The Celestial Ascent of Elijah

In 2 Kings 2.1-12, an account is given where the prophet of Israel named Elijah (meaning “My God is Yahweh”) ascends to heaven on a fiery chariot pulled by celestial horses. Elijah does not taste of death, but is translated into heaven.

Only one other figure in the Old Testament ascends to heaven without tasting death–Enoch. Enoch’s name means “The Initiated One,” and the only reference to this figure in the text is an obscure passage which states, “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5.24). In non-canonical texts associated with Enoch this prophet also ascends to heaven. In fact, the heavenly ascent appears to be the prerequisite of entering heaven without tasting of death.

In all the available Enoch lore thus found two things stand in common: 1) Enoch ascends to the heavens, learns their secrets, and enters the heavenly Holy of Holies or Throne Room. In some passages, Enoch is given the title “Son of Man,” a euphemism for divine heritage, and in the words of Margaret Barker, divine theosis or divinization. 2) All the imagery of the Enoch texts compare the heavenly ascent to a heavenly temple, and the ascent through the heavens can often be assimilated with the chambers in the earthly temple as they were modeled from a heavenly design.

It is this temple and cosmological context that frames the action of celestial ascent. The ascent of Elijah probably follows suit, as this portion of the Old Testament text probably follows a liturgical mise en scene associated with the old Hebrew temple cult. While Enoch and Elijah are the only Old Testament prophets to ascend to heaven without tasting death, other key prophetic figures also find themselves on a heavenly journey. Ezekiel is the most prominent figure, as he makes a tour of heaven. Ezekiel’s tour is also associated with the temple complex. The founder of Israel is Jacob who begins his journey towards kingship by seeing a ladder set in heaven. On top of the ladder was Yahweh, who gives Jacob the great covenant of the fathers during this heavenly vision. This hales back to a prior scene where God shows up to Abraham and gives him the original covenant, and does so while comparing his future offspring to the stars. In non-canonical sources, Abraham also journeys through the stars as part of this covenant.

The heavenly journey as part of the prophetic calling is not a creation of Israel or of Biblical tradition. The Israelite people inherited this tradition, they did not create it. In Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mediterranean traditions, kings, shamans, priests, and prophets all made this heavenly tour. Such a tour was essential to oral cosmology, which saw the source of all true being as emanating from the sky. In order to obtain the right to rule, such royal and august figures analogically journeyed to the stars through ritual to obtain their divine mandate. It is quite surprising to find that all the early Greek masters did the same thing. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclides, Plato, and Cicero all relate some form of the heavenly journey associated with their right to teach, obtain true reason, rule the city, or obtain the right to immortality.

The celestial ascent of Elijah is not biblical fantasy, it is oral cosmology rooted at the foundations of civilization.

Moments of Suspension

Bardo means gap” (Fremantle and Trungpa, Tibetan 1). It refers to experiences of suspension in life as well as in death, for death happens in the process of life (1). Bardo experiences happen to us all the time. They are experiences of not knowing our ground, of not knowing for what we have asked or are going to receive. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, is not about death any more than it is about birth. It is about the uncertainties of everyday life in which birth and death happen to us all the time (2).

Do you remember the moments when your best friend moved away or your grandmother died and everything felt fuzzy, as if you were between two worlds or passing out of one life into another? Poignant moments such as these flooded my mind in the continuous gaps between endings and beginnings as I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, moments when the ground seems to move, moments that happen to us all the time.

I reflected on the moment when, garbed in scuba gear, I jumped off a boat and was totally engaged in the intermediate space after the jump but before hitting the cold water to take my first deep ocean dive, or the moment I became a parent. During these moments, I was suspended between two worlds: the known and unknowable. I remember each as thresholds I had to cross in order to reach today. During such moments, the familiar world seems to fall away before there is the chance to attain a new sense of things. These are moments of suspension. These are not the moments when our lives start or end, but are moments when our consciousness shifts.

“Bar” means in between and “do” means island or mark, so “bardo” is sort of a landmark that stands between two points, like an island on a lake. It is the point between sanity and insanity, the state before confusion is transformed into wisdom (10-11). It is the place between death and birth. It is the moment before the future has manifested itself, yet the past has already been left behind: it is the gap (11).

Buddhism teaches that to view the whole of life from an egocentric view is to live in an “unreal” world and “the remedy is to see through the illusion, to attain the insight of emptiness—the absence of what is false” (xvi). With emptiness is luminosity, “the presence of what is real, the basic ground of which the play of life, takes place” (xvi). The first bardo experience is of the uncertainty about whether or not we are going to die; it is the moment we experience the possibility of stepping out of the real world into an unreal world (3).

The bardo experience can be seen in terms of the six realms of existence that we go through, our six psychological states, or the deities that we meet in our lives, the same ones that we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Within this context, there is no one to save us; everything is left to us and to the commitment we make to who we are (2). The teachings are not for the dying any more than they are for the living, or for those who seek a spiritual understanding in everyday life.

Cosmology and Eschatology

When a Christian stands and proclaims his belief in Jesus Christ as Savior, and that his god is the only Way, Truth, and Light, he is proclaiming not only an eschatology, but also a cosmology. In the first place, his eschatology is revealed: there is a god; there is an afterlife; there is a path in the afterlife; there is a judgement; there is a place where people go who pass and fail the judgement; etc. Moreover, he is at the same time declaring a cosmology, for now heaven and earth are linked in a multitude of relationships all of which have eternal consequences. Suddenly, every human action now comes with a moral imperative. God now is omnipresent, existing in every place man occupies, and the structure of the universe is not just some mechanistic, grand clock-work but a stage upon which the real drama of the cosmos is performed–the drama of human relations and moral intelligence. All this is a philosophy of the cosmos and the human race’s involvement in it. All this is a cosmology.

When an atheist stands and proclaims his belief in the Scientific Method, and that reason, experiment, and objective observation is the path to true enlightenment, i.e. is the only Way, Truth, and Light, then he too is proclaiming an eschatology rooted in a cosmology. The rationalists eschatology is in fact an earth-bound utopia of reason and science predicated upon the positivist theologic point of view: human intellect can unriddle anything; nature can be codified by laws of reason and observation; nature, not god, is the thing to discover; and above all, man is the measure. This is the eschatology. It is birthed from the ultimate paradigm of relatedness between man and nature–the cosmology. Modern cosmology is not even heliocentric, if we are to employ the strictest sense of the term. In fact, the modern universe has no center. There once was a singularity, so says the meta-narrative, which expanded in a Big Bang creating the universe; but no one is certain where that was, or why it was, and none of it matters anyway. The relatedness of the cosmos in modern terms is addressed with such words as “randomness,” “chaos,” and above all “evolution.” All this is a philosophy of the cosmos and the human race’s involvement in it. All this is a cosmology.

Perhaps we are unfamiliar with associating the theologian with the word cosmology, as we are as unfamiliar with associating the secular scientist with the word eschatology. Modern sensibility has so severed the ideas of science and religion, and eschatology from cosmology, that this latter term is almost always used in the modern context as a mathematical if not theoretical construct of macrocosmic physics. Besides, science became science when it separated itself from eschatology; just as religion became modern religion when it separated itself from cosmology.

Despite the safe separation in the modern mind between these two fields of knowledge, the truth is, in practical terms of human experience, there is no separation at all. It turns out that human beings are interpenetrated with ideas of ultimate causes and ends which provide a philosophy of relationships and ethics which in turn have their own consequences of causes and ends. I suppose this is a wordy way of saying the universe is so big, and the questions it poses to us so infinite, that our reason and logic, in contrast to the endless horizon of inquiry before us, simply runs out too quickly. We are left doing the only thing we can do: projecting ourselves into the universe to make sense of it all. It should not surprise us, then, to find that our attitudes of the universe are reflected in the ideas of ourselves. Our metaphysics gives birth to a cosmology that is self-fulfilling, and this explains why a change in a culture’s cosmology is so hard to come by. In short, there can be no cosmology without eschatology; nor eschatology without cosmology. Furthermore, there is no real separation between religion and science; there are only varying degrees of cosmology and eschatology within a single system.

This is no idle prattle. It is the eminent historian and philosopher of science, Karl Popper, who indicates that cosmology is not only a central, human concern, but also centrally involves humans in its conceptions. Popper asserts, “I, however, believe that there is at least one philosophical problem in which all thinking men are interested. It is the problem of cosmology: the problem of understanding the world–including ourselves, and our knowledge, as part of the world. All science is cosmology, I believe, and for me the interest of philosophy, no less than of science, lies solely in the contributions which it has made to it” (Popper xviii, italics his).

Popper has got it right, and herein our modern dictionaries have failed to make a critical point in their definitions. Cosmology is not just the study of the macrocosm–stars, galaxies, Big Bang, and the lot. No. Cosmology is also, and perhaps principally, a study of the microcosm– “including ourselves, and our knowledge, as part of the world.” In this respect, the Hermetic saying “as above, so below” is as a good starting point for a definition of cosmology as any, for the universe cannot be separated by its inhabitants trying to describe the universe. Moreover, the universe is reflected in its inhabitants, so that the study of one should say something about the idea of the other. Man and Cosmos are synonymous, and modern cosmologists therefore must include all people investigating human relatedness within the world. It is uncomfortable for some to admit, but philosophers, theologians, economists, psychologists, anthropologists are also all cosmologists.

For Popper, not only is all science cosmology but all cosmology is metaphysics (14-16). This bold assertion is exactly what I have been discussing. It is an idea that challenges the modern tradition that science is a strictly objective method of logic and reason predicated on observations and measurements “reducible to elementary (or ‘atomic’) statements of experience […]” (12). Indeed, Popper challenges the very notion of the inductive method as the basis of scientific knowledge. Popper quotes Moritz Schlick, who observes, “The problem of induction consists in asking for a logical justification of universal statements about reality […]. We recognize, with Hume, that there is no such logical justification: there can be none, simply because they are not genuine statements” (14, italics his). Popper concludes: “This shows how the inductivist criterion of demarcation fails to draw a dividing line between scientific and metaphysical systems, and why it must accord them equal status; for the verdict of the positivist dogma of meaning is that both are systems of meaningless pseudo-statements” (14). 

Again, all this is a wordy way of saying that while the inductive method of science insists that scientists can make observations without a theory in mind, if this were the case, then all such observations would be rendered meaningless. In fact, all observations are already tied to a series of presuppositions, most of which are not scientific, but philosophical. “I am inclined to think that scientific discovery,” continues Popper, “is impossible without faith in ideas which are of a purely speculative kind, and sometimes even quite hazy; a faith which is completely unwarranted from the point of view of science, and which, to that extent, is ‘metaphysical’” (16). One modern cosmologist puts it this way, “Maybe more so than in any other field of physics, cosmologists construct fantasy worlds which they hope may have some bearing on what we observe” (Ferriera 10). How can this be justified from a strict, scientific point of view? Our modern cosmologist continues, “The hope is that, like Albert Einstein, by stretching our imaginations but at the same time remaining firmly entrenched in basic principles, it will be possible to explain many of the unanswered questions in cosmology” (Ferriera 10).

Here lies the essence of cosmology. The positivist focuses only on the “firmly entrenched basic principles” which are made up of formula and proofs and says all the universe can be explained in this way. Of course it is not so. For all those “firmly entrenched basic principles” have to be strung together in a dot-to-dot construction that encompasses a wider area of ideology that itself may not be justified by those basic principles. They are strung together into “fantasy worlds.” It is the construction of a theory, especially a cosmological theory, that turns science into metaphysics. For indeed, in order to create a fantasy world one must already have a cosmology in mind. This means modern cosmology is a product of a cultural cosmology already firmly established.

A civilization’s ultimate framework of cultural imagination is its own cosmology. How we think about the universe is reflected in how we think about ourselves, and vice versa. Moreover, how we think about the past is also tied up in our cosmological constructions. This is why Popper considers cosmology a central human concern that encompasses not only science but also philosophy, and oft times there is no difference. In the end, cosmology is the central human concern about which everything else is an addendum. If we are to study myth and the mystery religions then perhaps we should consider the cosmological mainframe in which they grew? But from what position shall we consider that framework? From our own cosmology? It turns out, ever since Darwin, our conceptions of the past have been projections of modern cosmological constructs. As they say, we look through a glass darkly. Not only is our seeing glass murky, but its focal point is fixated on the wrong target. We have much to see anew.

Judges, Part II: Gideon

Gideon is another antitype of the Israelite religious hero. In another chapter of Jewish history the Midianites threaten to overrun Israel. An angel (living by a tree) seeks out Gideon and promises him victory if he leads his tribe against the foreign host. Gideon declares that he is from the tribe of Manasseh (the least of the tribes) and that he is from the poorest family in the tribe and he is the poorest member of his family (Judges 6.15). In other words, Gideon is the last person anyone would suspect as a tribal chief let alone a military hero.

The Lord shows Gideon a couple of signs and this highly hesitant protagonist relents and leads the Israeli army against the Midianites. But God cautions Gideon, saying that he leads too many men into battle and if they are victorious they will take the credit and not give it to the Lord (7.2). So God tells Gideon to take his army to the waters, and every soldier who gets on his hands and knees to drink will be exiled from the military campaign, while every soldier who kneels and drinks with his cupped hands will accompany Gideon to the battlefield. Through this winnowing, Gideon’s army of 10,000 is reduced to 300 soldiers.

Through stratagem Gideon defeats the Midianites. He arms each of his soldiers with a horn and a pot containing a lamp. His army of 300 men enter and spread throughout the Midianite encampment during the night. At a given signal, each man breaks his pot revealing his lit lamp, and then blows his horn. The sleeping Midianites awake confused and alarmed and mistake each other as the enemy, and thus they slay themselves whilst Gideon’s men retreat. The Midianites are defeated and Gideon, the least of all the warriors, overcomes a massive enemy host without raising a single sword.

There are both religious and literary themes throughout this tale. The interesting thing to me, however, is that it parallels the episode of Samson and his 300 fox-tails in curious ways. Later, another war chief named Samson will battle the Philistines by lighting 300 foxtails on fire and sending them through the ripe fields burning them down. In response, the Philistines gather an army and march against Samson, who uses the jawbone of an ass to slay 1,000 warriors. Defeated, the Philistines retreat, while Samson, thirsty from a hard days work, seeks out water when a hollow within the jawbone opens pouring forth water (Judges 15.19).

Curious images to be sure, but the fact that Gideon procures 300 men at the waters and then sends them out into the fields with lit lamps is to close a coincidence to Samson’s escapade that includes 300 burning foxes in the fields and a miracle at the waters. What are we to make of these parallels?

No explanation is forthcoming. These images may be allusions to some military strategy used in antiquity. They may be allusions employed in the secret myth and cult of the Israelite temple order. They maybe shorthand for cultural or linguistic idioms whose original meanings have been long lost behind the veil of history. In the least, we can see that Old Testament history is not constructed like literate histories, but have contained within them oral historical patterning. Mythic motifs are employed within historical narrative to create an oral history easy to remember. Repeated motifs of the inexplicable 300 helpers in the fields with their fires belong to oral tradition. Perhaps this tradition was already lost when the literate scribes first wrote it down?

Judges, Part I: Deborah

According to traditional accounts, Israel was led by a series of judges after the deaths of Moses and Joshua (approximately 1200 to 1000 BCE). The Hebrew word shofetim translates as “judge” or “magistrate” but in earlier times meant something closer to “chief.” The Biblical judges were a series of tribal chiefs each ruling over their own clan. Each of these chiefs arose to power not through divine right or bloodline, as in the case of kings, nor through priesthood lineage, as in the temple priests from the tribe of Levi. On the contrary, these tribal chiefs came to power based off of their strength, wit, or through divine intervention. They are thus more closely aligned with the Greek tyrants than the Hebrew prophets.

Clear demarcations on political and religious rule in early Judaism are obscured by the narrative of Deobrah found in Judges chapters 4 and 5. According to the text, “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (4.4-5).

According to our text, the Israelites faced a formidable foe in Hazor where a general named Sisera led a Canaanite host of 900 chariots against Israel. Deborah calls forth Barak to lead the Israelite forces against the Canaanite army. Barak declares he will only go to war if Deborah accompanies him.

We are left with a series of interesting relationships and questions. Is Deborah the tribal chief or is Barak? Deborah is clearly called a prophetess. The fact that she dwelt under the tree of Deborah proves that she was the head of a religious cult or order. Cult sanctuaries were located by trees and in groves, and often the idea of “tree” and “cult image” were synonymous. In Judges 3.7 we read “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves.” The word for groves is asheroth, who is the wife/consort of Baal (and many scholars believe also to be the wife/consort of Yahweh.)

In any case, the fact that Deborah dwells by a tree in a grove shows that she is part of a cult precinct. She is specifically labeled as head of that order. She has so much prestige that Barak, the assumed military chief of the tribe, will not engage the enemy without this woman at his side. We have here a representation of a matriarchal priesthood which is foreign to traditional readings of the patriarchal Jewish tribal and religious hierarchy. From whence did it come and where did it go? No one really knows.

The story finishes in fine fashion, as Deborah and Barak route the Canaanites and Sisera flees for his life. He comes upon a tent and a woman, who promises him safety and nourishment but who instead kills him with a tent peg (or beating stick, depending on how one reads the Hebrew). Here we have the most fierce opposition to Israel since Pharaoh led his armies against Moses. In ancient days, a chariot was like an Abram’s tank. 900 chariots is an invincible force against which Israel has no hope for success. Yet victory is theirs, led by a woman prophetess on the front lines and ratified by the slaying of the enemy general by a woman on the back lines.

The story of Deborah is a brief glimpse at the power of women in Biblical history. For a brief moment two women rose to eminence and glory by their wits and strength. No man had or could accomplish what they had done. In the the case of Deborah, she held actual religious and political authority as a chief in Israel.

Old Testament Posts

When 2014 began I made a goal to read the Biblical Old Testament by the end of the year. It’s been many years since I’ve put this text in front of me for a serious study. Once again I am reminded that “reading” and “studying” are two different things, as I have already had to reset my goal: here it is the end of May and I have just finished Deuteronomy, but only after skipping Leviticus and Numbers. I spent three months in Genesis alone.

As I read the text I cross reference my reading with some valuable scholarly commentaries I have collected over the years. While this might not be for everyone, I will list here some very interesting reads which help explicate Old Testament culture, language, philosophy, and religion:

  1. Man is Not Alone, by Abraham Heschel
  2. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, by John Walton
  3. Lost World of Genesis One, by John Walton
  4. The Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg
  5. Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, Vol. 1 & 2, by Theodore Gaster
  6. Old Testament Parallels, by Victor Mathews
  7. How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel
  8. Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
  9. The Five Books of Moses, by Robert Alter
  10. A History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson

Of course I am not reading all of these in conjunction with my Old Testament study this year. I have read all of these and I use them as study aids and cross reference material as I read the Old Testament. #1 is a beautifully written philosophy of religion written by an acclaimed Jewish scholar. #2 through #6 are excellent study aids which give context to Hebrew culture and language and their surrounding cultural milieu throughout the Near East. #7 and #8 are excellent overview’s of the Biblical text. #9 is one of the best literary analysis of the Pentateuch I have ever read. #10 is a great overall and general history of the Jews.

There are of course many more books one could read, but the most important is the Old Testament text itself. I grew up on the KJV of the Bible. It is poetic but clunky at times. I read this version, but on verses I want to study I also cross-reference the NIV and the RSV versions. If I am picky, I also look up the Hebrew and Greek forms of the verses from various websites and my Strong’s Concordance.

Being that I have put this as a focus for the year, several of my posts will relate to this study. Next year I have in mind to pick up some wisdom texts such as the Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching, and cross reference those with wisdom texts in other religions.

The Sympathetic God

In many mythologies the idea of God and the reality of human suffering are wedded. Elohim commands Adam and Eve not to partake of the fruit of good and evil lest they enter a world of suffering; yet it is Elohim who forges the tree of this fruit and provides the impulse for its consumption. Generations later, Jehova trades a sacrificial ram for the sacrifice of Isaac as both a symbolic but more especially symbiotic gesture of God’s own sacrifice and suffering which is inherent in the affairs of humankind. The fruit and the ram belong together. Even so, Osiris participates in the cosmic suffering of man as he is slain and cut into pieces so that he may become Lord of the Underworld and King of deification. Attis and Dionysus suffer and are sacrificed and each in turn provide a path for the suffering wayfarer’s ascent into blessedness. Nanahuatzin, the disfigured one, immolates himself and through his sacrificial suffering transforms into the Aztec Fifth Sun and restores light and harmony to the mundane world. Jesus is nailed to a cross.

The realization that the divine is willfully sealed to the suffering being of humankind led Henry Corbin to characterize this aspect of deity as an innate σὺμπαθεîν:

In contrast to the deist God who had paled to an empty concept, or the ethical God, guardian of the moral law, it sets forth, with penetrating vigor, the notion of a pathetic God, that is, a suffering and passionate God, a notion which has at all times been a dreaded stumbling block to the rational theology and philosophy of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism alike. The notion of a God who is affected by human events and feelings and reacts to them in a very personal way, in short, the idea that there is a divine παθοϛ in every sense of the word (affection, emotion, passion) […]. (Corbin 108)

Not only does man seek conversion to his God (the traditional Christian, Islamic, and Judaic theology) but also and especially God seeks conversion to man. The affairs of God are the affairs of man and the affairs of man are the affairs of the divine, pathetic God.

This relationship between God and man bears direct correspondence to the state of affairs of the modern world. Man cannot escape his religiosity. Carl Jung notes that religion is “incontestably one of the earliest and most universal activities of the human mind” (Jung 1). Jung contends that the religious aspect of the human psyche cannot be a product of physical processes as they are not created by the individual, but happen to him (2). Modern man, however, has sought the death of God, interpreting the old religious dogmas and creeds as what religion is and as who God is. Severing the old creeds from human conscience and consciousness, modern man has also wholly replaced this crippled idea of God with scientific rationalism–which is to say that man and reason are the sympathetic nodes of creation. Jung insightfully observes:

To a certain intellectual mediocrity, characterized by enlightened rationalism, a scientific theory that simplifies matters is a very good means of defense [from direct psychic experience], because of the tremendous faith of modern man in anything which bears the label “scientific.” […] The [religious] dogma is like a dream, reflecting the spontaneous and autonomous activity of the objective psyche, the unconscious. Such an expression of the unconscious is a much more efficient means of defense against further immediate experiences than a scientific theory. The theory has to disregard the emotional values of the experience. The dogma, on the contrary, is most expressive in this respect. A scientific theory is soon superseded by another. The dogma lasts for untold centuries. The suffering God-Man may be at least five thousand years old and the Trinity is probably even older. (55-57)

Both Corbin and Jung understand that the homo sapien is not a Cartesian product of simplistic cause and effect processes. Much more is going on in this clockwork universe. The human psyche that wills towards reason is also a field of consciousness that penetrates an energetic substrata that permeates all of creation. For Corbin, this interaction links the human being to a sym-pathos of the highest order and gives rise to a deity who seeks to experience His own sub-quantum field of consciousness through suffering in the mundane world. For Jung, these relationships are categorized as consciousness, unconscious, and the collective unconscious, but the relationships remain nearly the same: God and man have need of each other. In fact, there is no other form of existence or experience.

Modernity has declared war on God. If God and man are sympathetic, than this state of affairs is nothing short of a catastrophe of consciousness. God’s suffering is man’s psychic katharsis. Remove this sympathetic relationship and man is left bare in a counterfeit Cartesian wilderness with only his bare wits to face the never ending and unyielding metaphysical cosmos. Meredith Sabini makes note of this in Jung’s writings:

According to Jung, [modern man] suffers from the disease of knowing everything; there is nothing he cannot pigeonhole. He is ‘extraverted as hell’ and shows a ‘remarkable lack of introspection.’ he thinks that the gods and demons have disappeared from Nature and does not notice that they keep him on the run; hence, his restlessness and need for alcohol or tranquilizers. Modern man believes that he can do as he pleases and is perturbed that inexplicable anxieties plague him. True to his rationalistic bias, he has tried all the usual remedies–diets, exercise programs, studying inspirational literature–and only reluctantly admits that he can’t seem to find a way to live a meaningful life. (16)

In other words, the death of God is the birth of meaninglessness. God has been replaced by Self, and God and man’s sympathetic suffering has transformed into Self and man’s sympathetic neurosis. Perhaps never before in the history of the species has man needed a divine sympathos as much. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous need, for history has shown that for the God-less any god will do.

Ring Out Easter Sunday

All the old French towns have a church, and all the churches have bells. In the old days, when worship and tradition were part of the pastoral culture, these bells would ring three times a day. At sunrise, for morning prayers. At high noon, for afternoon prayers. And at sunset, for evening prayers. The bells would also ring for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or holidays.

On the Thursday before Easter every bell in every Church rang throughout the French countryside. Then there was silence for three days. Not a sound, not a vibration, no matter the occasion. As the sun rose on Easter Sabbath the silent bells rang out once more, echoing throughout the land and announcing the miracle of the resurrection of the Christian Savior.

The liturgy of ringing bells may seem quaint by today’s standards. Scholars have long shown the similarities between Christ and the saviors of the pagan cults, including Attis and Mithras. Historical exegesis of the New Testament text has sought to strip the stories of their miracles, placing the drama of Christ and his resurrection squarely in the realm of folklore and tradition.

The miracle of Spring, however, is just outside the scholar’s grasp. Despite excellent explanations by modern definitions of process, the power of the Cosmos to reignite life on this speck of blue in a sea of billions is as astonishing as the very first breath taken on it. Like the church bells of France, the universe rings in a new season out of stillness and decay. It did not have to be so. But it is. And no one really knows why.

In a cosmic context, the ringing bells are a call from the darkness. It is not a repetition of the previous tolling, but something unexpected and new. In the words of Joseph Campbell, “Only birth can conquer death–the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new” (Hero 16). Central to the Christian tradition is the death and new birth of God. Resurrecting God is not a process of repackaging the old, stale forms of religious icons or ideology. God is not a doctrine, just as Spring is not a mathematical formula. The fact the new birth of Spring takes place in a regular cycle that can be measured, numbered, and predicted, does not in the least diminish its wonder. The annual celebration of the new birth of God is an attempt to rediscover this wonder.

Like Cosmos, a meaningful God comes only by way of genesis. If dead, only a new birth will do. All over the world Easter Mass is celebrated, in many forms, under different names, within varying ideas, but every where the celebration of the new from the old is the same. Whatever one’s religious affiliation, the time of Spring is the best time of all to consider the reverence and beauty of life; with its gains and losses; with its hopes and failures; with the birth of a new thing overcoming the old. Here is a mystery no science can ever really solve. The mystery of life, death, and rebirth. All the greatest truths are the ones we have to take for granted. The ones that ring out just beneath the soul.