Easter for Unbelievers

In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.

Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.

The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,

Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.

Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.

One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.

But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.

The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.

St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.

I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.

But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.

There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.

But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.

In that spirit, happy Easter to all!



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