April 11, 2004
I think there's some interesting irony about both Christmas and Easter. With Christmas, it's that while I have absolutely no doubt that Jesus was born, it seems extremely unlikely to me that his actual date of birth was anywhere near the time we currently celebrate it, which is to say December 25; I don't think even dyed-in-the-wool hardcore fundamentalist Christians actually believe that's the day (one fun way to mess with their heads if they say it it is, is to ask them if that's December 25 on the Julian calendar or the Gregorian). Easter, on the other hand, is usually taking place at the right time, at least by the moon: Easter always happens on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the traditional start of Spring, which is usually understood to be March 21st. You can check it.
(Why do I say "usually" instead of always? Well, because the spring equinox doesn't always fall on the 21st -- some years it technically starts earlier and some years later. For example in 2038, the actual vernal equinox is March 20, which is followed by a full moon on the 21st. Technically, Easter should probably be on March 28. But nearly all Christian churches use March 21 as the start of spring, so Easter won't be observed until April 25 -- which is as late as you can have Easter in any year.
Now, there are other discrepancies. Strictly speaking, Easter should probably be directly tied to the Jewish observance of Passover, which always falls on the same date on the Jewish calendar -- which is a primarily lunar calendar not in sync with the Gregorian calendar. But it's not -- indeed, several millennia from now there will be such a time discrepancy between the two calendars that Passover and Easter will have little to do with each other in a temporal sense. But for the here and now, there's enough of a connection between the two that I'm comfortable saying that when we celebrate Easter, we're mostly doing it at the right time in a historical sense.)
The irony comes in the fact that while Easter is almost always celebrated at the "right" time, I don't personally believe the first Easter happened -- which is to say that I don't believe that Jesus was resurrected and rose from the dead. So there it is: Christmas -- really happened, but we celebrate it at the wrong time. Easter -- never happened, but we celebrate it at the right time.
Good Friday -- right time, really happened. But I don't imagine I get points for noting that.
By this formulation, you can understand my relationship to Jesus: Namely, that I think he existed, but that I don't think he was divine -- at least, not "divine" in the sense that he was raised from the dead or did miracles of the "walk on water" stripe. Ultimately, I believe Jesus was just a man, a "son of God" to the extent that any of us are (provided we're male). I believe that when Jesus died, he was, simply, dead in any physical sense.
But speaking as an agnostic, I think it's nonsense to say that Jesus didn't do miracles, or that he didn't experience a resurrection. One definition of a "miracle" is that it is an event that increases faith; inarguably Jesus did that while he was alive and the Gospels continue to do so today, albeit usually through the intermediaries of the various Christian churches. Equally, even if Jesus did not experience a physical resurrection, his ideas did not die with him; they were codified in the Gospels themselves and have carried forward for 2,000 years -- a spiritual resurrection, absolutely. I absolutely believe in Jesus, and I believe in the value of his message, even if I don't believe in the truth of his Christhood.
The last bit of that is why I am not, nor am I likely ever to become, a Christian. For me the least relevant parts of Jesus' message have to do with the spiritual and mystical aspects of his teachings. I am very passionately interested in what his message has to say for us here on Earth, independent of the next life. It's a rather substantial endorsement of Jesus' ideas that even if one were to remove the metaphysical aspects of Jesus' message, there is still a vibrant core of message and morals: Words to live by in all circumstance, as well as an ethical model which takes both courage and conviction to live by. In a general sense, I do find that in most ways I try to live by the admonitions of Jesus; he's a gold standard for forgiveness and tolerance I am unable to match, but I do take inspiration in it and to that respect try to walk in his footsteps.
It's also worth noting that I do find the spiritual aspects of Jesus' life resonate with me as well. Take as an example the idea that Jesus willingly died to assume the sins of the world. Do I believe he did it? I sure do. Do I think that in dying, he did actually assume the sins of the world? No, I don't. The reasons for this should be obvious: As a mere human, it wasn't within his purview to do so, and since I don't have a morality rooted in religion, I don't believe in "sin" -- it's a religious concept (this is not the same as saying there are not things that are immoral, as I believe there are -- many of which, not at all coincidentally, are usually identified as sins in many of the leading religions of the world).
But there mere fact I don't subscribe to the concept of sin, or (that if sin does exists) that one person could assume the sins of the world doesn't lessen the magnificence of Jesus' sacrifice. Even as a symbolic sacrifice it is deeply moving. I don't believe Jesus could assume the sins of the world, but I believe that he would have if he could have, and the sacrifice he made proves it. It makes me ask what I would do if I sincerely believed that my death could have a positive, transformative effect on the world. Would I have the courage to embrace that death? Even Jesus had his moment of doubt, and he sincerely believed in who he was and what he was doing. I believe that in dying for our sins, Jesus set the standard for what every person should be willing to do for humanity -- to lay down one's life so that the others can live and thrive.
I don't want to claim that my understanding of Jesus is better than someone else's, or that the Christian aspect of Jesus is somehow wrong. I have enough humility in the face of everything I don't know to admit to the possibility that Jesus truly was divine, even if I strongly doubt it. I also accept the idea that many Christians will believe that without accepting the divinity of the Christ, admiration of Jesus is hollow; that one must accept all aspects of Jesus, including the Christhood, to truly understand him. They could very well be right about that. It's not that 2 billion Christians can't be wrong, but rather that an idea that captivates 2 billion people, including many people I know, love and respect, is not an idea without merit.
Even so. No Christian who is not delusional would say his understanding of Jesus is perfect; therefore I am happy to say that my understanding of Jesus is likewise imperfect. My preference is to think of Jesus as a man and to contemplate what his message means to me from that perspective. As I said before, the remarkable thing about Jesus' message is that it's not lessened in the absence of divinity, and in some ways becomes as remarkable for differing but no less significant reasons. I like to think that I will spend my life contemplating Jesus' message for us -- and for me -- and that at the end of it all I may reach a more perfect understanding.
And there's the final irony for you this Easter: An agnostic's wish to better understand Jesus, as an agnostic. I also wish a better understanding of his message for you, whomever you may be, however you choose to believe or understand. Happy Easter.
Posted by john at April 11, 2004 08:46 AM
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