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April 11, 2004
One thing is certain: the theme of Easter is rebirth. Whether this is a proprietarily Christian matter is no sot clear, and my posts have argued that it is not. Still, all our affairs in this nation, and this nation’s affairs in the world, are marked by the West’s religious heritage. Today we need to ask not so much whether we can be reborn, but whither we may grow.
In 2000 I looked forward into a new millennium that seemed to hold endless promise: time and space for us to work on our own spiritual growth. Events since then have forced the issue, and I can’t say I’ve been happy with the results insofar as they relate to the condition of Christian America. Still, I will not despair, for despair is founded in certainty, and rebirth is always full of the unknown. Last year I lamented America’s imperial impulse, but that now seems to be the least of our problems. No doubt I was infected by our leaders’ self-delusions; their vision of swift victory in Iraq and a preemptive march into a glorious future of international capitalist democracy: a world reborn on our terms. Instead, another Easter finds us still fighting the same war, with little vision of an ultimate destination, and our resources stretched too thin to manage a single theater effectively, let alone an empire.
Maybe this morass was foreseeable. Indeed, I never really believed the “cakewalk” crowd’s prognostications, but I feared their single-minded belligerence and the sheer power at their command. But martial superiority is too blunt an instrument for our present purposes, and if the administration has other tools, it has yet to show them to any great advantage. They might have learned a lesson from those who once sought (with similar success) to suppress a nascent Christianity. But that would put the sandal on the other foot, a position I don’t suppose our god-fearing leaders could even imagine.
The President’s Christian faith is a matter of some interest here. While at least a nominal religiosity remains a prerequisite for any realistic presidential candidate in this country, the current officeholder is more forward in his devotion than has been the norm for one who must lead a diverse populace while respecting the separation of church and state. Making a public show of piety plays to a broad demographic swath, and few politicians are above cynical pandering, but in Bush’s case it’s his apparent sincerity that alarms some observers.
The President’s religion is portrayed as a more or less mainstream Methodism, but in his public rhetoric he certainly seems to engage what is thought of as the “Christian right”, which sometimes extends to the nether regions of the evangelical community, where strange notions about America’s special destiny in God’s “plan” are held with disquieting certitude. The fear is that this is the same certitude that led to the administration’s misjudgments about our ongoing adventure in Iraq. One hopes God’s plan is better than theirs. Whether the affair has taught our leaders any of the humility that befits the Christian remains open to doubt.
Doubt is eclipsed only at the moment of rebirth, when understanding overflows in the form of genuine belief. I’ve repeatedly argued that this inherently ecstatic state must be continually achieved and re-achieved; that it is to be constantly worked towards, but never clung to. The memory of this experience is what we call faith: another blunt instrument, but often the best we have to work with.
The evangelicals, and the President, I believe, represent what is referred to as “born-again” Christianity. For them it is not enough to be raised in a tradition, or baptized in infancy; they require that a person be subject to the ecstasy of the rebirth experience, and thereby transformed. I would like to think that I share common ground with this position, but I often get the idea that they do indeed cling to the visionary moment of certainty, at the expense of the doubt (and concomitant self-examination) necessary to navigate the “real world” in which we are bound to live our lives. The revelations of rebirth can inform this World, and imbue it with a vision worth working towards, but ecstasy for us is by nature brief. When we pretend that we can live our whole lives within its bounds our faith is apt to become not so much blind as self-delusional.
So it is that I fear our leaders have not merely lied to us (habitual in politicians) but to themselves, which is far worse, and more dangerous for us all. In 2000 I preceded my Easter meditation with a look into the darkness of the day before: the necessity of the Underworld journey as embodied in the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. For our President, rebirth seems to have rescued him from nothing worse than the dissipate pleasures of a privileged but aimless youth. Soul-stifling such activities may be, and it is my faith that one person’s suffering is as legitimate as the next one’s, regardless of degree, but as I pointed out in 2002, rebirth is ultimately attained only through some manner of death, which tends to put our lesser sufferings in perspective, as well as explaining why Jesus had to descend before he could ascend.
We are caught somewhere between the heights and the depths, trying to sort truth from lies in matters about which we have no certain knowledge. Sadly, we are subject to rulers with too much certainty, and the power to send others into the unknown of death. Christians are advised to imitate Christ, but these people issue orders in the manner of those the scriptures say condemned Him.
In the end, we are left less with the surety of scripture than with the contingency of poetry, such as I offered in 2001. And we have the Spring, which, long before the growth of Christianity, was recognized as the season of rebirth. Easter remains the Christian holiday par excellence, but it does not close The Book on life, death, or rebirth. Nor did it begin this eternal tale. In 2000 I wound up the season with an observation of Pentecost, or White Sunday, a day of glossolalia, confirming the Lord’s divine bequest to his Apostles. But even the “gift of tongues” serves only to put new words to an old tune.