious commitment, and if such things can happen under our noses there is no reason to suppose that they couldn’t happen in less rationally orientated times than our own. Faith precedes understanding, commitment comes before intellectual conviction. As the ancients used to say, fides quaerens intellectum, faith goes looking for a rational basis for itself some time after its irrational tenets have been assimilated and accepted at a deeper level than the purely intellectual.
One aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives that any apologist for their historical basis has to address is the significant number of irreconcilable contradictions that the four accounts contain. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that the crucifixion of Jesus took place on the day of the Passover; John says that it was the day of preparation for the Passover, that is the day before. Both are extremely unlikely, since it is almost unthinkable that the normally prudent Romans would execute a Jewish criminal, particularly one who was associated with Messianic expectations, at a time when Jerusalem would be bursting with pilgrims from around the known world and anything might provoke a riot. But, in any case, by the simple laws of logic, both cannot be right.
And was Jesus crucified at nine in the morning as Mark reports, or at midday as John tells us? While researching this address I used Fr. Ronald Knox’s translation of the Gospels which addresses this discrepancy in a footnote. It is to be explained, he says, by considering that to people with less concern for precision than us, the third hour (i.e. three hours after dawn at 6 o’clock) refers to the whole period between 9 o’clock and midday, so, if Jesus was crucified at ll.30 it would still be ‘the third hour’. Ronald Knox was an incredibly talented man, but this little piece of mental gymnastics is really a forlorn attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, an example of faith desperately striving to find a credible intellectual foundation for itself.
Vladimir and Estragon
Luke’s Gospel tells us that one of the two thieves who were executed with Jesus repented, an act that is flatly contradicted by Matthew who says that both thieves taunted him to the end. ‘One of the four says that one of the two was saved,’ says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. ‘……….All four were there, but only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?’

‘Who believes him?’ asks Estragon.
‘Everybody. It’s the only version they know.’

To which Estragon replies: ‘People are bloody ignorant apes.’

The Angels at the Tomb (Rubens)
Two angels or just one? Or was it a man who greeted them?
Then there’s the story of the resurrection itself. Did a man in a white robe greet the early visitors to the tomb (as Mark tells us), or was it an angel (Matthew) or two angels (Luke)? And how come Mark, Luke, and John missed the earthquake and the opening of the graves which resulted in numerous people, previously dead, walking about the streets of Jerusalem where, according to Matthew at least, they were seen by many? This is hardly a detail that one could overlook.
These are just a few of the numerous historical implausibilities and logical contradictions with which the four Gospels abound, and a whole industry of scholarship has grown up around the attempt to explain or to explain away the inconsistencies and to produce a smooth, uniform account acceptable to even the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny. Needless to say, it has invariably failed and the historical credibility of these stories is only maintained, rather dishonestly, I feel, by the vested interests of scholars who are drawn, in the main, from the ranks of the clergy, and by the credulity and continuing ignorance of everyone else who, while professing a belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, rarely read it with critical intelligence even if they bother to read it at all.
Of course, we Unitarians are different. We dispatched these stories to the trash can a long time ago. They offend our reason and our perfectly sensible demand that some kind of real evidence should support any statement before it commands our assent as history. Consequently, in Unitarian churches up and down Britain and America, the theme today will not be the resurrection of Jesus, but the springtime resurrection of the earth. Typical of this approach is Betty Smith’s article in this month’s Unitarian. Betty writes: ‘Easter is also a celebration of hopeful anticipation and optimism, as we celebrate the natural renewal of life, and the annual resurrection of nature.’ (The Unitarian, March 2001)
While we might have some considerable sympathy with this point of view—at least it has more intellectual integrity than the self-deluding, historical obsession of much of Christendom—we can only uphold it, as Betty does, by dismissing the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as unimportant. ‘I cannot accept that the death of one man 2,000 years ago can have an effect on my life today,’ she writes. ‘His death? No. But his life....….that is a different matter.’
There is a third way of approaching these stories, however, which does not demand that we accept them as historically true or that we reject them as irrelevant. This third approach (which is really only a second approach, since the other two are both products of what Rudolf Steiner calls ‘the dialectical mind’ which, he rightly says, can make nothing of the Gospels except to reduce them to historical or ethical propositions), is to see them as stories which transcend the literal and historical categories they have been placed in by both sides of the polarised debate, and which carry for us a profound spiritual meaning. What is remarkable about this approach is its antiquity. The Jews have always held that the scriptures have meaning on at least four different levels, and the great Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, who was virtually a contemporary of Jesus, wrote an allegorical interpretation of the Exodus story which is still convincing two millennia on. Another Alexandrian—Alexandria was a centre of mystical thinking for centuries—Origen, writing in the third Christian century, has this to say about the problematic passages in the Bible as a whole and in the Gospels in particular.

(Sometimes) impossibilities are recorded for the sake of the more skilful and inquisitive, in order   `that they may give themselves to the toil of investigating what is written, and thus attain to a becoming conviction of the manner in which a meaning worthy of God must be sought out in such subjects…….He (the Holy Spirit) did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles, - as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. (Emphasis added. The Works of Origen, Ante-Nicene Library, Volume 1, page 315)

How can light be created before the sun?
The example Origen gives is from the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis which tells us that God created light on the first day of creation, but that the sun, moon and stars didn’t appear until later in the week. A curious anomaly, introduced deliberately, says Origen, so that we won’t be tempted to take it literally, so that we will be forced to seek a deeper meaning to the text than the one which immediately suggests itself. Would that the opponents of Copernicus and Darwin had paid more attention when studying their Patristic theology!
What, then, if we take Origen’s advice and look behind their historical inexactitudes, contradictions, and implausibilities, can the crucifixion and resurrection stories teach us? Far more than I can hope to cover in what remains of this sermon, and, in a sense, far more than I could ever hope to cover because the only really valuable discoveries that can be made about such stories are those that the individual makes for herself. I will just say, however, that, in my opinion, these stories are not just an unfortunate narrative accompaniment to the sublime ethical teaching of Jesus (as they are often viewed in liberal theological circles). They are an integral part of the whole gospel message. The Christian Gospel is not primarily concerned with history or with ethics; it is concerned with new life, rebirth, authentic living, which is not to be attained by simply believing the facts or by keeping the rules. One has to be born again, the new out of the old, to a radically different kind of life which does not just require the reform of the old carnal self, but its destruction. The Christian myth tells us—as all the great religious myths tell us in one way or another—that we are asleep and that we cannot begin to live effectively and completely until we wake up. According to the Roman writer, Seneca, a decrepit and dishevelled member of Caesar’s guard came to the Emperor and asked for permission to kill himself. Caesar looked at him and said with a smile: ‘So, you think you’re alive then?’
And this is the question that the Gospels in their entirety put to us: ‘So you think you’re alive then?’ And then they tell us to think again. You will never be truly alive, they say, until you reject the life of comfort and distraction that you so slavishly and so unthinkingly pursue at the behest of your money-driven, mad society; you will never be truly alive until you stop associating ease of life with success in life, and until you stop valuing respectability above authenticity; you will never be truly alive until you become teachable again like a little child; you will never be truly alive until you embrace the Way of the Cross, the painful destruction of the ego and its appetites, and emerge anew, alive, awake, free, transformed, the old self crucified and the Christ spirit born within you.
This, to me, is the message of the Gospel narrative, and the crucifixion and resurrection accounts are not just irrelevant addenda, they are the culmination of a consistent pattern of imagery which describes for the imagination not just a process that may or may not have occurred in the life of one man, but one which must occur in the life of each one of us, if we are to attain that newness of life which is the only hope for our individual and social salvation.
True religion, far from being the opium of the people, lulling us back into sleep, should be the adrenalin urging us into life. And far from asking us, passively, to believe in the historical validity of the resurrection it should be urging us, actively, to live its existential reality. A far harder task, indeed, but, we are assured, the most worthwhile task we can ever undertake.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Two Thieves

A Buddhist Story: Two Tigers and a Strawberry

A man was walking through the forest one day when he spotted a tiger in the distance. What was worse, the tiger had spotted him, and because it hadn’t eaten for a day or two, it bounded at great speed after the poor man. Now a human being is no match for a tiger in the speed department, and very soon the hungry beast was so close that the man could almost feel its hot breath on his neck. Ahead of him was a cliff, and he had no option but to throw himself down in order to escape the tiger’s salivating jaws. Fortunately, he was able to grab hold of a thick vine which was trailing down the cliff side, and he clung on to it for dear life, congratulating himself on his good fortune.
          It was a long drop to the ground below, but a sprained ankle was a small price to pay for his life, so he determined to let go of the vine and fall to the ground, but before he could do so, he heard a growl, and, glancing down, he saw another tiger looking hungrily up at him! Up above him was a tiger; down below him was a tiger; both of them wanted to eat him; what could he do? ‘Perhaps one of them will get tired of waiting and move away. If I can just hang on here for an hour or so I should be fine,’ he thought.
          Then, two mice, one white, one black, came out of a small hole in the cliff side and began to gnaw the vine. The poor man could see that it wouldn’t be long before they had chewed through and he would fall to his certain death into the waiting mouth of the tiger down below. Then, a beautiful smell caught his attention. Just near his right hand a big, juicy, wild strawberry was growing. Holding on to the vine with his left hand, he picked the strawberry with his right hand, and popped it into his mouth. It was the most delicious strawberry he had ever eaten in his life!


The Angel of the Resurrection says not 'Arise ye who are dead' 
but 'Arise ye who are living'. Balzac

Jan Van Eyck (c.1430)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Society of St. Dismas is one of those very worthy Catholic organisations which attempt to fill the gaps in state provision for the underprivileged. Like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, it is dedicated to the welfare of those neglected members of the community, the ones that people – and governments – often prefer to forget about. But whereas the St. Vincent de Paul Society has a general ministry to the unfortunate, the Society of St. Dismas has a very specific one: it tries to help ex-prisoners, people who are trying to get their life together after spending some time in jail.
            It takes its name from the so-called ‘good thief’, one of the two men who were supposedly crucified with Jesus; Dismas was the one who, according to Luke’s Gospel, repented just before his death, and asked for Jesus’ blessing. The story goes like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
            Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23: 39-43)

The man is not named in the Gospel text; he was given the name ‘Dismas’(from a Greek word meaning ‘sunset’ or ‘death’) much later, probably during the 12th century, and the name has stuck. He has his own feast day, 25th March, which is considered by some to be the actual date of the crucifixion, In addition to a name, Dismas has been given a biography of sorts. Legend has it that when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were fleeing into Egypt to escape King Herod, they were set upon by a band of brigands, one of whom recognised that there was something special about the members of this family and ordered his fellow bandits to leave them alone. This was Dismas, apparently. And, with a coincidence worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, the next time he met Jesus was when he was crucified beside him.
It says something very significant about the function of stories in human life that we seem to feel the need to flesh out the shadowy characters of history or scripture; that a mixture of imagination and piety can turn a few stray facts into sagas of flesh and blood people, complete with parents, colleagues, careers, relationships, and personalities. We’ve done the same thing with characters who appear at Jesus’ birth. The story of the wise men is told very simply in the Gospel of Matthew. We aren’t told their names; we aren’t even told that there are three of them. ‘Three’ is derived from the number of gifts that they bring – it’s quite logical to assume that three gifts must equal three gift givers! But in the middle ages these anonymous men became Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and what’s more, you can find a casket containing their remains in Cologne cathedral! These days there’s even a story of the Fourth Wise Man, a pious tale about someone called Artaban, who gets delayed on the way to Bethlehem, but eventually catches up with Jesus at his crucifixion.
            All of which is very charming, but when it comes to scripture it is not without its problems, and these are particularly acute as far as Dismas is concerned. Insisting that this man is a genuine character from history has generated some intriguing theological puzzles. Think about it for a moment. Jesus is promising that this man will be with him in paradise, and yet doesn’t Catholic theology teach us that only the baptised can get to heaven? It’s pretty plainly stated elsewhere in the scriptures: ‘Unless a man is born again of water and the holy spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ But how could Dismas receive baptism? There have been many attempts to solve this particular conundrum. I was taught that there were other kinds of baptism – ‘baptism of desire’, and ‘baptism of blood’ for example. Those who desperately wished for baptism, but who died before they could receive it, would be considered baptised, as would those who were martyred. So, Dismas could presumably come under one or other of these categories. Then there are those who say that Dismas didn’t in fact go to heaven at all, but to Limbo, the place of the unbaptised righteous, but since Limbo was abolished by the pope in 2006, one might legitimately ask where he might be now. And if he only got as far as Limbo he can’t be a real saint, so praying to him could be considered pretty pointless.
            A more sophisticated theological problem concerns the word ‘today’ in Jesus’ words, ‘I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.’  If it means that Dismas will be in heaven with Jesus that very day (i.e. the first Good Friday) then what is the point of the resurrection? Or the ascension? Incidentally, while this is a big enough problem for traditional Christians, it is an almost insuperable one for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe that the soul survives bodily death. What could Jesus have meant, they ask. Their ingenious solution is that he wasn’t telling Dismas that he would be in paradise with him today, he was giving him the information today that he would be in paradise eventually, that he would be resurrected one day in the future. It all depends on where you put the comma. Such things are no laughing matter. People have died over such arguments.
But when we were taught these things at school such arcane theological questions didn’t bother us. We raised more practical issues with the teacher. It didn’t seem fair, we said. Here’s a man who has spent his life doing wicked things and just because at the last minute he says he’s sorry he gets into heaven. And then we asked, ‘Does that mean that we can do the same?’ It conjured up some intriguing possibilities. You could live a life of complete debauchery, but as long as you are in a position to say ‘sorry’ at the end of it all you’ll be okay. We were even taught that if we attended mass on the first Friday of nine successive months, we would be guaranteed the grace of final repentance. This guarantee was given in a vision to St. Margaret Mary, a 17th century nun, and still forms part of popular Catholic piety. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who lived centuries before St. Margaret Mary, was a great believer in final repentance. Although he became a Christian in mid life, he refused to be baptised until he was on his death bed, so that all his sins could be washed away in one go and he would get into heaven without any problems. And his sins were pretty horrific; the history books tell us that his later years were stained with bloodshed, and he had his eldest son and his wife executed.  Apparently, he kept a priest in attendance at all times just so that he wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
While we schoolboys were somewhat cheered by the thought of final repentance, we couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the unfortunate person in the opposite situation, the one who lives a pretty good life but who commits one mortal sin and dies before he has had the opportunity to repent. ‘How can that be right?’ we asked. Consideration of such hypothetical situations has kept Catholic teachers on their toes for generations, and they have exercised the casuistic skills of the finest theologians.
            So, charming as it might be to flesh out the rudimentary stories of scripture with imaginative details, it can lead to complications. But the most significant result of such activity is that it helps to obscure the real power behind the text. It is my opinion, and I’ve expressed it on countless occasions, that the stories in the gospels are not historical narratives.  Their principal function is not to tell us about the life of a man called Jesus of Nazareth. They are stories about us, about what it means to be a human being, and this episode with the two thieves, which looks a little like an afterthought, an almost pointless detail, is extraordinarily important in this regard. That the Gospel writers thought it important is proved by the fact that it is one of the few stories which appears in all four Gospels.

A 'Golgotha' (St Andrew's Church, Cullompton)
The person on the cross is you. It is I. It is Everyman, and Everywoman. Crucifixion is not just an archaic and barbaric punishment for a few unfortunate lawbreakers; it is a condition of life. Crucifixion is the perfect metaphor for the human situation because, unlike most types of execution, it delivers a slow, lingering, painful death. What’s more, it takes place for all of us on Golgotha, Calvary, ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha is Aramaic for 'skull', Calvary is 'skull' in Latin) which is itself an image of life stripped down to its skeletal essentials. We are all poised in pain on the cross of life. None escapes, and all attempts to insulate ourselves from life’s pains are fruitless. Even the rich and famous, even the super talented and super beautiful, even the spiritually advanced, suffer the pains of loss, of vulnerability, of mortality. And, just like Jesus, each of us is crucified between two thieves – one on the right and one on the left. The Gospel text may not tell us their names, and the original story, as found in Mark's Gospel doesn't tell us that one of them repented; but the Gospels are clear about their position; and it specifies that they are thieves – not just any old criminals. In Greek they are called δύο λῃστάς, two bandits, men who steal with violence. What do these bandits steal? They steal our life. They are the past and the future, the twin thieves of everyone’s life. The past is on the left, the future on the right. The past consumes us with regret, remorse, revenge, nostalgia, habit; the future eats away at our life with anxiety, uncertainty, procrastination, fear. ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans,’ said John Lennon, not originally, I might add, but memorably enough. Life is what happens while you are regretting the past and afraid of the future. When, then, is the transformed life? Jesus told the repentant thief: TODAY. ‘I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ We enter into the life of promise today. Now. It’s now or never. By destroying, or transforming, those twin thieves of our lives we enter into a whole new way of being, resurrected life, when the tomb which held us fast is broken open, and we discover a new relationship with life, and a new understanding of its pains. This is the consistent message of the world’s spiritual traditions. This is the perennial philosophy. This is what Easter means. The message of Easter is not that once upon a time a single individual’s death paid the price of sin and he was rewarded by having his corpse reanimated. It is, rather, that Everyman and Everywoman can and must wake up from the unlived life and save the world from the corrosive effects of sleep. The story of the literal crucifixion and literal resurrection from physical death of a single human being is biologically impossible, historically implausible, and, in the way that it is often presented, it is morally questionable. But the story of our own resurrection from spiritual death while we are still alive is the most important and liberating message we will ever hear.