03/28/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Are Passover and Easter Just Celebrations of Violence?

Surrounded by the usual code words for these holidays -- "freedom from slavery" for the first, "resurrection and new life" for the second -- this question may seem at the least silly and at worst an exercise of blasphemous anti-religiosity.

Yet, it is actually a serious question. Consider that while freeing the Jews all -- yes, all -- the Egyptians' first born, from that of the Pharaoh to the Pharaoh's servants to the Pharaoh's pet cat, had to die. And consider that Christianity seems to require the suffering and death of an innocent.

That is why some people not under the spell of scriptural sanctity have had critical thoughts. Even as authentic member of the club as Holocaust survivor and extensive commentator on Jewish tradition Elie Wiesel was deeply pained that the liberation of the Jews required the slaughter of innocent Egyptians. And Matthew Fox, originally a Catholic priest and now an Episcopalian one, asks comparable questions about what he considers his faith's over emphasis on sin and death and lack of appreciation of creation and love. Not to mention radical Christian feminists who challenge what they think of as patriarchy's love affair with violence.

For my part I believe it is possible to use these stories for our own spiritual development, but that to do so we need what might be called a spiritual reading -- one which takes the narratives very seriously, but not at all literally.

Passover celebrates the liberation of oppressed slaves from the most powerful nation on earth, in part through a series of punishments enacted not only on Egypt's rulers, but on the entire populace. Easter commemorates how a beloved inspiring, and prophetic teacher is brutally put to death only to return to life two days later. Both stories are miraculous events which if true reveal the influence of a more than human power.

But rather than asking "As contrary to the laws of nature as these events are, did they really happen?" a spiritual approach emphasizes psychological and moral dimensions rather than metaphysical claims about God.

On this view the exodus becomes a metaphor for our own liberation from internal constraints of greed or fear. The courage the Jews needed to leave the security of Egypt and face the wilderness will be a model for the courage we too will need to face the inevitable pain and disorientation which comes with spiritual growth.

Keep in mind that even if God frees us from slavery, it still takes great courage to embrace that freedom. One midrash (interpretive biblical commentary) suggests that God's parting of the Reed Sea only occurred after the first of the Israelites started to walk into the water. A contemporary writer (my daughter, Anna Gottlieb, at her bat mitzvah) tells us that "to make a miracle, it takes courage."

As for the death of innocent Egyptians, in some ways the most painful part of the story -- this becomes an image for what must be overcome, tossed aside, or even (metaphorically) killed in the process of liberation. Personally and socially when an oppressed group rebels its oppressors are shocked, threatened (consider what happens to men when women demand equality!), even devastated. Freedom's costs are real and often terribly painful -- even, at times, to the innocent. Ultimately all of us should remember that if we keep slaves, eventually we ourselves will suffer terribly -- and not in ways we can predict.

In a similar vein the resurrection of Jesus offers a model of our own capacity to face great suffering and move to a life that is spiritually richer and more blessed. It tells of the inevitability of despair ("My God, why has thou forsaken me"), the divine value of forgiveness ("Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"), and the simple embrace of ordinary life that can come with a return to our lives ("Come and have breakfast," said Jesus to his disciples on his third appearance after his resurrection). This narrative teaches the value, in popular Catholic spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen's words, of a kind of anti-common sense downward mobility. "The downward way is the way of the cross: 'Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me ... anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it'" (Matthew 10:39).

This pattern of suffering, despair, rebirth and return to life can be applied to any serious human suffering whatsoever: an illness or a divorce, recovery from trauma or depression. It is human, not solely Christian. That may be why Gandhi reputedly wept when he first read of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

"But did it really happen," the traditional religious believer demands. "Did God free the Israelites with miracles; did He sacrifice His son?"

The spiritual response is to turn away from the question of objective truth and to that of whether our lives reflect the essential messages of the stories. If I really believe that God did "so love the world that He gave his only begotten son" to suffer human existence, am I living a life which reflects an awareness of that love and a sincere effort to manifest it in the way I think and act? If God liberated my people from slavery to live in freedom, am I still a slave to my unthinking habits, conformity to social pressures, fear of discomfort, or hatred of the Other?

Whether these stories are myths or eyewitness reports by reliable observers, whatever the videotape reveals, the task of altering our lives to embody the spiritual meanings of these events remains. This process of shifting through "evidence" for God is endless, cautions Kierkegaard, and therefore we would be far better off forgetting the objective question and concentrating on the spiritual one. Not "What is true?" but, "How am I living?"

And if traditional believers tell me there is no reason to live religiously unless God is real, my reply is that a spiritual life is its own reward. Courage, compassion, mindfulness and equanimity will sooth our spirits and bring us contentment, with or without a God.

Roger S. Gottlieb's most recent book is 'Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters,' from which this essay is adapted. Here is an excerpt.