What does it mean to say, “Jesus died, Christ in Risen” to a Postmodern Man?
First, to anyone interested in reading an Easter reflection, I must confess: If you or some census were to ask me if I believe in God, I would say “no.” That is because I would be understanding you to mean what “God” normally means in Judeo-Christian-Muslim America, i.e. some personal entity with supernatural attributes. I have religious beliefs that help me express my religious experience. But they include no god or religion.
If you or some questionnaire were to ask me my religious affiliation, I would explain that I was born and raised Catholic Christian which I accept and even celebrate as my heritage. I also criticize that tradition for being exclusively dogmatic, often to the point of cruelty. And so, when my soulmate and I do participate in an organized religious community, it is usually one affiliated with Unitarian Universalism. The UU affiliation has no dogma but articulates living principles which I willingly accept. It is inclusive of all as equal without prejudice and committed to social justice.
I imagine that the foundational meaning and unity of all that is to which I aspire (God if you wish) but do not know with any finality, as the soul of the universe, the spirit of life and love. I guess that would make me neither a theist, nor an atheist, close to a pantheist, but I think technically a panentheist — at least in hope. Faith for me is not a religion or a belief, but a commitment to social justice or what MLK would call the creation of the Beloved Community.
Jesus has died, Christ is risen — the foundation of Christianity — can mean a lot to a man like myself, without a religion or a god, who situates himself in relation to the new postmodern science, philosophy, and “secular humanist” culture and one who fairly deeply studied in the history and hermeneutics of religions and their expressions including Christianity and its holy scriptures (thanks to my time in a Jesuit seminary).
In my spiritual exercises, based on my studies, I imagine Jesus as an itinerant teacher in the vein of philosophers like Zeno, Epicurus, Diogenes teaching a way of life in the Greco-Roman world. But Jesus was a Jew drawing inspiration from the Hebrew scriptures; he was a disciple of John the Baptist, focusing on the anawim, Hebrew for the “poorest of the poor,” “the meek and lowly,” who were seeking deliverance by Yahweh from the masters in this age of cruel patronage. Like John, Jesus was seen as a radical instigating revolution and was executed.
He was apparently very popular as was his message of liberation to the suffering anawim. For his teachings and persona continued through many developing stories starting in Judea and spreading throughout various communities by early disciples and especially by Paul of Tarsus, a learned Jew and Roman citizen. The main message was that this man Jesus was sent by God to deliver the people at the low rung of a hierarchical society and now lives with the people who believe in him. The man, especially after he died, became his message and mission.
There were conflicting stories of his resurrection from the dead. In Hebrew thought there was no immortal soul apart from the body until the infiltration of Greek philosophy deriving from Plato and Aristotle. So, the body of Jesus as the divinely anointed one or Christ is no ordinary body in some of these stories with Jewish origins. The resurrected body can appear and disappear, is sometimes recognizable or not, and can move easily from place to place.
The earliest writings in the “New Testament,” are those of Paul of Tarsus, the main promotor and organizer of the Church, written 20 or so years after the death of Jesus. Paul was more educated in Hebrew philosophy than Greek. Without explanation, he preached faith in Christ as the fulfilment of Judaism and the way of life for all the people even beyond the Jews; and Paul offered to the gentiles accommodations beyond Jewish laws. “If Christ is not risen,” he preached, “then vain is your faith.” Primarily he saw the risen Christ in the faith and unity of the people called together by him in the name of Christ often gathered in communal meals. The mission, the message, the way of life, the persona goes on even after suffering and death.
The explanations for all this were articulated and refined through Greek and Roman philosophy starting with the early Fathers and officials of the Church as Christianity became Christendom, not just another mystery religion of late antiquity, but the civil religion of the Empire. The doctrine and new definitions by Church officials throughout the Middle Ages of Europe maintained Christianity as the religion of Western civilization throughout the Holy Roman Empire. And even afterwards when Rome lost its monopoly on economic and political control of Europe and its colonies to warring nation states and Islamic empire, Christianity was considered the religion or binding force of western civilization. Then Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, Modernism, and the Copernican Revolution turned the world and culture upside down.
What does Paul and his exhortation mean to me. Faith for Paul is intimately linked with hope and love. Imitating Jesus, carrying out his mission, proclaiming his message, following his way to prolong that message and mission, putting oneself out for and with the anawim, makes Christ present in our world. To love the anawim and each other now situates us in the Christ tradition and proclaims hope in the future for the earth and humanity. When we love one another and work towards the beloved community, we transcend ourselves, our thoughts, and our certainties and give ourselves to a new future. Faith is our transcending act towards the future of the earth and of life.
Faith, our transcending activity, is without the certainty of evidence for hope in justice for the poor, just as Jesus recognized that the weak, the meek, the humble, the poor were no match to the patrons certified by Rome. And yet he acted, he convened, he organized for change. I imagine Jesus as saying: yes, we can. If we follow the way of love, we can turn things around and overcome the despots and their way of domination. We can even move mountains if we act together in love.
This will occur not by the act of some deus ex machina outside, but through our faith in concerted action that can overcome an economy of inequality or a plague made worse by an incompetent leader who profits by disaster. It will occur when the anawim, always the brunt of disasters made by the powerful, act together to create a new world for all excluding no one.
Jesus is resurrected as the Christ through the faith of the anawim not as a god like Pharaoh or Caesar or the Divine Leader, but in us acting together for justice. This is the message of Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and the Vernal Equinox. Death is not final. We can deny life by avoiding death in any way that we can. Or we can affirm life by accepting death as the way for the life of all.
Easter and Passover and Ramadan mean to me that humankind from bottom-up can act together for the good and future of all, for the earth and the human race, for each other in whose association we can discern the higher power. It means that all mortals, especially those who are suffering, are worthy of love and grace. It means that love, the mutuality of relationships and empathy, the sense of being in and with one another, is the way that great-souled teachers and organizers, like Jesus and Paul, affirm life in the face of death and meaning in the face of absurdity.
I was writing this on Easter Day because writing for me is just finishing my thought. When I told of my Easter reflection to Bernie my soulmate, she reminded me that my philosophy and theology were nice, but not necessary for her.
She also reminded me of past Easters when we simply went up a hill or beach to watch in wonder and silence the rising of the sun. Sometimes we did this alone and sometimes in an ecumenical Christian gathering or in a Jewish Seder meal. But on this Easter, we were, in a time of plague and precipitous death, unable to leave our home.
We discussed the refugees from war, many separated from their children or in concentration camps. We discussed the depression that our whole nation is suffering, a depression that is economic, psychological, and especially political, when our national leader has assembled loyal subordinates to strengthen the walls against strangers, to put white and wealthy America first, and who represents to us the ugly, souless, fearful America. Very much out of line with the character of Jesus and the coming of the Beloved Community.
In this time of vernal equinox when many of us sojourners in time and space celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring as nature revives itself, we commit ourselves to the renewal of our earth and our humanity. We accept our past and strive for our future in the present here and now. We don’t need grand philosophies and theologies for that. We just need faith, the acceptance of our own transcending existence in union with each other.
Rollie Smith — Easter 2020