Soon, millions of Christians will gather to celebrate Easter. For many of them, the literal, not merely metaphorical, resurrection of Jesus -- that is, a bodily resuscitation -- is necessary for any of it to have validity.
Is this necessary? Does the resurrection need the resuscitation of Jesus' body to have any transformative significance in the 21st century?
It doesn't for me. Although, like many other Christians, I grew up being taught that on the third day after his crucifixion Jesus' body, which was wrapped and buried in a tomb, miraculously came back to life, and he wiggled out of his clothes, got up and walked out. When I got a little older, I began to question both the validity of this version of the story and the necessity of a physical "come-back-to-life" miracle in what we now know as Easter.
Today, I think the significance of Easter is more metaphorical than literal. Few theologians have helped better articulate what I've felt and thought for years than Marcus Borg. If you have not read his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I think you would find it inspiring reading. Believable too. It's a bit dated now, but if you've ever wondered how to make more logical sense of your Christian experience than the explanations you were taught as a child, this is a pretty good book to read to enhance your Easter experience.
Why have I come to believe the resurrection story is more metaphorical than literal?
Well, the most obvious reason is, it's more believable. Maybe it's easy for you to live in a mythical, magical world of make-believe (and, if so, so be it), but I cannot. I've conducted too many funerals in my lifetime, walked through too many stone-cold cemeteries and stood beside too many grieving souls (my own included) whose family members had gone the way that we all will go -- the way of death -- to believe anything other than death is pretty fatal and pretty final. You can pretend all you'd like that it isn't so. Dress up the altar with lilies and sing as loud as you can "Up From the Grave He Arose." But, one day, you'll discover for yourself that all the pretending in the world won't keep you from going to the grave. You will die, just as I will die.
Now, that does not mean that I have given up believing in something after death. I have not. I can't prove there's life after death. I'm pretty sure no one has proven there is nothing either. For me, I prefer to imagine something goes on beyond this life and that, whatever that something is, it's all good. I can get real metaphorical about it, too. But, the fact is, I don't think much about life beyond death, I've got too much to ponder now. And, it's infinitely more meaningful to me than either the past or the future. I suspect this is because, whenever I think about either the past or the future, I'm either regretting something I've done or worrying about something I'm getting ready to do.
So, I find my biggest challenge in life, as well as reward, is staying present. That way, I'm not wasting my time thinking of situations that might have been better, of the stupid things I've done or the people who have offended me and what I wish I had said or done in those situations and so on. Such is madness. Conversely, I'm not wasting my energy with the future either -- a future that, when and if it does come, will only ever come as this present moment. I don't think anyone has ever lived in the future until they got there. When I don't stay anchored to the present, I'm anticipating some conversation, what I'm going to say, how he or she is likely to respond, what I'm going to do with the imagined response, and, well, you can see how this madness goes, too.
The hardest thing in life for me -- and I suspect the same is true of most people -- is staying here and now. So this is my daily spiritual practice. And when I do this, I've discovered a kind of resurrection all it's own -- a resurrection within my attitudes, my actions, as well as my sense of inner peace. At times, this inner peace is so wonderful, I could not imagine anything MORE wonderful beyond this life. So what I'm saying is something similar to what my favorite French writer, who is also an atheist, Andre' Comte-Sponville said. In one of his books, he asked, "Why would I want eternal life when I'm experiencing it already?"
There was at time in my life when I would not have understood what he was saying at all. But ever since that moment I describe in my book, I now get it. This is the miracle of the resurrection to me. It is this Jesus whose life, influence and teachings, when practiced, so transform today that there is little interest in you for yesterday or tomorrow. This is a resurrected Jesus I can relate to -- and I do.
And this is precisely the second reason why the Easter story need not be literal to have transformative power. My own experience gives witness to this. For example, when I tried to believe the things I was told to believe and that questioning my beliefs was a sign of weakness and lack of faith, I tried to conform. For much of my adult life, I ignored my questions and said silly things like, "The Bible says it, I believe it; that settles it." But then, a death in my family, as well as the death of a marriage and a few other traumatic things, caused that weak foundation to give way. My life shattered. So did my fragile faith. I realized I could no longer ignore my doubts or my questions. So, I let them rip. But, amazingly, what I discovered is, instead of being obstacles, they became the building blocks of a resurrection faith.
You can delude yourself into believing that questioning things is a lack of faith. But I would be inclined to remind you that until you DO question your faith, you really have no faith at all. What you have instead is a collection of beliefs -- beliefs that a frightened little ego in you will cling to for a sense of security and identity with other little egos that cling to a similar set of beliefs -- but these beliefs will not translate into personal inner transformation. They will not sustain you through life either. They didn't for me. It was not until I questioned and doubted the things I was taught, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that I met, and believed -- or, fell in love with -- a genuine and believable Jesus whose teachings, whose enduring spirit, and whose eternal influence continues to guide seekers into a transformative relationship with themselves and with the Divine.
So, this Easter, I have a lot to be grateful for. And, I am.
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