Every Easter season I take time to think about why I’m a Christian. I ask myself if I’d be a Christian had my parents not raised me in the church. And I think I would. The Christian myth speaks to my heart and my mind. Now before you object to my use of the word myth, let me explain. I use that term not in the sense of something untrue or something we tell only children about, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. I mean it as explanatory story—in fact, the story behind all stories. For me, it is the story that makes the most sense of the world as I experience it. It is true in the deepest way a story can be true.
I put in my time as an atheist—about twenty years, as I recall. When I left the Catholic seminary after eight years, I chucked it all—felt I had been duped by a patriarchal religion. I immersed myself in Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus. Later I studied Eastern thought, especially Zen Buddhism, which doesn’t require a god. I hummed along OK until my divorce. That broke me. I didn’t go back to “Christianity” (or Christianism, as Gore Vidal called it) with my tail between my legs. I met a woman who introduced me to the Lord, slowly and gently. That relationship made all the difference.
I know that some say God is a crutch—a belief people cling to because they need assurance of an afterlife. “How can you face death without belief?” they say. The answer is heroically. My best friend Frank remained an atheist till the end. He said he could never find enough convincing evidence to believe otherwise. His oncologist found his bravery so inspiring that he came to his memorial service to share it with others. I understand that Carl Sagan died the same way. So no, life without God is not hopeless or impossible. It can be lived courageously.
So what is so captivating about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Some say that stories of the death and resurrection of a great hero predate the Christian story by thousands of years. They claim that the Jesus story borrows from them. I see it the other way around. Those other stories prefigure the Jesus story, where they meet their final revelation, because the hero’s journey (or heroine’s journey, as the case may be) is hard-wired into us. Joseph Campbell was on to something. Why do stories like the original Star Wars, Gladiator, the first Matrix resonate so much with us? I think they’re in our DNA.
During Holy Week, I’m reminded what compelling drama the last days of Jesus’ life are. Betrayed by a dear disciple with a kiss, no less; abandoned by all the rest of his friends (only the women were brave enough to hang on to the end); tried by a kangaroo court; sentenced to a death so horrific that a new word had to be invented to describe that kind of pain (excruciating—from the cross).
And then the resurrection. No bombastic special effects as we might see in a movie. Quiet, thoughtful. Again it’s the women who find out first. One hugs him. The men are still hiding out. (“I never knew the guy,” as Peter had said.) What is Jesus’ first act as a risen savior? He asks his friends for a bite to eat. Later, he appears on the beach and cooks breakfast for them. And what does he ask us to do? Not an arm-long list of do’s and dont’s as a religion might. He tells us to love one another as he loves us. And remember him in the bread and the wine.
The simplest, most prosaic elements of life are imbued with cosmic significance. And the result? As C.S. Lewis said, “We are surprised by joy.”
Happy Easter to all my family and friends.