Why do you look for the living among the dead?
-- Luke 24:5
We are Unitarian Universalists (yes, the name of our faith is eleven syllables long, so long that we can’t endlessly repeat it in conversation, so we make up silly acronyms, family nicknames for ourselves – or call ourselves, slighting one of our traditions, Unitarians). We don’t exactly celebrate Easter. But we get nervous during Holy Week, thinking there is something we ought to be celebrating and not quite sure what it is.
To the best of my ability I follow Yeshua, which is not to say that other masters are unworthy of honor, but that the life and teaching, death and new life of this person is to me the most compelling testimony to the necessity of faith. I cannot honestly say that I judge this to be the case, for my social location irresistibly tilts such judgment. I grew up in New England parsonages of Victorian Greek Revival or authentic colonial style (the oldest of which was erected in 1757), across various village greens from white frame meetinghouses with green shutters, clear windows and tall spires, where my own father, in mixed joy and despair, was the presiding spirit. My cradle songs come from the old hymnody of Protestant culture, accompanied by church organs. “Blessed be the tie that binds.” Though I had quarrels with my father, I have no quarrel with his religion.
So Yeshua’s story, and the inexhaustible paradox of his parables, haunt me. It is, as one of my teachers said, “my story.” “It may not be your story,” he continued; “I can’t even be sure that it’s the best story. But it’s a good story and it’s mine.” It’s mine to unravel.
“Unravel” is a good word for it, for the way I must travel, the search for the real scoop. No contemporary wrote it down: the gospels are from a later generation. None of the gospels were newspapers; none of them had a fact-checking department to call on. Each of them is tendentious, explaining the meaning of Yeshua’s life and death, and the very particular experience, amidst very particular emergencies, of his new life with a specific community of followers. They contradict each other in theology, interpretation and fact. There is no “gospel story,” but only specific stories told in separate gospels. And on these contradictions, glossed and glued over, was erected through later centuries the protuberant edifice of Christian doctrine, a fortress from which ecclesial princes would sally forth, grabbing the very kind of power in defiance of which Yeshua died.
I follow Yeshua. But am I a Christian? I really don’t give a hoot. I ought not to.
Unitarianism and Universalism come from Christian sources more ancient than Nicaea; but over millennia the ecclesial princes cast us out so often that in the last century we started to take their word for it – we no longer contend for the helm of Christianity’s vast galleon. We sail a much smaller boat. Sometimes the two vessels sail in parallel. When they diverge, we remember that might does not make right, and we hope our course is truer.
It’s not my job to affirm or to deny Christian doctrines. My task is to go to the source. I must use the same secondary sources that Christians do, but I read them as my people always have. We are primal protestants: we cry out the message as it appears before our very eyes. We can’t believe that God would damn us for trying to understand. Any being who would do that is not God.
Sometimes we are right. And the Christian churches, though they have sometimes done us wrong, are not always wrong. Both communities carry differences within them. So we may speak at times in agreement with Christians. When we do so, we might be wrong. Or right.
I hope to see a time when Unitarian Universalists will celebrate Easter rituals of their own. We are not there yet. We have come a long way from those decades of the last century when we defined ourselves by anger at the Christian churches. Holy week makes us nervous, and that’s a good sign: we hear the snap of spirituality in the air. But celebrating the always predicted blooming of flowers, though necessary, is insufficient. The flowers are symbols of something beyond themselves, of hope exceeding prediction.
This much is fact. There was a teacher, who said there was another way to live. Those in power didn’t like other ways – so they killed him. Unlike Moses, Buddha or Mohammed, Yeshua died in pain, disgrace and obscurity, abandoned and denounced by those who had pledged their lives to him. It was over.
Now here’s the event that the gospels, in their imperfect ways, try to tell us. As Yeshua’s followers, sick with grief and self-loathing, tried to go home, they found they could not do so. Everywhere they looked, they saw him standing in the way. If you or I, in our modern world, had such an experience (and I am told there are some who do), we might say to our therapists Damn the man! He might as well still be alive. The apostles had to live new life; they had no choice in the matter. Their new life grew from the old life’s grave, proving that not all messages of faith are the same – this one says, You Cannot Hope Until You Have Despaired. Fortunately, there is much in human life to despair of.
My teacher, a scholar and a minister, who said this was his story, also said this. “I don’t think the Resurrection is a fact. But I think it is the truth.” That’s almost enough to make a Christian of me.