The ancient world abounded in stories of death and rising. After all, nature puts on this show every year. Even semi-tropical areas see vegetation lapse into dormancy for several months, and the animal kingdom has its “mating seasons” often coinciding with the time of vegetative dormancy. The subsequent birth of young comes as the vegetation awakens and the seeds break open to release the new shoots of plant life, ready to feed the new shoots of animal life. For some plants this is the season for flowering to entice insects and birds to bring them mating pollen.
The first civilizations went a step beyond this sort of simple observation of the natural cycle. Many (all?) of them attributed the natural cycle of dying-and-rising to a divine display in the natural world of actual divine activity breaking through to where we could see it. The gods were saying that the divine order moved within this same kind of cycle, linked to the sensible realm. This truth was communicated in myth, and various forms of such myths were propagated and disseminated at large so that many cultures told similar stories with similar elements.
Thus, the sun dies every evening and must be escorted through, or perhaps battles its own way across, the underworld of death and shadow to come forth once more and give heat and light to the visible cosmos. The moon lives as a light in the shadows, waxing and waning until it too fades into the dark underworld, finding its way back once more in a few days and gradually regathering its strength, only to fade and die again. And ever on.
Specific important deities were named and identified with the stories of the conflict between light and dark, also conceived as good and evil. For example, in Egypt Osiris, the great and good King and giver and maintainer of life and order, son of Amon-Ra the Sun, is slain in jealous rage by his treacherous brother Seth, Lord of the dark realms which he rules. But Isis, Osiris’ Queen, defeats Seth and raises Osiris, at the price of his return to the underworld each night.
In Greece there was the story of Persephone and Hades, who had allow her to return to the world of life each spring to allow the earth to flower once more. The Egyptians also told the story of the Phoenix, a bird which, when it died, turned to a great flame from which it emerged regenerated, ready to once more fulfil its appointed role as a harbinger of the will of the gods among humans. You get the idea.
Our modern/post-modern, scientific worldview reduces all these concepts to quaint tales told by the primitive, or at least prescientific, ancients who had no sophisticated knowledge of how all these natural phenomena actually work according to the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics. But I think it is fair play to have the ancients turn the tables on us, who are the greatest reductionists and over-simplifiers in all recorded cultural history. It is we who have reduced the natural, created order to dead, demystified, mere “stuff” made of atoms and all-sorts of micro-atomic bits and pieces. We are all about reduction and deconstruction till we become blinded by our microscopes and telescopes. As C.S. Lewis once said, we no longer see the wonder and beauty of a tree. We have reduced it to a mere collection of cells doing things which convey nothing of the miraculous wholeness and unity of the tree as a tree, let alone the amazing phenomenon of a vast forest of such creatures.
Even with all our scientific calculation and sophistication, we still hit the wall. “What wall is that?” you say.
The wall of life versus death, or, if you prefer, life versus non-life. And, by extension, life and death. We can measure and study and speculate and presuppose that we will one day reduce it all to the measurable and studiable as much as we like, but we still meet the same mystery as our ancient forebears met. We still stand and laugh and cry in awe as a baby is born, emerging inexplicably from the combination of two independent cells to form a whole new living being. We still weep and grieve in utter bemusement about what is actually happening and where that once so vibrant soul goes as we watch with a dearly loved one as their miraculous life-force slips out of its flesh-bone-and-blood vessel. The ancients saw all this with appropriate awe and wonder. They observed with other eyes than the two organs of light reception in their upper head. They saw with the eyes of the heart and soul. So looking they gained some genuine insight into what these twin ultimate mysteries portend.
If nothing else, the mystery of life and death remind us very graphically and regularly of a few very basic, fundamental realities. First, that we did not make ourselves. We were/are made;we are creatures of a Maker. Second, we are finite – we are born, we live for a while, we die. We have a beginning and an end to our existence, at least insofar as we can measure it according to the super-sophisticated precision of our ever-developing technological prowess. The corollary of this temporal finiteness is that it is also spatial. But, paradoxically in all truly significant respects, our wonderful tools of observation of the material realm are ridiculously crude and next to useless in measuring the reality of life and why it even is.
As one ancient sage put it, “We see through a glass (an old term for a window) darkly” as far as anything beyond what our senses can tell us. (And, yes, the ancients actually had glass windows, at least the well-off did if they fancied them and wanted to pay for them.) No matter how great a telescope or microscope we may now have and yet invent, with it we will still only see mere stuff, “dark matter”, maya as the Hindus call it. Light and life still lie and will always lie beyond any sort of material construct or model we can concoct.
Saul-Paul, the ancient sage quoted above, meant something like this: “Our bodily senses (and all the aids and accoutrements we make to enhance their abilities) can only take us to where material stuff ends, and not even that. Beyond that you need another kind of sense. But if you don’t even accept that there is another whole dimension or domain beyond “mere stuff”, then you can never see beyond you own limitations and confined perceptions.” He goes on after that to say, “No eye has ever seen and no ear has ever heard what the Creator has prepared for those who love Him/Her.”
You may groan that we are heading back to religion. My answer is that in fact you cannot escape “religion” – even if you’re an atheist or agnostic. But we are not talking about a particular “religion” in saying this. At this point, it’s irrelevant to ask, “Which religion?” We are not talking about “converting” to some set of performance criteria for appeasing a Deity of whatever description. Rather, we are talking about the Latin (as in the language of the Romans from which we get the term) sense of religio – the system, the principle that ties “it” (the Cosmos) all together, that binds up all the loose ends and begins to make sense of them.
“And what, pray tell, has any of this to do with Easter and old myths about dying and rising?”
Everything!! As we age (as I am doing), those willing to pay attention see it more and more clearly. Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gently into that good night [death]; Rage, rage, against the fading of the light.” Yes, he was a great poet. But he died a bitter, addicted man at age 39. He was an atheist, but he felt intensely the “wrongness” of death, of the “night”, the fading of life into feeble old age (“the fading of the light”). He preferred to die young and raging against the injustice of the universe because he longed so intensely to find meaning but still knew he was lost. Our scientific brain says life and death are the natural order, the way it has always been since the first single-cell life form wiggled into life in the primordial slime and replicated.
Let us say that as long as what lives is not self-aware and self-determining, which we humans are, at least to a respectable degree (setting aside discussion of the philosophy of determinism and the theology of predestination for the moment), I guess it’s just, “Sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth say. You’re born; you live for a bit; you die. The universe could care less.
But Shakespeare did not really accept that. Lady Macbeth was not Shakespeare speaking soto voce. Shakespeare was giving voice to the despair lurking behind having no Creator to give things meaning.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the ultimate realist and super-philosopher of the modern and post-modern West, did not really believe it either. His own inability to concede what all his great rational philosophizing told him drove him insane and to suicide. “God is dead and we have killed him.” But in “killing” God/the Creator, we have only killed our souls. The Creator still lives, and we cannot expunge this knowledge from our hearts and souls. We can deny it, and work very hard in doing so, but we cannot expunge it.
Charles Darwin, who constructed the evolutionary worldview expressly to remove the need for a Creator from the reality of life and existence, did not really believe it. He confessed as he neared his own end that he regretted having written what he did and feared he might have led the world astray.
François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, the quintessential Enlightenment philosophe and professed atheist, the trenchant mocker of Christianity, did not really believe it. On his death bed he lamented that he knew there was a God and that he feared he was going to hell. But, having lived as an atheist and scorned the “simplicity and gullibility” of “believers”, he would not accept having a priest summoned.
They all desperately wanted their lives to mean something. They all desperately wanted their thoughts and influence to carry on after them – somehow. They all wanted, somehow, to defeat death, to live beyond it. It was the desire for eternity bred into their very souls breaking through all the manoeuvres of a life-time seeking to deny it and repress it.
Many of us now find ourselves twisting and turning every which way in the same tortured dance. I too once danced that dance, and will not say that I never have the least doubt to this day. But the wonder of an incredible but real Cosmos that can only be here because a Creator fashioned it, and me within it, overthrows all the objections. Even the hardest ones – the pain, the suffering, the evil-doing, the senseless (from our perspective) catastrophes – must give way to the fact that things are and that, being there at all, they are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
In the Hebrew (Jewish) Scriptures a verse says, “The Creator has placed eternity in their (humanity’s) hearts.” It is a thunderous statement! It reputedly came from the most learned and “wisest” man of his age, in a book called Qohelet, which can be translated as “teacher” or “preacher” – a bit of both.
Qohelet was King Solomon writing under a pseudonym. As any teacher will tell you, all teachers preach, because they all have their worldviews and believe the students in front of them need converting. They need to be brought into wisdom, which the teacher-preacher happens to believe they have to some degree.
“Eternity in our hearts” is what this Easter thing is really about. It’s about the ultimate fulfillment of the old stories of death being defeated by life. It has nothing to do with denying the “natural order” or the “self-evident laws of evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest”.
Easter is a Western tradition about life returning. In the pagan era, it was focused on the winter gods and spirits giving way to the gods of new life and fertility. But by a few hundred years into the “Common Era” it had been transformed into the celebration of actual resurrection – the promise of life returning to the dead, their being raised into an indestructible, eternal body to live in all the fullness of all the best that could be. It was centered on the ultimate resurrection, the resurrection of God-come-in-human-flesh, the returning-to-life-from-actual-real-death story of a real man who was also the real Creator-God.
That story is the Jesus Story, which was treated in the series previous to this one on this blog. We will leave this discussion here. Anyone so inclined is invited to see the previous series on “The Jesus Story”. Or, better yet, you could seek it out in the original sources.