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Beyond the Bunnies - Why Easter is for Grown Ups

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it's several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas.

But these ideas at the heart of Easter are for grown ups. They are deep, dark, and difficult, and they make most sense to those who have been round the block enough to deeply know pain and the recovery from pain, and recognise this recurring pattern in our lives and the lives of others. The meaning of the Christmas story is relatively straightforward by comparison, and an easier one for children to grasp. So a warning: if you are expecting sweetness and light manifest as chocolate eggs or bunny rabbits, look away now.

At first blush the story makes no sense. The 'son of God'(who?) dies in excruciatingly sadistic and vinegary pain while nailed to a wooden cross by the terrestrial baddies du jour to 'save us from our sins' (how?) and this singularly important(why?) celestial person(what?) is entombed in a stone cave. Just then, when this apparently appalling thing that remains confounding on a number of levels has happened, he miraculously comes back to life, removes the stone that kept him entombed, and is back amongst us; his resurrection proof that he really is the son of God (yes, that again...) and that, therefore, somehow, all is well.

Like most of the people reading this post, I am culturally Christian. I've heard versions of this story hundreds of times before and have never really developed a position on whether it 'actually happened' or felt that I needed to. Some Christians might say that's a cop out, because if it did happen, it was this particular historical event, and not 'the enlightenment' that was, as Professor Tom Wright puts it 'The greatest turning point in history'.

For now though, to be consistent with most of our other work on spirituality, I'm going to try to 'keep the tension' (as chess players put it) on the fundamental but also fundamentally contested questions of literal, historical truth, and focus on core themes from the story that have broader human application:

Pain and suffering

Some misunderstand Buddhism as a religion that is 'all about suffering', which is not true, but some misunderstand Christianity as a religion that is all about being nice and good, and that's not true either. The heart of the Christian story is overflowing with stark realism and is very dark indeed. It's about a moment where people are bereft of hope.

Nietzsche one wrote: "There was only one Christian, and they killed him." That's another story, another argument, but it captures the darkness and bleakness of the moment Jesus is killed very well. This touchstone of light is not only effectively tortured and humiliated, but through his death it appears that all light and all hope is well and truly snuffed out.

Easter therefore says: a life fully lived will feature suffering, not just a little bit, and it won't always make sense at the time. There will be moments where you feel utterly forsaken, and that is not imaginary. But it is not the whole story either.

Love and Justice Reconciled

Whether or not you 'believe' in God (or know what it means not to) you will know that the Christian conception of God is one who is both loving and just, and that's not an easy trick for anybody (yes, even God) to pull off. The Easter story is arguably about the possibility of squaring this circle. God didn't just allow the baddies to 'get away with it'; he allowed it to happen because he saw further and deeper.

Denial

Some say the heart of the story is about our terrifying capacity to turn away from what we need to look at. We would rather crucify the truth than recognise it as the truth. Our work on 'stealth denial' on climate change was not inspired by Jesus(!) but it was an attempt to capture this sentiment - the truth is often deeply uncomfortable and we will go to great lengths to get away from it. If there was a way we could 'kill' climate change, rather than deal with it, we probably would.

'Eucatastrophes'

Tolkien coined the term 'eucatastrophe' as an antonym for catastrophe, because he wanted to highlight the reality of those moments where all seems lost, but suddenly and miraculously, the ring of power finds its way into the fires of mount doom; the seemingly dead come back to life; the incurable cancer inexplicably disappears.

Paradox

Easter is about holding on to the paradox that, as Mark Vernon put it to me: "When all seems lost - really, truly, bleakly - all is found..."

Incarnation and Embodiement

The quietly brilliant Chris Oldfield put it to me that Easter, like Christmas, is a celebration of embodiment over elegant abstraction and virtual reality. It's about "The scandal of Incarnation overcoming excarnation (as Charles Taylor might put it)." This point, has interesting resonances with Guy Claxton's lecture at the RSA in our spirituality series. There is no spirituality, however you define it, without the body.

Gender 

A curious detail of the story, again indicated by Chris, is that it is female disciples who are the witnesses to the empty tomb. The male disciples basically don't believe them "because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24). There is apparently a lot of Biblical scholarship on this issue, connecting the male response to this important but discomforting news to modern day unhelpful stereotypes about 'hysterical women'.

The Self

You can see Easter as being about emptying yourself to be filled with something more than ego; to die to your false self to connect with your truer deeper self. For those who can't follow the story back to Christian belief and practice, this idea alone is an important one. Psychologically and existentially, we often need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Second Chances

A relatively conventional but important interpretation, is that the Christian God is fundamentally about second chances. New life can come even to the completely lost or bereft, and sometimes more than once.

Taking a Stand

For all that I said about not debating the literal truth, it is worth ending with a powerful quote (HT Chris Oldfield) that says, actually, whether we are culturally or religiously Christian, we do need to decide what we feel about 'the truth' of the resurrection:

From Tom Wright on: 'Grave matters'; why the resurrection is not a 'take it or leave it thing':

"Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men."

I'm not sure what I think about that, but I mean it when I say:

Happy Easter!

 

 

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  • Wonderfully honest, perceptive and engaging thoughts, Jonathan, that are so devoid of any cynicism. For me personally, when I really understood Easter (also with the aid of Christian friends) the entire Bible and indeed, human existence made sense in a most profound way.

    God's great redemptive plan, begun way back in Genesis and finally achieved at the first Easter, made me understand that God hates sin and evil as much as I should (justice) and loves sinful people (everyone) more than I ever could (mercy). Jesus' death and resurrection is the moment in history where justice and mercy met - God the Son taking the punishment for humanity that has turned its back on the God who created them and thus setting us free from guilt and judgement.

    I spent years trying to live up to my own standards and failing. I tried to live up to God's standards, hoping that I would 'get past the line' as it were, but as I had a sneaking suspicion that 'near enough is not good enough' for a perfect God I never had peace. It was only when I stopped trying to earn my way into God's favour and simply accepted the free gift of forgiveness that I had utter peace and assurance that when I meet God on 'that day', I will be seen as perfect because Christ's perfection has been transferred onto me. And in the new heaven and earth, God will give us renewed minds and bodies, without sin or limitations.

    Jesus' death proves that the penalty for sin has been paid. His resurrection proves that the power of sin has been conquered.

    Where humanism fails (What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? - Matthew 16:26); where religion fails (For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands - Romans 3:20), and where my own best intentions fail (For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing - Romans 7:19), Jesus has not failed.

    And, his invitation is to all: 'whoever comes to me I will never drive away' (John 6:37).

    This is my experience. Yes, based on historical events. As the apostle Paul says, 'If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins' (1 Corinthians 15:17). But as he says earlier in this same chapter, Jesus did clearly rise from death, for he appeared to the twelve disciples and to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters after his death and resurrection (15:5).

    I actually held to the historical truth of this event well before becoming a Christian. It was only when I understood the importance of this event, the need for me to trust in what this event accomplished and pray to the God who brought about this saving act (asking him to give me the assurance that I was now in a right relationship with him) that I was given this assurance from him that nothing could now separate me from his love (Romans 8:39).

    This is perhaps the first time I have ever written a comment on another's website/blog etc. Please forgive the length of the comment, but I really felt compelled to share this, as your article (which I stumbled on by accident from someone's glowing twitter comment about it) was the most heartfelt thing I have read in some time.

  • There's also the summary, oft quoted by Terry Eagleton and from the superb writer on Christianity Herbert McCabe: "If you don't love you die, if you do love they kill you."

    I must say I'm not so keen on deciding on Christianity on the basis of what you think about the historicity of the resurrection, for two reasons. One, as a point of history its veracity is never going to be finally settled, and so that leaves the truth of Christianity in a kind of limbo if that is the main test.

    Two, because the Bible itself doesn't treat the events of the first Easter as something that could have been caught on camera: the resurrection appearances of Jesus are various and ambiguous (sometimes he's recognised, sometimes not; sometimes he seems very physical - eating fish etc; sometimes he appears through solid walls…) Whatever else that suggest, to me it make me wonder whether the resurrection is not supposed to be treated as history but is perhaps in some way trans-historical - real but not in the way that the battle of Hastings is real.

    Plus, in the texts earliest to the 'event', Paul doesn't see the person of Jesus, so far as we know, but rather bears witness to a profound experience of Christ. It's life-transforming, absolutely. But I feel that most life-transforming events are not fundamentally based on something objectively proven, but actually on what comes to be known in a more immediate, subjective sense. As is sometimes said, if I recall it right, no-one was ever converted over a fact, but rather because of an experience.

  • Jonathan Rowson, I sincerely wish you a Happy Easter. I hope you find what you seek. Whatever people think of the significance of Easter, tolerance of others views are the bedrock of real Christianity for myself. There is no doubt wether you believe in the faith of Jesus christ or not,he has been and still is for many, the most singular significant individual for the past 2000 years. Personally I believe Jesus was a carpenter from Bethlehem and I also believe his teachings 2000 years ago are as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago. "Lord give me true faith,certain hope,perfect charity,sense and knowledge to carry out your true will"- St Francis of Assisi, (PBC -1209)Prayer Before the Cross.

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