Easter Sunday: Living in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
In a liberal religious context the writing of an Easter Sunday address remains, for me anyway, one of the most difficult things to do even though, at first sight, it might appear rather an easy task. After all, for many philosophical, theological, historical and scientific reasons I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse with you right now, most of us here today no longer find at all plausible the idea that the bodily resurrection of Christ really occurred and this should, or so the accepted liberal religious wisdom has it, free someone like me to write about the story as simply a metaphor.

To some extent I think that’s right and today I could have given any number of perfectly serviceable addresses relating to metaphorical resurrections of the spirit.

But this approach has recently given me pause because I realise it all too easily allows me to make a strong type of truth-claim that I’m increasingly unhappy to make, namely, that stories such as those surrounding Easter, beautiful though they may be, are just or only captivating surface illusions, behind which hides an inner, or underlying, static body of truth that I can know in a direct, non-illusory way as the really-real.

Recently, in another, related, context a good friend and helpful critic of mine, the philosopher Ed Mooney, reminded me that whenever I am tempted to say that something or other is really just or only an illusion, this “plays into the hand of letting the skeptical hard-materialist have all the say about what’s real or not”.

If I do this in connection with Easter and the resurrection then there is a real danger that I’ll end up saying  something like, “That beautiful open A played on the cello was really only vibrations at 220 Hz assaulting our ear-drums”.

We all know that when that “A” forms an integral part of a great and beautifully played melody it’s ridiculous to reduce it simply to some hard materialist fact — in this case vibrations at 220 Hz. It is vibrations at 220 Hz but it is clearly not only that.

Here we begin to see more clearly why whenever the hard-materialist tendency is pressed too far we begin to loose sight of something very important but ineffable that significantly diminishes our ability to live as fully as we might in this extraordinary and mysterious world of ours.

But, as with all ineffable things, it can be astonishingly difficult to get enough of a grip on what this “something” is so as to be able to bring it before you in comprehensible (enough) words for your consideration. However, last week as I was reading Raoul Vaneigem’s famous book connected with the upheavals in France of May 1968, the Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations (English trans: “The Revolution of Everyday Life”), I came across a story that seems to me to do the job remarkably well.

Indian Rope Trick (Wikipedia)
From the ruins of Heaven, humanity fell into the ruins of its own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir’s rope rise into the air, while so many cameras prove that it hasn’t moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope of absolutely no interest. I have little inclination to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me. A reality which I have no grasp of—isn’t this just the old lie recycled, the highest stage of mystification? From now on the analysts are in the streets. Lucidity is not their only weapon. Their thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats” (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, PM Press, Oakland, 2012, p. 7).

When his insight is brought close to the Easter stories and you replace the coiled rope with the dead body of Christ in his final grave you will, I hope, see what I mean.

I realise that, wherever Christ’s dead body now lies which, as a religious naturalist I’m pretty sure it does, I find it, as a dead body, of absolutely no interest at all. It’s not interesting because it’s no different to any other dead body — a dead body is, in itself, an utterly unremarkable, even tedious, natural fact. To be sure I would experience some real archeological/historical/anthropological interest in actually finding Christ’s body but that it is a dead body is, itself, uninteresting; it’s just what I’d expect to find.

But Vaneigem’s words help me see, never more so than on this Easter Sunday morning and in this liberal religious setting, that I have little inclination to choose between, on the one hand, the tedium of contemplating the materialist reality of a dead body which does not concern me and, on the other hand, the doubtful pleasure of being mystified by some supernatural bodily resurrection that you will find proclaimed in many other churches today.

Unless there is something more to Easter than either mere material fact on the one hand and mere mystification on the other then, to be frank, I’d really rather forget the whole thing and go and do something else instead.

As we know, most people in our modern culture who have come down on the materialist side of things have chosen to do just this and no longer have anything to do with religion at all. But, alas, on the other side of the equation, those in our culture who have decided that there is something more to Easter than this are, for the most part, far too preoccupied (for me at least) with encouraging in people the doubtful pleasure of being mystified.

I really don’t find either of these two options at all attractive and what I want to do today is ask you to consider whether an attempt simultaneously to push against them helps reveal an ineffable something in between them which gets lost when we land too firmly on either side?

I think the answer is “Yes” and why I think this begins to emerge if we consider Vaneigem’s thought that, when we do actually push simultaneously against these two tendencies, our “thinking is no longer in danger of being imprisoned, either by the false reality of gods or by the false reality of technocrats.”

Now, I’m sure don’t need to rehearse with you the dangers of being imprisoned by the false reality of gods because most people who come to a church such as this generally do so because they wish finally to be free from this false reality and the accompanying, doubtful pleasure of being mystified by those wanting to make certain, strong, supernaturalist claims.

However, because most of us here have such a high opinion of the scientific method and approach we most certainly need to rehearse the dangers of being seduced by the false reality of technocrats.

To see why this is the case we need firstly to know what Vaneigem seems to mean by “a technocrat”. Broadly speaking, the word “technocrat” simply refers to any person who exercises authority because of the technical knowledge they possess but, for Vaneigem, it seems to have a specific and highly negative connotation and refers to any person who advocates the supremacy of technical experts who subscribe to what is called “scientism”. Scientism is the “belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints” (my emphasis, source: Wikipedia).

The danger is that we, who wish to escape being imprisoned by the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified, and who value the scientific method as a way of protecting us from this fate, come to believe the technocrats are right and that the true and only answer to life the universe and everything is to be found through a hard-materialist, skeptical interpretation and application of the scientific method.

But to do this, as I hope you can see, is merely to jump from the frying pan of those promulgating the false reality of gods and the doubtful pleasure of being mystified into the tedious fire of those promulgating the false reality of technocrats — of saying to the cellist that their open A is just vibrations at 220 Hz.

I hope you can see that we really do need to be mapping out some free, open and creative territory that lies between these two, imprisoning options.

To bring us to a temporary close let me draw once again on some perspicacious comments by my friend Ed Mooney and very briefly walk round the matter in a different and more obviously grounded way.

Ed points out that for human beings reality is anomalous. That is to say it is always-already “of uncertain nature or classification” and “marked by incongruity or contradiction” (Merriam-Webster). This is because we are creatures that engage with and understand the world in many, complex, overlapping interpenetrating ways; ways that are symbolic, poetic, fictive, figurative and metaphorical and also ways that are derived from the use of the scientific method and approach.

Let’s take water. For our culture water is unbelievably rich in symbolic meaning and never more so than at Easter in which water is intimately connected with ideas of baptism, renewal and new life. Now, when I use water in this church as part of a naming ceremony for a new-born child and I say to them and those gathered about, “this water is a symbol of the purity with which you were born” the hard-materialist skeptic (the technocrat) will be interrupting destructively our perception of the whole event if they pretentiously informed us that we were not really seeing “water-as-purity” but only seeing H2O, or that we were only really having our retinas bombarded by atoms.

But, and here’s Ed’s vitally important point, if there’s no real case here where we might be deceived, and if it’s preposterous to think that here we are ever deceived in this way, then it’s preposterous to tell me that seeing water as a symbol of purity alongside knowing it in scientific ways is an illusion.

Which thought finally brings me back to the ineffable something I mentioned at the beginning of this address.

It is the feeling that in a church like this a space (clearing) can be opened up where no one is deceived — a place of genuine freedom and human creativity which knowingly remains in-between the binary opposites and absolute either/ors that are all too often offered up to us by our "leaders" as being the only way to proceed. It is a space where people can learn how constantly to be moving between poetic and scientific paradigms with graceful ease, allowing each of them in their endless push and pull to show up for us the richest and freest possible kind of human life we can have. It is a place where it is possible simultaneously to play with the thought that the resurrection never happened and that it also always happens.

If we can find ways to begin daily to inhabit this in-between space then it seems to me possible that for each of us a new form of liberal human life really can rise up from the old, one which bursts beautifully and life-affirmingly forth in between the doubtful pleasures of a mysterious supernatural heaven and the tedium of contemplating the hard, material reality of the grave.

Happy Easter to you all.

—o0o—

Through out the writing of this address some words of Wittgenstein's were constantly in my mind. They seem to have something important to say in connection with my own feelings about Easter expressed above. I didn't refer to them as I gave the address but they can be added here:

Ludwig Wittgenstein MS 120, 12 December 1937
Culture and Value (rev. ed.), Oxford 2006, Blackwell Publishing pp. 38-39e

What inclines me even to believe in Christ’s resurrection? I play as it were with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like every human being. He is dead & decomposed. In that case he is a teacher, like any other & can no longer help; & and we are once more orphaned and alone. And we have to make do with wisdom & speculation. It is as though we are in a hell, where we can only dream & are shut out from heaven, roofed in as it were. But if I am to be REALLY redeemed, – I need certainty – not wisdom, dreams, speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul, needs, not my speculative intellect. For my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, must be redeemed, not my abstract mind. Perhaps one may say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What fights doubt is, as it were redemption. Holding fast to it must be holding fast to that belief. So this means: first be redeemed and hold tightly to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding on to is this belief. So this can only come about if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do.
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