[Note, June 2016: This post was written at a critical juncture of my life, when I was wrestling with the extent to which I could or should call myself a Christian. While some of the questions left open in the post below are no longer open questions for me, I leave the post here as is out of respect for my journey and the rightful place of doubt, questioning, and wrestling with God in all of our spiritual journeys.]
Last weekend, I went to see a special exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario of the works of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. Bacon, though not a man of faith, was particularly taken with the image of the crucifixion. In an interview with the BBC, he stated, “I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behaviour to another.” Reflecting on this in her book The Art of Cruelty (Norton: 2011, p.176), Maggie Nelson writes, “In short, if you remove the story of the Passion, if you remove the radiant, suffering face and body of Jesus, if you remove the specter of a miraculous Resurrection, you are left with an act of bald cruelty — a situation of meat — and some aggregate of its victims, perpetrators, witnesses, and accomplices.”
Through the lens of Christian faith, or alternately, through the lens of two thousand years of cultural reflection on Christian faith, this may certainly seem the case. But is it? Does a purely humanist reading of the crucifixion have to be nothing more than “meat”?
I don’t think this is necessarily true at all. It seems to me that Bacon was saying more than he intended. From a purely humanist perspective, the crucifixion was certainly an act of man’s behaviour to another, of the human capacity to inflict suffering on others, but, taking the human elements of the story at face value, the flip side is also true: Jesus is as much an agent in the story as he is a patient, as much actor as acted upon. To follow Nelson’s analogy, if the cow being led to the slaughterhouse walks with eyes open, head high, and refusing escape, her death is no longer simply “a situation of meat” but is transformed into something different, something dignified and beautiful, an act of self-sacrifice, of giving her life for the life of others. Similarly, the crucifixion is “just an act of man’s behaviour to another” but viewed from Jesus’ perspective, that “act” is an act of humility and grace, not cruelty, an act that counters the human capacity for cruelty with the equally human capacity for grace. This transforms it into an act of judgment, revealing the injustice not only of the execution of an innocent man, but also of the entire Roman political system, the Temple-Industrial economic complex in Jerusalem, and collusion of religious and political authorities (For more on this, see Fr. Stephen Freeman’s brilliant reflection here.)
Looking at the broader narrative of Jesus, this “act of man’s behaviour to another” transforms his story from that of just another religious pseudo-revolutionary to that of a man whose death was the fullest demonstration of his own teaching, a hard teaching about the nature and demands of love, grace, and compassion in human communities, and a teaching that was directed not just at them (whoever that them might be in any age and place) but always at us, a teaching that saw that, in the famous words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts” (The Gulag Archipeligo, IV.1), that political and systemic revolution is pointless without first a revolution of the human heart.
And all this is true without reference to resurrection or glory, no matter what else might be true of this man Jesus.
I have been reflecting on these things this Holy Saturday for a variety of reasons. First of all, it seems appropriate to reflect on Christ’s death, simply as a death, on this day of liturgical or narrative limbo. But secondly, I’ve had a couple of friends this week who reacted to my attending Holy Week commemorations this year with not just surprise, but a kind of aggressive unbelief. And as I listened (or, let’s be honest, half-listened) to the usual litany of knee-jerk arguments against the resurrection, Christ’s divinity, and Christianity in general, I couldn’t get over how much it — and any response I could give to counter such arguments — felt like a huge exercise in missing the point.
I think this is why I haven’t been able to shake the story of Jesus no matter much has worked against any kind of belief. His story is simply true. Taken as pure history, it’s a true story, like the one I described above, of humility in the face of oppression. Taken as pure myth, it’s also a true story, which contains myriad insights about the nature of humanity and our place in the world. And if, as Christians have maintained for two thousand years, it is both, then, well, the possibilities within its truth are immeasurable. My point is that the story of Jesus is meaningful whether you are a believer or not.
Oddly enough, it brings to mind an old story from the life of the Buddha. In this story, people came to him asking about the operations of karma and rebirth. While at other times he was happy to discuss such matters, this time he shook his head and told them that such metaphysical speculation was idle, that the practice of the disciplines he taught was of great benefit whether one believed in rebirth or not. The point wasn’t to follow his path to pad one’s karmic purse for a better next life; the point was to follow his path because it was good and healthy, because it was true.
Obviously, metaphysics are far closer to the heart of Christianity than they are to Buddhism. You’d never hear a Christian (some extreme liberal theologians of the past century notwithstanding) say belief in the resurrection or Christ’s divinity is unimportant. Yet, I think the point the Buddha was making to his followers remains true: The way is valuable — perhaps indispensable — whether one believes in everything else or not, because the way is good.
And in this Holy Week, in which I’m unsure of what I really believe and which now marks three full liturgical years since the climax of my spiritual abyss and my final Eucharist, when a return to faith in God seems both at my fingertips and impossibly distant and both attractive and hideous, I think this is why it feels so important — more important than ever — to enter into this story and live this story as fully as I can. These are frightening times; the optimism we all seemed have in the ’90s about the Twenty-First Century has been proven naive: Our economic system is becoming even more exclusive, our politics are more governed by the interests of the few than ever, and despite overwhelming evidence that we are speeding towards an environmental catastrophe, our governments are turning a blind eye and promoting unsustainable practices. Power, Money, Greed — “Rome” is alive and well, only now with the capacity to destroy everything in its wake, through nuclear war or through over-consumption. This means that, no matter what else may be true about it, the human story of Jesus is relevant as much now as ever.