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Friday, 6 April 2012

A Non-Believer's Easter


The Easter Bunny died on the cross for our sins. At the moment of his death he laid an egg, from which all new life came.

I remember hearing a vox pop on German radio a couple of years ago, where people on the street were asked what Easter was about. Although I’ve made the above up, it wouldn’t have been unusual, for the amount of general ignorance about the details of Easter which many of the passers-by interviewed showed was very great.

Easter, as we formally celebrate it, is a Christian feast. During the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday (Holy Week), Christians remember the passion and death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. It is a moveable feast, its dating being closely related to the dating of the Jewish Passover (for, according to all the New Testament accounts, Jesus was executed during the Passover week) and Easter Sunday is reckoned to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox[i]

But in the popular celebrations of Easter there is much which has nothing to do with Christianity – a least formally. A lot of the symbolism which is used today in connection with Easter has its origins in basic spring festivals. The egg is a classic symbol for new life, for the burgeoning of nature following general winter dormancy. Although there are connections made in conscious medieval Christian symbolism, the Easter Bunny has his origins in Germanic folklore and is, in fact, originally not a rabbit but a hare [German: Osterhase]. His connection with Easter probably has to do with the peculiar behaviour of the European brown hare in springtime, when this normally timid animal can be seen “dancing” in the fields, chasing and even “boxing” with his fellows – all signs of mating rituals (also giving rise to the saying, “as mad as a March hare”).

The Christian Churches all see the events remembered at Easter as their fundamental basis, their very raison d’être. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul puts it quite clearly:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15: 12-19)

It is through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that God vindicates Jesus, his doings and his message, and the message of the sacrifice of Jesus, God the Son, to God the Father to atone for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection as proof that this sacrifice of atonement has been accepted is the very centre and foundation of all Christian teaching.

There is nothing new about any of this – it is standard, basic Christian doctrine. If you do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, was crucified and rose (physically – at least in some sense) from the dead, then you have no business calling yourself a Christian. And given this, I wonder how many millions of modern women and men who happily and unthinkingly identify themselves as Christians would state that they honestly and completely believe in the resurrection. Because Paul – and all the Christian Churches – are quite clear about it; it’s not enough to believe that Jesus was an inspired holy man, teaching a beautiful message of love and peace; the litmus test is whether you believe that he was really dead and subsequently physically (in some sense) rose to new life, because that is what the testimonies of the empty tomb are all about.

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realisation that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

But wanting to believe something does not necessarily make it true – even subjectively – and my own journey brought me to the personal realisation that I did not believe. And even if, for the sake of genuinely open discussion, I were to present my position from a Christian point of view, I would put forward the argument that faith is essentially a gift from God and if God, in his infinite wisdom, has not deigned to grant me this gift, then there is little I can do about it except to remain honest in my unbelief. And, perhaps, remain open to the possibility of future change. After all, one thing I do know is that I do not dogmatically cling to any of my convictions, convinced that nothing I think or experience can ever change them; life has given me enough lessons in my own fallibility.

And so I will express my position in the words of one of the greatest Christians, Martin Luther, as he is reported to have said at the Diet of Worms in 1521:

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir! Amen.
[Here I stand. I can do no otherwise. God help me! Amen]

(… even if I do not believe in God! J)

Happy Easter.



[i] This is a bit of a simplification. Historically, there has been quite some controversy concerning the precise dating of Easter and, even today, the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches sometimes come up with different dates, as the Eastern Churches still use the Julian calendar for liturgical purposes.



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