Recently, I asked Anonymous Agnostic asked me the following question:
Do you think there are stories as/more inspiring as/than the story of Jesus death and resurrection?
Their response included them firing it straight back at me:
“What would you say to that question? I assume you do think it’s the most inspiring, but why?”
Here’s my answer…
The first thing I would say is that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred 2,000 years ago – which is approximately 50,000 years into our history as a species if modern scientific theory is correct, and about 4,000 years after humans first began to communicate. In those 6,000 years we have gone on a journey from primitive understanding of the world around us and of each other to a more complex and nuanced understanding.
This nuanced understanding includes a recognition that the elements do not appear to be “controlled” by a deity whom we need to please. It includes a recognition that women, far from being a weak yet necessary accessory to mankind’s survival, are a vital and wonderful part of the human race.
What I find interesting about the first of those two examples is that while we claim we are more enlightened, we may be surprised to discover that we are not! Whilst we may be convinced that there is no deity causing it to rain when he is happy that we have donated enough crops to him by burning them on an altar, we do find ourselves suffering the consequences of abusing the world in which we live such that it is beginning to take its toll on us and threatens our survival in many parts of the world. Perhaps our arrogance betrays us?
You’re probably wondering where this is going! What I am trying to say is that it can be tempting to value one story ahead of another because it seems more “progressive” and less “barbaric”, and I think we have to consider the inspiration in context. That said, it is impossible to exist totally outside of our current context, and so would be impossible to judge every story in this way.
In your answer, you rightly narrowed down your response to stories about God/gods. I don’t think I explicitly said that had to be the case, but it does beg the question – what is inspiration in a totally godless world? It is possibly a byproduct of my Christian upbringing, but when I think of a truly godless reality I can only reach an existentialist conclusion of there being nothing to be inspired by or for. If there is no purpose beyond “science”, “maths” and “chance”, then I find reality rather unappealing.
All of which brings me to the following question: what kind of God(s) are we talking about?
The God who told the Israelites to commit genocide, and who insisted they follow his ways, for fear of judgement?
The God who told the Muslims they had to obey his every command if they were to have a chance at eternal life?
The Gods who teach you a lesson by reincarnating you as a lesser being if you aren’t good enough in this life?
The Man who taught that your story ended in euphoric bliss when you reached Nirvana – nothingness and total detachment?
The God who allows the murder of his own Son?
Or the God who brought his people out of slavery and to the promised land?
The God who demands only loyalty, peace and devotion in return for eternal bliss?
The Gods who teach that you can make amends for your mistakes, and be rewarded for your good deeds?
The Man who taught that you could move beyond pain and suffering?
The God who says “enough” to the system of sacrifice, and allows any and all to know him with far greater depth than could possibly be imagined?
I think that there is inspiration to be taken from all of the stories of God/gods/great men and women who have been spoken about throughout history. I am suspicious of my own perception of the Christian God because of course I want that god to be the God, the one who matches my liberal, post-modern and progressive values with his inclusive religion. However, as much as I can look into these other religions, they seem to fall back on rules, regulations, actions and consequences – with the possible exception of Buddhism. So being my usual analytical self I want to narrow it down to those three possibilities.
The universe is as it is – there is nothing more out there, but you are the result of thousands of years of evolution, chance, and mutation. That is, in and of itself beautiful.
I cannot, no matter how hard I try, get away from the idea that this leads to pointlessness, existentialism, nihilism and hedonism. None of which are appealing. So for totally emotive and experiential reasons I am going to reject this story!
Which leaves us with Buddhism and Christianity. My knowledge of Buddhism isn’t fantastic, but it seems to me as though there’s a lot of overlap between its teachings and those of Christianity – as you alluded to in your response. What Buddhism doesn’t have is hope.
I think that hope is what gives the resurrection its power. We can argue forever about the death of Christ – was it penal substitution? was it a metaphor? how does it “work”? did Jesus go to “hell”? All of those questions are immaterial if Jesus simply died. Yes, we would have peace with God, but that is all we would have. If we want peace with God and with the world around us, we can get that through meditative practises or through whatever paradigm our context – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other world religion – requires of us to do to achieve this such feeling. That is, I think it is the context which defines the kind of peace that is needed.
Equally we can debate about the life of Christ. Did he mean chop off your hand? Why didn’t he mention homosexuality? Do we really have to sell all of our actual possessions? What if we do deny the Holy Spirit? What does that even mean?
But the fact that Jesus, a man, died, was buried and gone – somehow goes beyond death and comes back to life, in this life with a memory and a body and everything that could be expected of a human being. That gives us the hope that there is more. It validates his teaching and it vindicates his death – even if it is a death of substitutionary atonement! But primarily it gives us hope that there is more. There is a Kingdom of Heaven. There is a life in which the wrongs of this world are put right. There is a chance to experience bliss without detachment, new life without memory loss. There is hope for the one thing that humans have not stopped chasing since our ability to think: eternal, blissful life. I’m not convinced it can possibly get more inspiring than that!