Some Radical Thoughts at Easter

Well, Easter is a bit different this year! Church services are curtailed, the beaches are relatively empty, and holiday plans abandoned. Even the Easter Bunny has had to seek special permission to cross state borders to deliver his bounty to overindulged children.

Although Easter is supposed to be a solemn religious festival to celebrate the myth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, most Australians have usurped the long weekend for more hedonistic purposes. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic will somewhat thwart those hedonistic tendencies and might give us cause to reflect more purposefully on the meaning of Easter.

As you may have observed over the years that I have published my essays on my blog site, I am not conventionally religious. It might surprise many of you however that, whilst I have been critical of some aspects of religion, I appreciate that mankind has a need of religion which can be a useful tool in meeting our great desire to reconcile our need for meaning and purpose in human lives.

To my mind religion is beset by (at least) two pitfalls:

  1. Firstly many religious adherents believe they have exclusive access to the truth, and secondly,
  2. Many believers are convinced that their particular religious narrative is literally true.

With respect to the latter concern, I am reminded of a quote from the esteemed American professor, Joseph Campbell, who was famous for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion who wrote:

My favourite definition of religion is “a misinterpretation of mythology”. And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference.

Buddhists knew the dilemma well. Famously they said, “When the sage points to the moon, the fool merely sees the finger.” This was to say that the allegory that the Master used to teach wisdom, was interpreted as a literal truth. This has been the main failing of most religions.

The religious scholar, Karen Armstrong has often argued that religion must always be a balance of “mythos” and “logos”. Mythos allows us to be influenced by metaphor and parable. Logos on the other hand requires us to pay heed to rationality. This tension in the way we go about believing was highlighted in the struggle between the literalists and the Gnostics in the early centuries after the supposed life of Jesus. The Gnostics were mystics who emphasised the metaphorical nature of religious beliefs whilst the literalists wanted us to believe in the historical accuracy of the various biblical anecdotes. The literalists prevailed in this battle and this was reflected in the literal interpretation of the gospels of the New Testament.

The inextricable connection between Mankind and God is prevalent in most religious traditions.

One of the earliest (and to my mind one of the most beautiful) expressions of this interconnectedness was related by the Vedic rishis. (Rishi is a Sanskrit word meaning an enlightened and accomplished person.)

The essential project of the Vedic rishis was to suppress the elevation of Self. Where the notion of Self is allowed to dominate there are serious psychological consequences. [The Daoist, Laozi came to the same conclusion. “The reason there is such affliction is that I have a self. If I have no self, what affliction would I have?”] The rishis claimed that because all things are essentially One, the atman, which is the sacred core of everybody and everything, is inseparable from the immortal Brahman that sustains the entire cosmos. Therefore the essential spiritual journey that Mankind must take is to go beyond the body, beyond conceptual thought and beyond emotion to discover the atman which is in effect that sacred part of humanity which in turn is one with Brahman. If this deep reconciliation was achieved the sages proclaimed Ayam atma Brahman (This self is Brahman)!

The Vedic sage, Yajnavalkya, who is one the earliest philosophers in recorded history, explained that the core of the self was not accessible to normal consciousness.

We can’t see the Seer who does the seeing. You can’t hear the hearer that does the hearing. You can’t think with the Thinker who does the thinking; and you can’t perceive the Perceiver who does the perceiving. The Self within the All [Brahman} is this atman of yours.

Because it was believed that the atman could not be found by direct observation the sages taught that the mystic had to engage in a long period of training where he was taught that that atman could not be known directly and direct categorisation of its characteristics was impossible. Thus the technique of Via Negativa was developed which was later also adopted by Christian mystics.

Yajnavalkya taught:

About this atman , one can only say “not ….not” (in Sanskrit neti …..neti).

The sacred texts of Vedanta are the Upanishads. Karen Armstrong writes:

The essential message of the Upanishads therefore is that the human self is itself divine, wholly inseparable from the ultimate reality. Monotheists sometimes dismiss this claim as ‘mere pantheism’ but their own mystics have also experienced this identity. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said:

“There is something in the soul so closely akin to God that it is already one with Him and need never be united to Him.”

This understanding makes the literal interpretation of the Easter Myth redundant. Mankind does not need the intercession of Jesus through his death and resurrection to be reconciled with God because at its spiritual essence Mankind is already one with God!

[In China, the neo-Confucians had come to a similar conclusion. They believed that we all have two minds – our human mind and the mind of Heaven with which we are all endowed at birth. Our heavenly mind embodies the li, the heavenly principle which guides us to how we ought to be.}

But I am not suggesting that Christians should put aside the Easter Myth but only that they should not take it literally. They might learn a lot if they looked at it as an inspired allegory, and one, indeed, that has been shared in many other belief systems.

The search for a historical Jesus has resulted in failure. Even the renowned theologian and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer wrote:

There is nothing more negative than the results of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration never had any existence. This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another.

If we put aside trying to pursue the crucifixion of Jesus and his rising from the dead as an historical account there is still wisdom to be extracted from this metaphor.

Most Christians who believe the Easter Myth is uniquely Christian are unaware that many similar stories preceded it in the pagan traditions.

In his Study of History, the famous British historian, Arnold Toynbee wrote:

Behind the figure of the dying demigod there looms the greater figure of a very God that dies for different worlds under diverse names – for a Minoan world as Dionysus, for a Sumeric world as Tammuz, for a Hittite world as Attis, for a Syriac world as Adonis, for a Christian world as Christ. Who is this God of many epiphanies but only one passion!

Other students of religion understood the metaphor and discarded the notion that the death and resurrection of these God/men was an historical fact. For example the Pagan philosopher Sallustius wrote:

The story of Attis represents an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event in the past. As the story is intimately related to the ordered universe, we reproduce it to gain order in ourselves. We, like Attis, have fallen from heaven, we die mystically with him and are reborn as infants.

In some sense the creation of the Easter Myth that the New Testament sought to propagate might be traced to the influence of Pythagoras. Pythagoras spent time in Egypt and when returning to Greece brought back the Egyptian Mysteries which were centred on the cult of Osiris. Osiris is the Egyptian God/man who in Egyptian mythology died and was resurrected. Pythagoras sought to make the myth more palatable to the Greeks by transferring these qualities to a minor Greek deity, Dionysus.

This connection is particularly relevant insofar as the gospels of the New Testament were all written in Greek, presumably by Greek scholars. (The great English historian, Arnold Toynbee, who I quoted above, postulated that Christianity was a belief system created by the Greeks to render Judaism more palatable to them.)

In the Jewish mythology there were no minor gods to take on this mantle (of the God/man). So, almost inevitably, it fell upon the long awaited Messiah. But here the problem was exacerbated by embedding the God/man story into the gospels which were now portrayed as an historical record (confirming the concerns of Joseph Campbell as per the quote above). And in this way, Christianity absorbed into its dogma many of the pagan beliefs that it previously held as abhorrent .

What’s more it introduced a definite ambiguity into the Jewish story because most Jews believed that the Messiah would appear as a warrior king who would smite the enemies of the Jews and restore Israel to its rightful status as the chosen nation of God. Disconcertingly, the Jesus of the gospels preached only peace.

What are we to make of this Jesus of the gospels?

There are only two plausible possibilities.

Either Jesus did not exist and was merely a mythological artefact to promote the special status of his believers. (Perhaps, as Toynbee suggested an initiative to make Judaism more palatable to the Greeks and Romans.)

Or, perhaps there was an historical Jesus. But if that was the case he certainly wasn’t the son of God and was probably, at the best, an exemplary man.

Bishop John Shelby Spong concedes:

Of course the resurrection narratives are mythological. Dead bodies do not walk out of tombs three days after execution. Angels do not descend out of the sky, earthquakes do not announce earthly events, soldiers are not reduced to a state of stupor by angelic power, stones are not rolled away from tombs to let the dead out or to allow the gaze of witnesses to come in, bodies do not materialize on the road to Emmaus or dematerialize after the breaking of bread, nor do they walk through walls to enter a room where the windows are shut and the doors are locked in order to have Thomas examine the divine wounds.

In trying to reveal spiritual truths, our language often fails us. Our portrayal in mythology of miracles and phenomena beyond the ken of everyday experience, when viewed as mythology are not designed to mislead but enlighten.

In modern times the word “myth” has come to take on the connotation of falsehood. But myths aren’t lies and many of our most important truths have been conveyed by myths and allegory. These are not literal truths but require us to look beyond the finger and perceive the moon.

So what are we to make of this allegorical story of the death and resurrection of the Jewish God/man?

To begin with, the term resurrection seems to be misplaced. In the original Greek the word for resurrection is similar to the word for awakening. So it is quite probable that this myth was not about arising from the dead but pointing to a means of realising our true nature.

Now most would acknowledge that weaving Jesus into the biblical story marked a major transition in our concept of God. The God of the Old Testament portrayed very human attributes like anger and the desire for retribution. But the God portrayed by Jesus was a loving God. It is hard to overstate the significance of this change.

The God of the Old Testament was a tribal God dedicated to the promotion of the welfare of the Jews. The God of the New Testament is a universal God. The love of this God is total. He has no concern for such petty differences as gender, nationality, race, sexual preferences, or whatever. He confirms the Oneness of mankind.

This in many ways is evidence of the further evolution of mankind. It signifies an ability to get beyond separateness to Oneness. Such awakening had occurred to others including Buddha and many of the Eastern mystics.

But in the first centuries of the Common Era it became apparent to some in the Judaic tradition as well. The major proponents of this liberating idea were the Gnostics whom I have referred to earlier. They understood the allegorical nature of the stories of the mystery traditions. They, in turn, were persecuted by the literalists who could not see the moon for the finger and the literalists eventually prevailed. Unfortunately in their wake they have left a Christian church which has come to depend on the existence of a real God/man who performed improbable miracles and whose body was physically restored after death and which ascended into heaven.

We can see the added layers of improbability added to the Jesus stories as it evolved.

Scholars largely agree that the first gospel was written by Mark. In this abbreviated history of Jesus there are no miracles and no resurrection. Subsequent gospels considerably embellished the Jesus story with many elements of the pagan traditions in order, I suspect, to make it more broadly appealing. To my mind it just made the narrative less believable (except if you accept this is not a literal history).

As some biblical scholars have opined, either a story is allegorical or it is not. It is difficult to come to grips with a position that would maintain that the Jesus story is largely true but with some allegorical elements! We must concede that it is either all literal, or all metaphor.

So, what’s so special about Easter?

If we accept the literalists’ point of view, the only thing special about Easter is the strain on our credulity. It requires us to believe that Jesus was the real God/man that came to save us from our sins and that the incredible events which occurred after his death were literally true. This notion is predicated on the understanding that human beings are innately sinful because of the “fall” where Adam and Eve, disobeying God, chose to eat of the fruit of the “tree of knowledge”. As a result of this, somehow not being able to atone for our own sins, we needed someone to make the sacrifice for us. This concept has been used by the Christian Church since its beginning to manipulate people through fear and guilt.

The literalists believe that God created Mankind in a final irrevocable masterstroke. But, it would seem to me that under evolutionary processes Mankind is still being created. As a result it is understandable that we are an incomplete creation, with more than a little way to go yet!

Let me quote Bishop John Shelby Spong again. He wrote:

There is a vast contrast between the definition of fallen creatures and that of being incomplete creatures. Our humanity is not flawed by some real or mythical act of disobedience that resulted in our expulsion from some fanciful Garden of Eden. It is rather distorted by the unfinished nature of our humanity .The fact is that we do not yet know what it means to be truly human, since that is a status we have not yet fully achieved.

In A Course in Miracles it is convincingly argued that what our theologians label as sin is merely ignorance. And of course we don’t hold people culpable for what they do out of ignorance. If we dismiss the “fall” as an argument for the inherent sinfulness of Mankind and accept that sin is merely a reflection of our ignorance much of the traditional dogma of Christianity falls away.

In my view the Easter myth is a metaphor for the raising of consciousness beyond the parochial concerns of traditional tribal religions which focussed on separateness and the special nature of their relationship with a tribal God who acted more like a tribal chieftain than a deity. The emphasis on separation is a large contributor to the fear and guilt felt by the adherents of such a religion.

The God revealed metaphorically by the Easter Myth is a God of Love. He is a universal God of Unity who eschews the trivial issues of human differentiation. And if we could but put the finger aside we would know we are all as One with him. Pursuing a material solution to our mortality, hoping that we might in turn experience a bodily resurrection subsequent to our physical demise is a trifling concern compared with the liberation of such an awakening.

So by all means, if you are so disposed, celebrate Easter. But just remember there is little to suggest that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ was an historical event. Nevertheless when viewed through the eyes of Mythos it still represents a powerful metaphor about the human condition.

Remember also that this is not a uniquely Christian story. The death and resurrection of a God/man is quite prevalent in the pagan beliefs preceding Christianity and it is more than likely that this myth was borrowed from these antecedent sources to embellish the Jesus myth.

10 Replies to “Some Radical Thoughts at Easter”

  1. This is a brilliant and well crafted look at the Easter story. Will share this with my non literal Catholic friends.

  2. History leaves us cold, but the mystery of myth speaks to a level of mind in the deep structure of our sentient being that goes way deeper that of merely cold reason. Reason can serve this hidden depth, but reason alone will never discover it. As Einstein pointed out, reason is there to serve intuition, but the modern age has attempted to reverse this order.

    Thank you for your deep insights at such a time as this when the collective psyche is so fraught with fear … but still finding the potential to express love in so many non-possessive ways. What a contrast. What a Gnosis.

  3. Very well written Ted. You have come to grips with the difficulties associated with the literalists’ interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. I was brought up with that belief system. It’s over 20 years ago since I worked through all of this with the help of Dr Phil and you. I think the metaphor is profound. We are all invited to reawakening which does involve ‘dying’ to the old conditioned egoic and separated self that constantly seeks reassurance and protection. Understanding the paradox that our unseen, all-seeing True Self is immortal and indestructible yet needs to be awakened and chosen, and received to become a living presence in the form of Love, sits behind the Easter Story – for me anyway. Our culture, conditioning and even religion, teaches us to identify and live through the false or separate self of reputation, self-image, role, possessions, money, appearance, and so on. It is only as these things fail us, as they always do eventually, that the True Self stands revealed and ready to be chosen. And because we associate the Easter Story also with suffering, our big Choice is often made in times of suffering when we realise our old paradigm – the one we were conditioned to believe was real – fails us.

  4. Dear Ted,
    Congratulations on another wonderfully researched essay on religion. What a treasure trove of information. However to my mind your “Radical Thoughts” are not nearly radical enough. Here are my thoughts. However, (a) you might find them so radical that you fear that they may offend some people, or (b) you might think that I have gone off on such a tangent that they are irrelevant to the current essay. Therefore you might decide not to publish. Fair enough, it’s your page.

    I have been an atheist all my life. I lasted one day in Sunday School, when even as a young child I could see that the stuff they were trying to teach me clashed completely with my limited understanding of the laws of physics at the time.
    I acknowledge that some human beings seem to have a need to delve into the spiritual dimensions of life, and I admit to being moved in such a way from time to time, but usually in a remote area with magical scenery.

    However I have always been concerned about (1) the way that religion seems to have seeped itself into almost every aspect of our otherwise secular society and (2) the excesses of organised religion. Here are some examples of the former:
    (a) I left the Boy Scouts (which I otherwise enjoyed) because we were forced to say prayers at various meetings.
    (b) Only recently I was a guest at a local Rotary Club meeting and even then we had to say a prayer to some god that I do not acknowledge, and I doubt if many of the others did either.
    (c) Solemn occasions such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day have been totally hijacked by organised religion. Occasionally I might like to join with others in recognising the enormous contribution of those who fought in earlier conflicts, but I am prevented from doing so because to attend such an event I have to endure listening to a lot of palaver (to put it politely) about a god (who does not exist), and Jesus who apparently died for our sins (whatever that means?). If there were a god with the powers that people attribute to him, why couldn’t he have just stopped the whole damn war in the first place? No religious person has ever been able to answer that question.
    (d) Our parliamentarians, both state and federal, are forced to say a prayer to a god that most of them don’t believe in, at the start of parliamentary sessions. Parliament is just their workplace and no other workplace insists on such behaviour in our secular society. (Shouldn’t church and state be separate?)

    Moving on to (2) the excesses of organised religion,
    If people ask me, as an atheist, what proof I have that there is no god, my answer is simple: The Catholic Church. If ever there was overwhelming evidence that god does not exist, you only need to look at the behaviour of this organisation. The findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse describe an institution that was unfathomable in its depravity, and its steadfast determination to cover up that depravity. This was criminal behaviour and it was supported (and in some aspects still is) at the highest levels of the church. To my mind and to the mind of victims of abuse, the Catholic Church is a criminal institution. Any other organisation that behaved that way would have been shut down and disbanded long ago, and many of its directors or office bearers sent to jail. Even after guilty priests have been sent to jail, the church hierarchy fought tooth and nail against paying compensation to victims – absolutely unconscionable behaviour. Again this must have been sanctioned at the highest level.

    The high Anglican Church is not far behind, but it is the Catholic Church that has a special place in history because of its obsession with, and enormous hang-up about sex. They ban sex for their own priests but encourage it greatly amongst their followers, (but only within marriage) in a determined effort to over-populate the world with new Catholics. This causes enormous levels of grief, misery and poverty to women and children in many of the poorer parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Southern and Central America. Their ban on the used of condoms can be blamed for a far higher spread of HIV-AIDS in poorer countries than would otherwise be the case.

    Why the priests are banned from sex or marrying is unfathomable, but seems to be excused with the trite comment that they are “married to the church”. I thought that it was generally accepted that “marriage” was an agreement between a man and a woman (I won’t even start on SSM here) so how can it also be between a man and either (a) an institution, or (b) a bricks and mortar building? Again – unfathomable. Maybe this is where a priest thinks: ‘well if I am married to this church, then I can have sex in this church, and the only people to have sex with are young boys and girls’

    On another aspect, (maybe as a by-product of its sex obsession) The Catholic Church has a real problem with women. They don’t allow women any significant role in the church whatsoever. (Apart from nuns, many of whom were notorious for their own forms of depravity and torture, beating the living daylights out of small children, many of whom were orphans, and telling them horror stories about ending up in purgatory, which is apparently worse than hell.) One strange aspect is that while the church rejects women, it adopts women’s clothing for all its men. They all wear dresses – most bizarre! No wonder Monty Python had a field day lampooning them.

    Then there are the usual ones that occur at regular intervals and they generally go like this: A bus goes off a cliff in South America and plunges into a ravine, killing all on board. Rescue crews sifting through the wreckage and dead bodies find a young baby, alive and well. What do they all say “Praise the Lord”. They all give thanks to god with great gusto for saving one baby. But hang on – how can you give god the credit for saving one baby but not blame him for the murder of all the others on the bus? Then people try to tell me – ‘Oh, it’s only a metaphor’ But it isn’t. People are saying it seriously. Are they that brainwashed – apparently so.

    If you think that the Catholic Church isn’t enough proof that there is no god, just don’t get me started on fundamentalist Islam.
    Ian Herbert

    1. Thank you Ian for your response. I always look forward to hearing from you.

      As you might suspect from reading my blog essays, I do not share your views on spirituality. I will never be able to reconcile myself to scientific determinism until such time that science can address the “hard problem”, which is essentially about how mind might arise from matter. My thoughts over many years have been that matter does not provide the principal building blocks of the universe. I believe that consciousness (mind) does..

      It is very easy to dismiss many of the traditional concepts of God – I know I’ve done so myself (but I must confess with a little more humility as I grow older because I appreciate how little most people understand about spirituality). And as much as I appreciate science and how it has contributed to our better understanding of the world, science also has its limits. You only have to look at Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory in Physics or Goedel’s Incompleteness Theory in Mathematics to gain an appreciation that we don’t have the capacity to fully understand the physical world.

      The metaphysical void in our lives can not be filled by traditional notions of God but there are many more sophisticated metaphysical concepts that might lead us to a better understanding of our world.

  5. Hi Ted
    As always I appreciate your writing and that of your commentators. This is late and no one may see it but just to enter my thoughts. For all the travesties of organised religion, the ills of which cannot be defended, there are the vast throngs in churches, and not in churches, known and unknown individuals of the Christian faith, who fought to end slavery and persecution, tend the sick and homeless, and point to the value of the individual while explaining that we are so much the richer in ‘dying to self’ than in living for self. From whatever standpoint, being able to defend a worthwhile purpose to life, including a spiritual dimension, has value in my opinion. It seems that society founded (whether a palatable thought or not) on Judeo-Christian principles, redolent in our legal, humanitarian and other systems, is quicker nowadays to protect other hands than the hand that fed it. It is pleasing where in our society Christians and non-Christians alike give respectful place to the belief systems of various faiths, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus that every person, with no exception, has value and worth. Long live the freedom of thought and speech that we take for granted in this country. Whether one accepts or not that Jesus as God incarnate embodied pure love for a created humanity, it is said that most scholars agree that Jesus indeed lived; for example, Bart Ehrman’s claim about there not being one academic in a university who is an expert in New Testament, The Classics or Antiquity and whose reputation relies on the validity of their research in the area, who denies the existence of Jesus. Bart Ehrman is of course a leading skeptical (atheist) New Testament scholar. He states that skeptics have got to leave this line of argument and instead turn their attention to debunking Jesus’ resurrection. It may be a curious thing but I am not the least irritated by belief systems, or various explanations of how we got here and how we’re sustained, or of how we might interpret ‘the Way’ in this exciting, fraught sojourn of life. However I’m encouraged by whatever actions stem from love and genuine goodwill of individuals to care, speak and act in other-centred ways in this needy world: may there be more of that, whatever the driver, and may all our aims, conceived this way, prosper.

    1. I always look forward to your comments Glenys.

      Now being a supporter of Western liberal democracies I am the first to admit that they owe a great deal to Judaeo-Christian principles. But I would have to say that those principles that I most admire have only been enunciated in later times.

      Of course it was in Europe, where Western societal principles gradually developed. But if you look at Europe, dominated by Christianity, up until the seventeenth century they were still burning heretics wholesale, expelling Muslims, persecuting old cat-loving women as witches and initiating religious wars every second Sunday. But the saving grace for Christians was that they were introspective and wise enough to study their religion and its origins critically. The fortunate ‘discovery” that the basis of their religion was love is a relatively recent occurrence.

      In contrast my main criticism of Islam is that the same degree of introspection has never been applied to their religion and consequently, particularly for the fundamentalists, they are stuck with the same medieval belief system that predominated Christianity in the seventeenth century.

      And whilst I support the principles of love espoused by modern Christianity, I am not convinced that the Jesus of the bible ever existed.

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