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.

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