I always want Easter week to be different than it is. There is so much to love about the tradition of Christ and Easter, except for the core theological story claimed by the church, which I reject.
That story goes that 1) God made a beautiful world without death 2) we disobeyed His command not to eat from the tree of knowledge 3) in His anger and disappointment He re-engineered creation to include death and suffering 4) He kicked us out into that world to make our own way 5) after awhile He was overcome with regret or forgiveness and 6) He sent His Son/Himself to be sacrificed, which cleansed humanity of its sin and guilt, as long as they believed the story.
It’s often said that every religion is a culture’s answer to the question “Why do we suffer and die?” The Garden of Eden story is a workable answer to that question, and the Christ-as-sacrifice addendum is a workable evolution of the story. Well, workable up until now when we need to stop hoping and praying to get off the planet, and we need to start saving the web of life.
Yes, it is an important question: why do we suffer and die? But there is another question that is actually more important to me: why is there beauty and pleasure? And why are they so deep and profound? If our disobedience caused God such anguish that He re-engineered all of His creation in order to punish us, why would He then insert so much beauty and pleasure into that secondary creation? Do we fill our penitentiaries with ballet and opera, with chocolate éclairs, with forests of chirping birds, with art and love and pleasure?
There are only a few answers to this question: why is there pleasure and beauty in such abundance?
- One is that God made earth a place of punishment but then sort of changed his mind and made it so it wasn’t THAT bad, because He loved us, or for some other reason. But that does not really account for the intensity and ubiquity of pleasure and beauty.
- Another is God is really cynical and so taunts us with pleasure and beauty to make suffering seem even worse by comparison.
- Another is that God places beauty and pleasure on earth as a test of our faith—to see if we will fall into the trap of wanting to stay here more than we want to go to heaven.
- Another is that all pleasure and beauty come from the devil. Plenty of people believe this. God allows the devil to tempt us, which either makes Him super mysteriously wise and all-powerful, or extra-cynical.
- Another is that the pleasure, beauty, suffering and death are all part of the same illusion. This answer is found most famously in Buddhism and in Hinduism, but also in all mystical (i.e. escape-the-earth-and-body) theologies.
Well, these answers work for a lot of people, but they don’t work for me. The answer for me is that the story of Sin-Redemption-Salvation is wrong. Or to put it a better way, it was a workable story for a long time – for the centuries that we thought the sun revolved around the earth and that when it rained it was because God opens windows in the dome of heaven to let a little of the watery chaos fall into his bubble of creation. Almost no one believes any of that now, and it’s time we move off the Sin-Redemption-Salvation story.
For me, the move needs to be away from redemption and toward forgiveness. You need redemption for being born broken. We are not born broken. That story is wrong, twisted and anti-Holy. Its no wonder some of the earliest heretics killed by the church died for saying that the punishing God portrayed by the church fathers was, in fact, the devil. We do not need redemption for being born into a naturally sinful body, but we need forgiveness often for the choices we make.
From Good Friday to Easter morning I choose to focus on Christ’s words from the cross: “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” This is the core of the Christian tradition for me, because again and again and again we become afraid when the Holy appears before us saying, “Love your neighbor as much as yourself, love the creator of this unfathomable beauty around you as much as you love yourself.” We are always afraid that if we truly live that humble love for this world, we will lose power, prestige and possessions. We chose ourselves again and again over our neighbor and over the beauty of the world, and for that we are engaged in a constant dance of forgiveness with the Sacred. The story of the cross and the Resurrection did not happen once 2,000 years ago to someone else - it happens inside me again and again each day as I make my choices.
I leave you with a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke:
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that what began it all
can feel you when it reaches for you.
(I changed the words from “so that ‘he’ who began it all…”)