Thoughts on Easter

This unpublished article was submitted to the 'Face to Faith' column in the Guardian in April 1995. It was a response to a previous article in the same column.

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'God' is a metaphor, 'The Son of God' is a double metaphor, and 'The Son of God died on the cross to save us from our sins' is metaphor piled so deep as to be almost incomprehensible. I pointed this out as part of a PhD proposal to a Jesuit college. It was rejected. I mention it here as Easter has passed again, raising as it does the horrible image of a crucified man and the supernatural events supposedly connected with his life and death. Compare his story with that of Krishna's: an astrologer predicts the birth of an infant that will be king; a frightened monarch tries to prevent it; the child is born in a prison (stable); the man becomes the focus of the Bhagavad Gita (New Testament); after his death he becomes the object of reverence for millions. Their deaths are totally different: Krishna, while asleep under a tree is mistaken for a deer and killed in a hunting accident. Krishna's accidental death was quite in keeping with the playful images of his youth and the unpredictable nature of his adult life, as shown for example in his contradictory support for the two warring factions whose story is told in the Mahabharata. Jesus's death on the other hand is to be read as the culmination of a sombre drama, the only possible outcome of his radical iconoclasm. In fact his death is the result of the failure of his metaphor to be taken as metaphor, and as such is archetypal of the Western literality that now makes religion so marginalised. Jesus' 'Son of God', and 'King of the Jews' were the double metaphors that spelled out his death-sentence in a typically Western community. Krishna's claims in the Bhagavad Gita on the other hand are far more extravagant, but are more likely to be taken as metaphor in a community that generally takes the claim 'I am God' with tolerance at worst, and genuine interest at best.

Returning to the Jesus' death: the significance of it is compounded by the supernatural event of the resurrection. As a metaphor the resurrection is redolent with meanings, though in many cases the Easter bunny may serve us better. As a fact, however, the Christian believer has to cross the line marked 'occult'. To accept the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection as fact is to accept the occult or paranormal, no mistake. So why not go the whole hog and embrace the occult Christianity of people like Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner? Steiner, for example, was a highly intelligent man, a trained scientist, and a performer of public works on a grand scale - a good man. Political correctness would find him as clean as a whistle, where other candidates for 'good man' of the twentieth century like Albert Schweizer have been found to have feet of clay. So why is occult Christianity, in all fairness to Steiner, a mug's game? Because, I would suggest, it is, like all forms of the occult, a form of materialism: a spiritual or occult materialism.

Physical materialism is easily understood: I was reflecting on a harmless embodiment of it recently, the Gold Wing owner. The Gold Wing is a large Honda motorcycle, originating at a time when Japanese motorcycles were not as highly regarded as today, and has a devoted following who customise it and meet regularly in what are known as 'Wing-Dings'. A typical Wing owner will express his or her personality through different paint-jobs and accessories, and will, to various degrees identify with the half-ton hunk of iron that hurtles them noiselessly through the countryside. It is the identification with the machine that is the materialism in this case, resulting in various degrees of pain on the denigration, theft, or destruction of their beloved Wing. We can all identify with this form of materialism, substituting similar types of object, or more subtle objects such as family, reputation or nation. A spiritual or occult materialism is to do with the identification with spiritual or occult gifts or happenings of one's own, or, more bizarrely, of others. The materialism does not lie in the physical or spiritual possessions per se, but in the identification with them: their denigration or loss diminish the individual. However, the truly spiritual is to do with an identification with the whole. I will come back to this.

Resurrection as a metaphor is a spiritual message about freedom from death, but in the hands of the occultist it is a form of materialism relating to the clinging to matter. The Jehovah's Witnesses are an extreme case of a materialistic interpretation of the resurrection metaphor, derived in part from the occult nonsense of Revelations. Caroline Millar (Face to Faith 16/4/1995) rightly points out the absurdity of the resurrection of the body and its eternal life in some paradise. She also points out the problems most of us face with the supposed alternative a non-physical immortality, losing amongst other things 'sex, fresh coffee, and a warm baby's breath'. C.G.Jung, archetypal Western intellectual that he was, considered the Buddhist version of this immortality, nirvana, as a form of 'amputation' and rejected it. The physical materialist, then, has to reject both types of immortality, leaving Caroline Millar with no answer to death, either for herself or for her child.

The Buddha, long regarded as the Eeyore of the East, would point out to Caroline that sex could become tainted with rape or disease, that the coffee could run out, and that the warm baby could die. Or that the Gold Wing owner's pride and joy could be trashed by skidding on a small puddle of spilt diesel. But do we really have to adopt this bleak outlook? Is there really not a middle way (other than the Middle Way appropriated by the Buddhists, but looking decidedly off-centre to the Western eye)? Yes, I would argue. It lies in a certain form of mysticism, a spirituality that is non-materialist, yet life affirming. It doesn't have a single name, but can be detected running through the lives and writings of many mystics, both religious and secular. Its message is often hidden, but is this: identify with the whole. Exponents of this practice, which is central to the understanding of all the great mystics, can be found in all cultures and eras, but in the West is probably best demonstrated in the writings of Thomas Traherne, and Walt Whitman. Traherne was an English chaplain in the seventeenth century, while Whitman was an American poet of the nineteenth.

Traherne and Whitman between them offer a mystical view of the world couched in Christian and secular terms respectively, that requires none of the occult or paranormal, just a sensitivity and an instinct for the wholesome. It is impossible to select and quote a few lines that could capture the world that these men describe, as the impact of their work is only apparent after considerable exposure. Properly imbued, the reader experiences an expansiveness that eventually leads to the knowledge that one is the beginning and ending of all things, but be warned: these 'solid prizes of the Universe' (Whitman jokes that you will have to wrestle with him for them) represent the ultimate challenge to one's identity. Traherne represents a radical Christian spirituality (he is not satisfied until the reader becomes the Son of God), while Whitman represents a totally secular spirituality that may eventually best represent the Western vision: a humanity at ease with the birth and death of individuals, celebrating a renewal of life better represented by the Easter bunny than by the resurrection, and yet vigorously engaged in technologies and democracies that give each individual the best material chances; even a good-humoured tolerance of the paranormal. A humanity with the passion to enjoy sex, fresh coffee, and a warm baby's breath, and also the maturity to find in loss and death the seeds of an eternal renewal. A spiritual maturity to find in loss and death no anger or revenge, but love and proportion.