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Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Secular Easter, An Empty Tomb and a Dead God: A Long Easter Meditation

What to write?

 
I have been struggling to gather my thoughts and ideas before daring to write this entry. I had planned to have something ready on Easter Sunday which would made this entry topical and current. Today, a week has already passed since Easter Sunday and believers and non-believers have probably forgotten the festivities and returned back to their old routines when they went back to their regular routines. A thing  I usually did myself in the past.
 
I admit that my hesitation to tackle the subject of Easter may be due to the fact that I don’t see myself as a Roman Catholic. I cannot hide the fact that, even if as a child, I always felt not quite comfortable with aspects of Catholicism because, as I liked to learn on my own, the majority of Christians had only a superficial understanding of their faith. As a child, I was prone to reason out some of the teachings as interpreted by the priests of my time. I knew deep inside that a morality based on fear of hell was a very shallow one. But, that possibility of being punished by God was too terrible to contemplate. Naturally, heaven was where I wanted to be after I died.
 
I was both shocked and disturbed when I started reading parts of the Old Testament your average Christian wouldn’t have read in their life time. For instance, Leviticus, which, to my horror, forbade anyone who had an impairment of any sort to offer anything to God for that person was unworthy to be in God’s sight. And, references to impairment as sin in the New Testament started making sense. Indeed, Jesus tried to address the irrationality of such beliefs. But, I can attest that I did feel awkward among the fervently religious. At times to be called saintly, and in the silence of the hearts, some suspected I was the result of sin. Images of the devil have also suggested impairment of some sort to me. While I denied my impairment for many years. 
 
Yet, deep down, I knew that the logical conclusion of what Leviticus had been saying was that I was unworthy of God. In that sense, I had some sympathy with the devil when he was expelled from heaven. Not that I wanted, in any way, to become God. But, rather, because I could identify of being rejected and excluded because I was physically different. Yes, the devil’s sin was that of pride but he was always represented as the ‘other’. I could relate to that feeling of otherness and rejection. Indeed, as I rekindled my passion for Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, in particular, it was I found an old childhood friend. I once again started meditating but this time wanted to further cultivate my understanding of Buddhist thought. 
 
I don’t see myself as a Roman Catholic any more but I am grateful for the teachings I got from Christianity. In a sense, I am practicing a philosophy beyond the confines of religion. I have no problem with the belief in God and also find no problem with those who don’t believe in God. However, I’m saddened when supposedly mature adults debate on whether God exists or not as their lives depended on it.
 
After all,  it’s a fact that God exists. But, here, I must explain some more.
 

Does God exist?

 
God exists. However, whether God exists as an entity, if at all, is debatable. Who is God? Even this question cannot be answered unless one is affiliated with a particular religion. In monotheism, there is a personal God but you’ll find no such God in some Eastern traditions. There are belief systems where there are plenty of gods and some were there are even good and evil gods. In Buddhism, the question of God is not really relevant. Mind you, Buddhism doesn’t deny God or accept God. Its belief system is compatible, in many ways, with science. Everything, it is observed, is a product of causes and conditions. Nothing can be its own creation. Everything is co-created or dependently arising. Thus, one can only say that Buddhism - at least Tibetan Buddhism - is a non-theistic tradition. I subscribe to that world view today.
 
New atheists and believers may go discussing whether God exists till the end of time. It might be a form of spending their time and energy and even to express themselves. However, if the issue cannot be resolved in our lifetime, why does it have to be an issue that divides us? Do we really believe that living without God means living without morality or a sense of ethics? Is a fear of punishment and desire to reach heaven the proper foundation for any morality? I think not. A crusade against religion is, in my view, not unlike a religious crusade. 
 
And this is really not what Jesus died for. His teachings invite us not to judge others and to be wise. Attainment of heaven or hell are not things that we should await because we believed or simply did good deeds. Indeed, the idea that we must live for a life beyond defies the main teachings of Jesus. I don’t think he wanted us to become so proud of our religion that, consciously or unconsciously, close our  hearts and minds to other points of  view. It’s in the intention that we perform deeds that makes them good or bad. Indeed, if one performs an act of kindness to appear kind and good to others, 
 
That act of kindness, great as it might be, is its own reward. The motivation isn’t compassion but ambition. The beliefs that Jesus tried to instil into his largely superstitious and dogmatic community were one that encouraged them to open up to the other, even to your enemies. It encouraged his community to break away to a rigid adherence to the letter of the law and instead embrace the spirit of the law. And I suspect that Jesus didn’t want a religion that was fixated on his crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, the authentic pursuit of a follower of Jesus, indeed, would be not to follow him as you would be venerating a god but follow his teachings in your daily living. To be honest with yourself and make sure you are ready to open your awareness to your inner self and to the other. 
 
Faith, in my view, is not about believing in holy objects or even in miracles, Faith is in fully accepting and taking refuge in the knowledge, if you may, that you don’t know and that many things you will never know. To accept, as it is also rational, that you should live for the present because it is in the present that one can find true happiness. Happiness is not a location in time, happiness is is in the present. Only there can you be truly happy.
 

A Secular Easter?

 
Many Christians hold Easter to be the only reason for their beliefs. Indeed, the resurrection of Christ from the dead and his triumph over sin and evil is the most important event in the Christian calendar. It’s more important than Christmas as without Easter, or the resurrection, there would be no reason to celebrate the birth of Christ. I respect the belief in the resurrection of Christ. However, based on my background and what I have written earlier, I find that Easter has become more of a matter of tradition, for the believer and non-believer alike. Is this a bad thing? Of course, the meaning of Easter is radically different for the true believer in the resurrection and the non-believer. But then, as I try to reconcile these worlds, which, in a way, represent the younger me and the older me, can we find a common ground?
 
A fact that many remain unaware of is that Easter time was always significant  for different civilisations, and many pagan ones too. Indeed, the word ‘Easter’ itself derives from the name of an Assyrian deity, known in old Greek cults as Astarte, the goddess of sex and fertility. However, this belief in Astarte is also there because of another important event in early agriculturally based society. Easter time was also the beginning of Spring, when life can be renewed and food could be harvested after the long and cold  Winter period.
 
It is here that I dare find a way to bring the non-believer and believer closer together. For the resurrection of Christ is, for all intents and purposes, a renewal. A triumph of life over death. The transformation of the old and dead into the new and living. It’s our annual journey from the cold winter to the gentle spring in our lives. It’s an opportunity to grow and shed the old persons we were and find that we are more than we thought we are. In fact, we discover that the very act of defining ourselves is limiting who we are as whole human beings. 
 
Indeed, many times, we tend to judge things in terms of good or bad, without considering that things are not good or bad in themselves, rather what one learns from these experiences that makes a difference. The Buddha invites us to be masters of our own selves. Jesus invites us to take responsibility over our own lives. They both challenge us to be true to ourselves and not necessarily follow the law to conform and live a lie to remain safe and comfortable. This invitation is often missed and while I don’t claim to be right, I can say that, for the time being, I think  this way. My experiences have reinforced this conviction. I thought my visual impairment was the worse thing that could happen in my life, yet today it has opened my eyes to a richer life. 
 
Being a physically impaired boy was never easy, but I learned to be more open and receptive to people that others considered to be outcasts or ‘not of their kind’. It also made me to truly  understand what is meant to be ‘alienated’ in the sense that one becomes detached from his own society - similar to the worker in Marx who finds that his relation with what he manufactures is irreversibly broken and he simply becomes an object, not that different from the machine he’s using. It is that sense of being denied an individual identity that I identified with. Of being stripped of my claim to humanity itself. 
 
Today, I can say that my engagement with Buddhism has complemented the old Gordon and opened my heart and mind to a  new me who is not ashamed to assert that I accept my limitations as a human being but also know that I have strengths as well. I am also ready to admit that much of what I am today is not of my own making. Even this sense of identity and person who is writing this is, in a way, an illusion. An illusion that arises  out of an interplay between my brain and the senses. The world I live in is, thus, not as I perceive it to be. Although there’s no denying that my world from my perspective appears to be real. Yet, considering  that my sense of reality is dependent on so many factors, there’s room for doubt even about who is doing the writing. And it is here that I might look at Easter.
 

An  Empty Tomb:

 
The accounts about the resurrection of Jesus were written years after they occurred. Does that make them less credible? In a way, it does for the events taking place are a product of eye witness accounts. In a court, such evidence would be highly contestable. But does that make them of less value if they can’t be verified? Perhaps I’ve been asking the wrong questions all along. And considering the possibility of human error inn eyewitness accounts remains a stumbling block if one wants solid facts. But, then, can we ask another question. Is there another truth that we may be missing out on if we either accept or reject the resurrection?
 
I think  yes. For the resurrection, real or symbolic, represents a renewal and a transformation. The old is still there but the old is not there any more. In other words, we believe we are the same children who just grew up. But, even factually, our bodies have lost much of its old cells today. That is why we have grown. In my case, grown a little more. Yet, even our brains have changed and, thus, even our minds. In this sense, we are constantly dying and being born. To stop this process of renewal and growth is what death is. It is in this context that we can take the image of the empty tomb from a more secular point of view.
 
While we may fear to think about the tomb because it reminds us of our own impermanence and mortality, Jesus’ account redefines the symbol of the ‘tomb’ from an inevitable finality to a place of possibility. Indeed, our beings are empty of inherent existence, Buddhism says. This is not a bad thing because emptiness here must be taken to mean nothingness but is a liberation of sorts, an invitation to go beyond the limitations imposed on us by society and by our own thoughts. Indeed, the emptiness is an invitation to renew who we are. A plant will not grow where there are many plants that are taking all the nutrients and minerals. Only emptiness can make us whole by freeing us from our attachment to things that do not exist in their own right. Things that are always impermanent.
 
The empty tomb is like the womb of a mother who has just given birth. The tomb is no longer a symbol of death but a symbol of hope  in a better tomorrow. Here, a resurrected Christ. 
If the wasn’t emptiness but only fullness, the universe wouldn’t be possible. Change wouldn’t be possible. Emptiness gives us the opportunity to go beyond our boundaries but, at the same time, reminds us not to become so complacent with life because as we emerge from this emptiness, we are still one with emptiness. Our sense of who we are which appears to us to be so solid and tangible isn’t permanent. The possibility of death is not just in the death of the body but also in the death of the mind. The death of our humanity. In this light, the resurrection can mean something even for the non-believer.
 

Conclusion: A Dead God?

 
In the context of what I have said already, the resurrection resonates with our very humanity. We long for renewal. We fear to die. We hope In a tomorrow. Even if it’s not guaranteed that we find ourselves the next morning. Easter and the renewal brought about by Spring are evoked in our art, our science and in our faiths and beliefs. No matter what, even if we may be staunch non-believers, we still want to claim a little to the ever after. Deep inside, we seek to be remembered in one way or another in this life by others. It’s not relevant whether we continue living in the memories of people or in another state of existence, we seek to be remembered. The plain truth, however, is that in the distant future, no one of us will be remembered and there will be no humans in the universe. Where will we all go?
 
I cannot answer that question. For, in truth, if I think about it, not even the sense of who I am is as real and  rigid as I thought I was. Our bodies die, our minds change and our lives are finite. To me, discussing whether God  exists or not can’t be resolved in a debate of any sort. Is God really dead? Yes, the moment God becomes a word and a concept, yes, God is dead. In Judaism, it is forbidden to utter the name of God. Now I can understand why. For God is not to be understood. Indeed, God is not a being. God simply is. Moses was told that the voice speaking to him was  the “I am that I am!’. 
 
We’re wrong if we pretend to be able to define God or claim that we can accept or reject God without understanding that God, cannot be understood. In fact, by using the word I’m once again trying to own and lay claim to what I will never know or understand. And there is the death of God.
I know that not many will understand what I write, let alone agree with what I wrote here. I don’t even pretend I am right or correct in some things I wrote. I have tried to struggle with the question of existence and I know that I am wrong in so many ways. Yet if life has taught me anything and if Buddhism has taught me anything and if secularism has taught me anything is that we are called to live in the present. It’s the every day that we are invited to change and it’s at every moment of our existence that we can be happy and when we can grow.
 
It’s in this way that the Christian message ceases to be an exclusive message of Christians. It’s only in this way that a secular Easter is possible.
 
It is, at that point, when an empty tomb becomes a symbol of renewal and possibility. It’s there were admitting that God is dead is ironically an invitation to find the one “Who Is”! 
 
Thanks for reading through this very long  entry!

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