Thursday 2 April 2015

Easter Week, Part 4: Surely There Are Better Stories to Tell?

Today’s final reflection on the celebrations of Easter Week, and their source…

Let’s summarise. In Pagan times, Easter was the time in the Northern calendar when the coming of spring was celebrated -- the celebration of new life, of coming fecundity.  Hence the eggs and rabbits and celebrations of fertility. Indeed, the very word "Easter" comes from Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, and means, symbolically, the festival celebrating the rebirth of light after the darkness of winter.

But with the coming of Christianity, the celebration was hijacked to become this veneration of torture and sacrifice I talked about yesterday.  Remember here the true nature of sacrifice:

    “ ‘Sacrifice’ [says Rand] does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. ‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. ‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t.

That’s why of itself it’s barbaric. It is, to quote Nietzsche, a revolt of everything that crawls against everything that’s high.  That’s why the barbarity of the Christian sacrifice is so stark.

If it were true.  Because unfortunately, as PZ Myers points out, Jesus isn't even saving us from anything real, and even in the made-up story he makes no change in the world with his death.

And the story itself was not even original.  In the Norse myths (to quote just one of many similar myths) the head god Odin hung himself on the World Tree Yggdrasil—although not simply to sacrifice himself to himself, but to achieve greater understanding thereby. As the Icelandic Edda tells the story,

I ween that I hung of the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was,
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
what root beneath it runs.
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me to another word,
Each deed to another deed.

As Joseph Campbell observes,

No one can miss the parallels here to the Gospel themes of Jesus’ three hours on the Cross (3 x 3 = 9), the spear in his side, his death and resurrection, and the boon of redemption thereby obtained. The phrase “and offered I was/To Othin, myself to myself” is interesting in the light of the Christian dogma of Christ and the Father as One.

These are the sort of stories the Christian myth supplanted, as I mentioned in Part 1.  And in hijacking the pagan celebrations of spring,  they overtook a mostly joyful celebration of growth and fertility, of peace and new understanding, and added to it a new ingredient: the ethic of sacrifice -- the murder and torture of tall poppies -- the sacrifice of the Christian's highest possible for the sake of the meanest most rotten 'sinner,' whose redemption Christ's murder was supposed to buy.

For Christians, then, Easter is a time to revere that sacrifice and to remind themselves (and us) of the centrality of sacrifice to their fantasy. Oh yes, there's a 'rebirth' of sorts in their fantasy, but not one on this earth realm, and not before a celebration of intense pain and suffering that supposedly bought redemption and virtue for those who possessed neither. 

As Robert Tracinski says so bluntly, "Easter's Mixture of the Benevolent and the Horrific Reveals Religion's Antagonism to Human Life." And so it does.

BUT MYTHOLOGY IS A strange beast. It was, in ancient times, a form of pre-philosophical, metaphorical knowledge and inquiry. Joseph Campbell argues that “in thinking of the Crucifixion only in historical terms [Christians] lose the reference of the symbol immediately to [themselves].”

The metaphor obscured by the torture and bloodshed is still the one celebrated by all the myths of springtime, “"matching the bursting forth of flowers and the return of the sun … the plangent longing we experience at this season … very much the longing to be born anew the way nature is.”

The calculation of Easter’s date by reference to both lunar and solar calendars, to both sun and moon – the two largest beings of ancient life around which all of life was organised-- is a clue we’re talking about more than just a dead carpenter.

All these elements fit together … What we have to recognise is that these celestial bodies represented to the ancients two different modes of eternal life, one engaged in the field of time, like throwing off death, as the moon it’s shadow, to be born again; the other, disengaged and eternal…
    [Other folk symbols have similar lunar and solar resonations]. There is, to begin with, the rabbit, the Easter bunny… The rabbit is associated with the dying and resurrection of the moon.  The egg is shelled off by the chicks as the shadow of the moon is the moon reborn …

In short, the overarching pagan metaphor is a call to change, or at least renewal. ‘Cos as Bob Dylan liked to say, “He not being busy being born is busy dying.”

It’s this spirit that the composer Richard Wagner tried to capture in his beautiful Good Friday Spell music, part of the culminating wonder of his final opera Parsifal:

THE PAGAN METAPHOR undergirds the Christian, giving it whatever real life it has.

I can’t help pointing out here there is another story standing in complete contrast to the Christian story of torture and sacrifice, that is in all senses its polar opposite. A much, much better story to tell and retell.

Unlike the anti-heroes of Bach's Passion--who murder their hero in a vain attempt to save their desiccated souls—or Dostoyevsky’s—who torture themselves with thoughts of a “malevolent universe” in which they are “trapped”--the heroes of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead shun sacrifice and venerate their own human powers on this earth.

The hero of that novel, Howard Roark, appears in court in a similar position dramatically in which Bach places his own hero. Thrown to the mob and fighting for his life in court, rather than acquiesce as Bach’s hero does, Roark states instead—as clearly and categorically as he knows how—his own terms.

    “I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.
    "I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.
    "It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.
    "I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man's creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavor. Those of you who do not understand this are the men who're destroying the world.
    "I wished to come here and state my terms. I do not care to exist on any others.
    "I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society.”

Instead of embracing the sacrifice demanded by the mob, as Paul and the Christian writers who followed him had their hero do, this hero rejects it. Rejects it emphatically.

The contrast to the other story is stark,wouldn’t you say?

The ethic of The Fountainhead, one for which each of the leading characters fights in their own way, is one in which genius has the right to live for its own sake.  The contrast with the demand of Christianity that The Good inheres in the act of suffering and dying for the expiation of others could not be stronger, or the question more important!  Rather than demanding and worshipping the sacrifice of the highest to the lowest -- or as Nietzsche did, retaining the ethic but reversing the beneficiary of the sacrifice by demanding the sacrifice of the lowest to the highest -- the ethic of The Fountainhead insists that The Good is not to suffer and to die, but to enjoy yourself and live -- without any sacrifice at all of anyone to anyone else.

In my book, that really is an ethic worthy of reverence.

NOW, I'M ALL TOO aware that if you believe the Christian's Easter Myth, then anything I say here is going to pass right by you.  So if you do insist on venerating sacrifice this weekend, and especially if you're intending a bit of crucifixion yourself, or even just a bit of mildly flogging or self-torture, then here are a few simple Easter Safety Tips for you from the Church, which are not unfortunately intended as satire.

And now, for all the bureaucrats who will be working tomorrow while insisting that others don’t, here's that Nick Kim cartoon again ...


Have a happy holiday!

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