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Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg

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The Sublime Symbolism of Easter and the Ridiculous Resurrection of Ayn Rand

Posted: 04/23/11 04:22 PM ET

I'm not Christian, and I don't believe that Jesus was physically resurrected. But I love Easter. For one thing, any holiday that can inspire a work of art as sublime as Bach's ecstatic "St. Matthew Passion" is all right by me. Beyond that, and beyond the fact that Easter arrives with the first buds of spring and the shedding of outer garments, it offers the opportunity to contemplate the symbolism of crucifixion and resurrection.

Those who view their spirituality in a mystical context, or as an integral part of a developmental approach to life, recognize death and rebirth as an ongoing phenomenon: used up selves die off and higher, more evolved selves are born. Images of metamorphosis --caterpillars becoming butterflies, to cite the most overused cliché -- are often evoked to illustrate the natural quality of these transformations. On the highest level, crucifixion-resurrection is symbolic of the spiritual aspirant leaving behind, or dying to, the egoic self --the individual identity defined by personality and physical form -- and awakening to the infinite Self at the core of being, which we share with all of existence. In the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, this ultimate transformation is articulated in the mahavakyas (great utterances) of the Upanishads, such as: "Consciousness is Brahman," "I am Brahman" and "Thou art That." One can readily find parallels in the esoteric corners of all traditions, where identity shifts from the finite, timebound individual self to the infinite, timeless universal Self. One can also find it in poets like Walt Whitman, who famously declared that he was not confined between his hats and his boots.

On the level of ordinary behavior and attitude, spiritual growth entails the death of selfishness, narrowness and egotism and a corresponding birth of generosity, compassion and service. (These are, of course, attributes that religious traditions have always urged us to cultivate; that their efforts have met with disappointing results can perhaps be explained by the shortage of reliable methods for cultivating those qualities.) Spiritual progress, in every tradition I'm aware of, is measured in large part by the degree to which selfish drives and motivations are replaced by their nobler, more generous counterparts. In this model, self-centered action gives way to concern for others and for the common good -- not, it should be emphasized, in a sacrificial, martyr-like manner, but through the natural growth process, which brings with it the recognition that little is lost when acquisitive drives are replaced by an aspiration to contribute and serve. The evolving soul is less and less compelled by greed and material cravings -- they get crucified, so to speak -- and the spirit awakens to the greater fulfillment of actions rooted in generosity.

Finally, shifting from the sublime to the ridiculous, Easter this year invites the contemplation of an odd political koan. It seems that Ayn Rand, the mother of Objectivism, is enjoying something of a resurrection. Certain Republican leaders are said to revere the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and to have constructed their world-views around the individualism she propounded. How they can kneel at her throne and, at the same time, profess their faith in Jesus is, to me, a mystery greater the Passion tale itself. It would seem that trying to reconcile the Prince of Peace and the princess of selfishness would make one's head spin like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.

By what logic can the prophet who declared that the meek shall inherit the earth, who urged his followers to love their neighbors as themselves and who gave us the timeless eye-of-the-needle metaphor about the rich, be placed on the same altar as a novelist who called money "the barometer of a society's virtue" and said that only the strong deserve our love?

Maybe Randians like Rep. Paul Ryan will use Easter weekend to contemplate this mystery. Maybe their cognitive dissonance will be too much to bear, and we will wake up on Monday to find that ideologically driven hypocrisy has been crucified and intellectual honesty has been resurrected. That would be a bigger miracle than physical resurrection and one worth praying for.