Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter in a Corner of Unitarian Land

I am not an Easter believer. That is to say, whilst I like the optimism that says there'll be a new dawn after all your struggles, I don't think it is centred, or caused, in the Easter story. Rather the Easter story reflects the bumpy nature of difficult and released from the difficult nature of living that is just a fact of chaotic life. It's the old one of the seed dies and a plant emerges.

A new chap at our church, the third new face in recent weeks, has responded to a universalist aspect of a recent advert, and he's very much of the 'all religions point in the same direction' school, with a background of astrology and belief patterns that Christianity is but one example. After two weeks he thinks Unitarians are one-by-one factions - we don't see the great big picture. I say there is no way around the diversity issue if you are going to argue, whereas there are side effects of, say, having a more Baha'i emphasis on uniformity. But he has me a subject here to tackle in my service on the 29th. Today, though, was Easter Sunday.

Our preacher from Wakefield said how his home base would be ignoring the day, but he would not, nor would he do the "cop out" of some Unitarians, which is just to talk about how spring is here again and there is new life emerging. And he said that as a strong supporter of the Pagan Federation. We had some of the green stuff but mainly a focus on the claims that Christians make. I agree with this: we should tackle the claims.

First he said that no Jesus history is without the spin of the believers who wrote the gospels from two generations later. The preacher's message seemed to be that the empty tomb stories were variable, but had credibility because the evidence was provided by women, and if you were to concoct that story for the believers then you'd have men at the tomb and of higher status. Trouble is, he said, we don't know what happened. As for Paul's either all or nothing statement, that's tough on Paul and the rest - rather, the teachings are what live on, just as our contributions to life will live on in a much smaller way.

To me, this is incomplete, and something of a cop out itself! I'm afraid that the demands of the new attender in the conversation took us all off in one direction of unity in diversity rather than a critical examination of the sermon's stance. I know one member said something first but I didn't catch it as I came from the music producing corner a little after folks had gathered.

My view is that it is precisely the use of women that allows the answer to the question of why early Christians didn't visit a tomb and had no interest in visiting a tomb. Indeed, of course, the first of the resurrected implies a reanimated regenerated body and the new Chritian community believed in some had received a vision and then Jesus had ascended and thus there would be no more apparently regular appearances. Those in authority were now set. The point is that the first tomb story, that in Mark, has women as the evidence providers AND it says they were told not to tell anyone. That's the point: why the tomb was only a later tradition affirming materiality. Mark himself leaves the resurrection open to stark mystery. After that comes embellishment in the other gospels, and the fact that all mention a tomb emptied is neither here nor there. But the emphasis in Paul (who does not mention a tomb), and is by far the earliest writing, is on appearances, as indeed in later gospels; and these appearances in total are to do with the future, authority, ritual and getting the message right (when they 'see' Jesus).

Paul also is parading resurrection as a salvation theology, which is a new twist on the expectations, and this is the all or nothing. The context is the end times and the awaited resurrection of all, which will get going when the first of the resurrected is transformed into the messianic and returned complete Son of Man, now God's only son - a time also when the titles of Jesus are being escalated, and when quickly some form of binitarianism is being developed (among believing Jews as well as Gentiles). Newer scholarship emphasises speed of change.

Religions have charismatic periods at their renewing, emerging, forward looking stages before things fail to happen and tradition starts to take over. This two generations aspect of the gospels is a bit misleading, as the new stories and escalating responses were bubbling up and out rapidly amongst the first believers. I'd also suggest that the Greek influence (mentioned in the service without clarity) is there in the Septuagint and immediately is involved in the framing and content of the stories of the gospels: that if Jesus spoke the rough Greek as well as Aramaic (I'd argue that he did), as other Jews did, then the Greek influence in amongst the Jews is ready for input too, never mind among the Gentiles looking for a monotheism beyond the Law.

The point is that all this is a cultural view of religious formation. What is 'all or nothing' is that once Jesus is dead then he is either the Jesus-followers' Messiah to come or he is nothing. There was immediately a family firm to protect his legacy. There was also a critical cultural breakout that therefore escaped the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. There were many Jesuses and last days movements and preachers at the time; it's just that they didn't break out. The disciples, we are told, got out of the way of the death scene, and the suffering servant will have done his task to the bitter end. They had to deal with the extent of the service and sacrifice, and had to wait for the response of God.

Now you can believe this is supernaturally driven, with a Godly hand on the tiller of history, or it is purely cultural. Frankly, a Godly hand on the tiller is subject to the same criticisms as why such a hand on the tiller didn't occur at other times in our destructive human history when needed. Indeed, I'd say that God was as absent in the crucifixion event as has been in any other event of our evolved lives. That's because he doesn't exist. But it is anyway unnecessary to have this additional supernatural explanation because these folks believed in all sorts of magical and supernatural things, and lived in times of intense stress and persecution and drove the thing themselves.

There is a Unitarian view that sort of says Jesus's beliefs were so remarkable and powerful that these motivated the disciples to teach them on, once met by the spirit (either understood realistically or metaphorically). I don't go by this at all. He had reverse ethical ideas about the Kingdom, which is what interests us, as an idealism, now, but the motivation, the engine, is the last days, the reality soon coming. He could have believed all sorts of things. The reason we get any of this is the proto-orthodox material after Paul, for which Unitarianism is a Reformation revision. Unitarianism is not a 'religion of Jesus' coming after and alongside a 'religion about Jesus'; it is as much about Jesus as the rest. Yes, the ethics matter, but the ethics of Islam are rather mixed (communitarian but fierce to enemies) and many find that an attractive package of submission and power.

My own view is a comparative uninterest in Jesus, after all. The attractive ethics stand alone, and yes have to be lived. But as a cultural phenomenon it stands with others. I think the Buddhist path is a more direct one. There are newer more inclusive paths than expressed by Jesus (who was tribal after all - he focused on the future for Jews first). So by this stance I find my spirituality in a broader canvas, and it doesn't need a quest for uniformity with others. I'll discuss with anyone. I'll take my service too.

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