Sunday, 8 April 2012

Risen? Belief, Myth and Mystery

I think Easter has actually driven me crazy this year. I did not make it to church. I'm abroad, English-speaking churches are hard to find, life is chaotic this week, and other excuses. Instead, early this morning I went to the beach and pondered both Manannan mac Lir and the resurrection myth of Jesus (no connection). And I've just been standing in several inches of water, because I decided that was a necessary spiritual exercise for that moment. (Ah, how happy my younger evangelical self would be about the things I find edifying nowadays.) I have also, if briefly, pondered the Holy Week story during the past few days, helped by Rachel Held Evans' wonderful series of posts on the women in the resurrection story*, featuring no less than three of my saints (the three Marys, who I see as different facets of one Gnostic saint**). But I've also done a bit of meditating on the resurrection story itself. That myth has kept intruding all day, no matter how much I tried to think about other spiritual themes. I even indulged in a fairly awful YouTube version of the gloriously evangelical Easter hymn 'See, What a Morning' a couple of hours ago. Well, we all have our guilty pleasures.

I'm well aware that I talk more here about my struggles to re-invent and re-integrate Christianity into my ever-increasing spirals of spirituality than I do about my Pagan practice (which I actually do a lot more of than Christian stuff). That's probably got a lot to do with Paganism being a comfortable and relatively emotionally uncomplicated thing for me at the moment, whereas Christianity has complications up the wazoo for me. (That's not to say that Paganism always will feel this easy to deal with, especially when I've decided exactly how to conceptualize my new approach(es) to spirituality, who to tell, and how, etc. I'm currently staying with my in-laws, for example, who I would prefer never to find out that one of my spiritual frameworks is Pagan - it's complicated. A large number of my friends don't know yet, because I'm not comfortable telling the world until I'm more settled in what I believe. Amusingly, my parents know, and think it's the best thing ever. That would be my father the Taoist shamanic practitioner and my mother the 'I'm spiritual but not religious and I meditate and do yoga and I like being nice' adorable person. My sister the evangelical Christian, not so much, yet. Why yes, we are a crazy family.) Um, long tangent, sorry. My point is that, being a Gnostic (a reconstructionist spirituality that draws inspiration from the ancient mystical Christians) and increasingly a Pagan, and therefore having less and less in common with the vast majority of Christians, it might be easier if I could just say: You know what? I'm done. I keep trying to, especially in terms of church, but I seem incapable of pulling away altogether. Why? Is it because I'm unhappy giving up an identity that has defined me for so long? Is it about not wanting to give up the privilege and 'passing' that comes with the membership of a majority religion? Is it my ongoing terror of the New Age Movement? (No, really, I have serious Issues with this!) It may be. I'm working through whether any/all of these are true (with a bit of help from sociology). But there's another reason, and it's far, far more powerful.

You see, this myth has far more of a hold on me that I want to admit. There are Gnostic interpretations of the resurrection of Christ, as a metaphor for the soul reaching towards union with the Divine. (The Sophia myth is another one of these - she probably wasn't an actual goddess, for most of the ancient Gnostics, but more of an allegory of the human soul.) I think that's beautiful, and there's certainly power in seeing the Jesus myth like this, as the 'Christ Consciousness' spirituality people do. And yet, on a few days each year, these alternative understandings of the myth are not enough for me. Ultimately, to enter into this myth fully, I have to experience it as the first Christians did - as a reality. It was a crazy, earth-shattering, mind-blowing idea. They clearly doubted it. They also clearly believed it as a reality. Sociologists of the Bible and of Christianity mainly agree that, whatever happened on that Sunday morning, it was something that the early church understood as a real experience. In biblical sociology, we try to suspend disbelief and stop asking 'What happened?', since that's a much less interesting question than 'What did they think happened?' I see Pagans writing this year about how Christians should question whether the Jesus myth is historical. I agree that they should. I also believe that they should simultaneously be allowed to believe it, completely and without reservation. (Getting the balance - that's a tricky one.) It's a myth that was formed out of belief in its absolute truth (although we, as modern scientific folk, are often far removed from a world in which we could believe that way - but the first Christians weren't). Later, the Gnostics took the myth and made it a kind of guide to enlightenment, and that's fantastic too, and much closer to the way I want to understand it most of the time. But for a few days a year, I want to enter into this myth completely, and have it be as true for me as when my goddesses speak to me during a shamanic journey, or when I feel the presence of land spirits in the forest. All these things, by the way, are equally mythical and equally real.

And from a beginning in that moment of complete reality, I move into the greater reality of the myth as an exploration of my slow crawl towards Gnosis (or union with Divine Wisdom). A more mature Christianity? I wouldn't like to dismiss all other Christianities as immature - but for me, maybe. But maturity depends on the lessons learnt in childhood. Wisdom is not about pretending we were never foolish, but partaking in the unbroken journey onwards - a journey that had to have a beginning, or we'd be nowhere now. T. Thorne Coyle just posted the Gandhi quotation, "Life is an indivisible whole."

I've heard that both the Celts and the Gnostics used to say 'yes' in answer to riddles and mysteries. Yes, I say to the mystery today. Let it be myth again tomorrow.

I've seen some beautiful Christian, Pagan and Gnostic-focused reflections this year about Resurrection Sunday and the Christ myth - e.g. here and here and here. (I've also seen the requisite number of 'Zombie Jesus' references and rants from a few Pagans about how Christians either stole their festival or don't understand what a myth is - although, happily, less of this than I expected based on past experience. I thought about writing about these things, and then I realised that none of that was the point. This took me quite some time to realise. I'm really a VERY long way from Gnosis. Maybe one day, eh? ;D I do intend to write at some point about the power that comes with our right to freedom of speech, and whether any of us can use it wisely in the interfaith conversation, but that's for another time.) Anyway, I've been inspired by the articles I've linked to above. All these writers have beautiful and very varied things to say about the power of a highly syncretic myth that drew from Jewish, Pagan and other sources to create a reality-in-myth, a paradox of belief and the mythic and the impossible and the daily reality of existence. The cycles of life and death and life. The victory of Divine Wisdom over disconnectedness and destruction. The triumph of life over death (and yes, even this can be a Pagan-themed idea).

I end with the words I've felt too guilty to proclaim all day, for fear of offending someone. Sod that - it's my fucking blog. Christ is Risen. Hallelujah.

See Mary weeping, "Where is He laid?"
As in sorrow she turns from the empty tomb;
Hears a voice speaking, calling her name...

And we are raised with him,
For he lives, Christ has risen from the dead...

*Warning: she's a Christian, and writes from within that framework. She's also a feminist theologian who looks for the feminine in Christianity. I get a lot of inspiration from her writing.
**Some Gnostic writers, and a few scholars, see the Marys in the gospel stories as different sides of the same figure - avatars of Sophia, harking back to earlier versions of the gospels which retained the Sophia myth as a metaphor of the journey of the soul reaching towards enlightenment. That's not my area of scholarship, so I can't comment on that in detail. That approach makes spiritual sense to me, though. Mary is one of my saints - sometimes one of my goddesses. To me, she is all of these Marys, and Sophia, and more. I personally see echoes of this in the Nag Hammadi, the Gnostic 'alternative' (second century) gospels, where Mary Magdalene is often clearly shown as the leader of the Christian apostles. See here for the references - I don't have the book with me, or I'd cite them properly!