Ian Harris Otago Daily Times April 10, 2015
Another Easter has come and gone – for retailers another chocolate egg and bunny bonanza, for the workaday world a welcome holiday break. And for churchgoers a moment to again mull over the powerful human story of Jesus’ suffering and death, and puzzle what to make of resurrection.
A vast gap yawns between those who insist that the various New Testament accounts of Jesus being raised from the dead are accurate historical records of what happened that first Easter, contradictions and all, and others who interpret the story as myth, written to convey profound religious insight according to the understanding of that distant time.
Literalists would argue that if the events of Easter took place today, the stories would be told in exactly the same way. The other camp would say such a view not only misses their point, but today’s secular reality makes it untenable: for them, resurrection is best understood not as a physical phenomenon, but as one of Christianity’s core religious symbols.
Symbol of what? To answer that, it is necessary to distinguish between two ways of referring to the figure around whom Easter revolves. There was Jesus the man, born and bred like any man, who became a teacher, healer and sage and was executed when he challenged the religious and political status quo. And there was the messiah or Christ, a title bestowed on Jesus by his followers as they came increasingly to identify him as the one anointed by God (that’s what the word means) to initiate a new way of being in the world.
Around the title “Christ” has accumulated a mass of supernatural barnacles originating in ancient concepts of the universe, God, Jesus’ relationship with God, and humanity’s place in the midst of all these.
Over the past 80 years many leading theologians have found the old metaphysical framework, which still permeates traditional Christian doctrine, to be well past its use-by date. So they have chipped away at the barnacles in a bid to give the core Judaeo-Christian heritage a natural home within the world as we know it today. Chief casualty of that has been the supernatural Christ. Some people dispense with any concept of Christ at all, and insist the human Jesus as role model is quite enough.
There is, however, another approach which avoids both immersion in supernatural speculation and the wholesale rejection of the transforming experience of the earliest Christians. It also opens the way to a positive modern understanding of resurrection. Yes, this approach would say, Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. And yes, resurrection followed – but it was not the human Jesus who was raised. It was the Christ, the Jewish messiah figure as newly experienced and imaginatively refashioned by those on whom Jesus had left the deepest impression.
Today this Christ can still be seen as risen – not as Jesus’ dead body miraculously restored to life, but in the minds of his followers as an archetype of love, grace and transformation. (An archetype is an original model, type, or symbol that resonates with human experience. For psychologist Carl Jung it is a pattern of thought or symbolic image rooted in the collective experience of humankind.) Christ as archetype is rich in such associations. The figure is expressive of the lover, the caregiver, and the visionary. And since in Jung’s view the potential for realising these is already latent within us, Christ as archetype of love, grace and transformation is available as a living dynamic within our human consciousness.
I suggest that’s what those early followers of Jesus experienced. And as men and women of their time, inevitably they interpreted their experience within the religious categories open to them, including the supernatural and a God beyond.
In recent times, some have upbraided the apostle Paul for dressing Christ in supernatural garb as a divine rescuer, though for centuries that image met a felt religious need. But Paul also uses a key phrase that can be read as foreshadowing the notion of Christ as an archetype in human consciousness. He writes repeatedly of life “in Christ”. The in-dwelling Christ was central to his thinking.
This is obviously not the human Jesus – that would be impossible – but the Christ archetype, carrying all that Jesus had come to mean for love, grace and transformation into the lives of everyone who gives it room to grow. Christ, shorn of supernaturalism, then stands as the mythic core of Christian faith.
On this understanding, Jesus died. The Christ arose. And 2000 years on, Easter computes.