What happens (to Easter) when we can no longer rely on spring?
Easter is rapidly approaching and, because I will be away on leave at that time (thanks to the kindness of the congregation whom I serve) for the first time in my 23 years of ministry I won’t be conducting either the Good Friday Communion Service, or the service on Easter Sunday. In accord with the church’s long-standing, liberal, free religious tradition I, of course, have no authority to tell its members what they must (or must not) be saying in the short addresses and/or thoughts for the day they might choose to offer each other. But I am empowered by them to make suggestions when I think there is something important at stake. And this week we can all clearly see something unimaginably important is at stake.
On Monday of last week, the spring equinox coincided with the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC), frankly frightening, final part of its sixth assessment report. For those of you who did not read the IPCC report itself, or read any articles about it, it makes it clear that everything, but everything is at stake: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
In the Liberal Christian tradition as a whole — the tradition, of course, out of which this local Unitarian church comes — as belief in the literal reality of the Resurrection (of Jesus) began to disappear during the eighteenth century, at Easter, its preachers began to talk more and more about the Resurrection in clearly metaphorical, and increasingly naturalist, terms. The Resurrection became, quite straightforwardly, a metaphor for spring, the season during which, out of the apparent death that comes during winter, there eternally springs forth new life. I’m sure most of you have, at one time or another, been to Liberal Christian Easter services that have done just this.
For a good couple of hundred years this move has proved reasonably effective for its churches and ministers because it has allowed them to continue to claim that, alongside their commitment to the natural and human sciences, they were simultaneously able to remain in meaningful continuity with the challenging Easter proclamation made by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:12-14):
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (NRSV).
But let’s be honest about this. Who, today, within the theologically liberal churches, at least — let alone within wider British, European, and North American society — really thinks St Paul is saying anything even vaguely plausible here? Of course, as historians of religion we can, and should, try to understand something of how and why Paul said what he said, and how and why his claim might have seemed plausible to people in earlier times and different cultures. As sociologists or anthropologists of religion we can, and should, also try to understand something of why many people today continue to believe St Paul’s claim despite the wealth of evidence against it. But, in Liberal Christian circles we, today, need to acknowledge that almost no one thinks St Paul’s claim is literally true. So why, at Easter, doesn’t Liberal Christianity more often come out and explicitly reject Paul on this point?
Well, I’m reasonably certain it’s because of the sheer, attractive power of the metaphor that the Resurrection is really all about spring. The Liberal Christian tradition may well no longer believe in the Resurrection à la St Paul but, as a religious tradition committed to the natural and social sciences, it most certainly does believe in spring and the natural cycle of life that undergirds it. And, since in its mind, Resurrection is now spring, and spring is now Resurrection, it has, as of yet, felt no pressing need to reject or let go of its celebration of the Christian Easter. In short, for Liberal Christianity, the Resurrection and spring continue to go together like a horse and carriage.
But now, in the context of the IPCC’s report, Liberal Christianity faces a massive problem. What happens when it realizes it can no longer rely upon the coming of spring? What happens when the horse suddenly threatens to become detached from the carriage?
It seems indisputable to me that Liberal Christianity’s ability to continue to celebrate Easter relies entirely upon being able to continue to believe in spring. The reality of spring carries all the weight in its celebration of Easter, and the Resurrection is, today, simply its own local tradition’s mythical, anthropomorphic clothing and colour. At this point, I want to be clear that I don’t reject the use of such mythical, anthropomorphic clothing and colour because, along with one of my heroes, the political theorist and philosopher, Jane Bennett, I’m certain that the careful use of anthropomorphization has a hugely valuable role to play in helping us better to understand, and emotionally connect, with nature naturing, nature-doing-what-nature-does (natura naturans). Personifying spring as the risen Christ, as the “Anglo-Saxon” goddess Eostre, from whom, of course, we get the name Easter, or as Venus/Aphrodite — my own preferred personification of spring (and, indeed, natura naturans) — this seems fine . . . in very careful moderation, that is.
But the IPCC report makes it clear that the coming of spring — indeed the coming of any season — once so reliable and life sustaining, is now radically threatened by our continued, self-destructive commitment to a way of life that is proving to be little more than a death cult based, as it is, on suicidally excessive fossil fuel use and the fantasy of infinite, economic growth.
Some two-hundred years ago, the Liberal Christian tradition found a creative way to deal with its loss of belief in the literal Resurrection that St Paul once claimed was essential to true faith. It discovered it wasn’t essential. But what it did discover, via the metaphor that Resurrection is spring and spring is Resurrection, was that spring and, the natural cycle of life that undergirds it, assuredly was essential. All life relies upon it. For the Liberal Christian tradition, it was a beautiful and serendipitous fact that the season of spring was able to be woven seamlessly together with the myth of the risen Christ. It is a beautiful and serendipitous fact that the same is also true in connection with the “Anglo-Saxon” goddess Eostre and Venus/Aphrodite, not to mention the many, many other personifications of spring around the globe.
The truth is that we can all live faithfully and fully without the literal Christian resurrection — there is, after all, two thousand years of evidence to back up this claim. Consequently, on this point, we can assuredly say that St Paul was utterly wrong. But, but, but, without spring and the natural cycle of the life that undergirds it, we lose not only all our beautiful spring myths and festivals, but all life itself, forever.
My plea is, therefore, that anything we say to each other this Easter and, indeed, every Easter following, no longer defaults to reciting poems and readings in a fashion that suggest we can all rest secure in the knowledge that spring is assuredly coming. Belief that this return is eternally assured is, as of today, frankly as implausible as belief in the literal resurrection of Christ. To continue to believe this is now dangerous, very, very dangerous.
Consequently, from now on, all our words at Easter — and, indeed, at all other times of the year — must surely be dedicated to persuading as many people, as fast as possible, to abandon their commitment to a way of life that is, as I have just said, nothing more than a death cult and, instead, to encourage them to adopt much simpler, more compassionate, nature-reverencing and affirming ways of life. Nothing less is sufficient for our time and circumstances.
I think the answer to my question — at least my personal answer to the question — is that we can no longer rely on Easter and that this, in turn, reveals that liberal Christianity is just wrong or, at least, a dead end. It’s really a religious naturalism that has continued to find value (and I think, a kind of performative pleasure — there’s nothing, necessarily, wrong with that) in the local mythical, anthropomorphic clothing and colour of Christianity. But it’s not Christianity; it is a form of religious naturalism. Naturally, however, I don’t demand that anyone agrees with me on this point.
You mention Nancy McDonald Ladd’s book, ‘After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism,’ which I found very helpful and good. I introduced the Cambridge Congregation to her work back in January, 2020, in a piece called: “It is no longer I who pursue philosophy, but rather repentance that thinks through me”—A meditation on an insight of Tanabe Hajime’s. Last year, I also suggested that we read the book together as a congregation. Alas, only one person thought it was worth doing! Anyway, I do recommend Ladd’s book with one important caveat that relates to your point about Louise Rogers offering to bring back UU literature to the UK. The thing is that the UUA is actually a very different liberal religious ecosystem than our own. There are, of course, important links/intersections/overlaps etc. between us, but the UUA is a religious tradition which comes from, and has grown and developed in, a very different culture to that found in liberal religion in the UK. So all US books need to be read holding this in mind — they need translating.
And, lastly, re the Cambridge Unitarian Church library. Many years ago, before I was minister, there was a system for formal borrowing, but it was long defunct by the time I arrived in 2000. Basically, anyone can borrow anything on trust that they’ll return it. The library is interesting, but it’s mainly composed of books published between the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War. In other words, valuable and informative though they are in their own way, they belong to the period of the local Cambridge church’s founders and that world-view has, as I said, simply melted into air. So please borrow anything that looks intriguing, but the chances are they will not speak straightforwardly to our own age and its challenges.
Lastly, here’s Nancy McDonald Ladd’s list of things we have done for which she thinks the Unitarian/Universalist tradition desperately needs to repent and seek atonement:
[For having a] profound and sometimes naive faith in the upward trajectory of history, guided by an equally profound and equally naive faith in humanity’s capacity to affect that upward trajectory of change.
This faith in human capacity, while abstractly universalist in character, is mostly circumscribed around a very specific set of people — usually a small circle of uniformly elite, largely male, and overwhelmingly white intellectuals — who personally construct a broadly stated vision that lays claim to their ultimate loyalty.
A habit of parachuting in from out of town or out of context on projects of benevolent paternalism that are not grounded in authentic relationship to the communities in which such reforms are planted.
An inability or persistent refusal on the part of the privileged reformers to place themselves within their social location or to acknowledge and atone for the ways in which they have benefited from the oppression of others.