On the Death and Resurrection: A Psychological View in Five Parts by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Today, I want to present to you some of the things I have been thinking and writing about as Easter approached. I’m going to do this in five separate parts—which hopefully make up a coherent whole. I’m going to read this, because it’s complicated.
There are two ways of looking at the world: as a place of things, and as a forum for action. Because we are living beings, and must make our way, pragmatically, in the world, the second way of looking has to take precedence. This means that the world as a place of things is nested inside the world as a forum for action. This means that our conceptualization of the world as objective must remain subordinate to our conceptualize of the world as a place of Being.
This is from the first part of my book Maps of Meaning: "The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things. The former manner of interpretation—more primordial, and less clearly understood—finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or—at a higher level of analysis—implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.
The latter manner of interpretation—the world as place of things—finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually-validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).
No complete world-picture can be generated, without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological world-view tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical "fact," even though such statements were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective—who assume that it is, or might become, complete—forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be."
I wrote this a little later: it’s also relevant: "The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however—myth, literature, and drama—portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the "objective world"—what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is "the world of value"—what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action."
The world as a forum for action presents itself in two stories: the normal story (I was at point A, and was going to point B).
The revolutionary story: I was at point A and, while going to point B, something entirely unexpected and earth-shattering happened. This meant I had to abandon my story, question my assumptions, allow my old beliefs to die, and be reborn anew.
The second story, which is deeper, is essentially religious.
From my new book, 12 Rules for Life: Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient):
Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost, as the old proverb has it. Why not simply take everything you can get, whenever the opportunity arises? Why not determine to live in that manner?
Or—Is there an alternative and, if so, why should we bother with it?
Our ancestors worked out very sophisticated answers to such questions, but we still don’t understand them very well. This is because they are in large part still implicit—manifest primarily in ritual and myth and, as of yet, incompletely articulated. We act them out and represent them in stories, but we’re not yet wise enough to formulate them explicitly. We’re still chimps in a troupe, or wolves in a pack. We know how to behave. We know who’s who, and why. We’ve learned that through experience. Our knowledge has been shaped by our interaction with others. We’ve established predictable routines and patterns of behavior—but we don’t really understand them, or know where they originated. They’ve evolved over great expanses of time. No one was formulating them explicitly (at least not in the dimmest reaches of the past), even though we’ve been telling each other how to act forever. One day, however, not so long ago, we woke up. We were already doing, but we started noticing what we were doing. We started using our bodies as devices to represent their own actions. We started imitating and dramatizing. We invented ritual. We started acting out our own experiences. Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became represented in our stories. But we didn’t and still don’t understand what it all meant.
The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature. In the Garden of Eden, prior to the dawn of self-consciousness—so goes the story—human beings were sinless. Our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, walked with God. Then, tempted by the snake, the first couple ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, discovered Death and vulnerability, and turned away from God.
Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful mortal existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic adventures and the Exodus: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favour could be gained, and his wrath averted, through proper sacrifice—and, also, that bloody murder might be motivated among those unwilling or unable to succeed in this manner.
When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words—that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the curses placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being—his vulnerability, his eventual death—is equivalent to his discovery of the future. The future: that’s where you go to die (hopefully, not too soon). Your demise might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to gain benefit later. It is for this reason—among others, no doubt—that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There is little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human. Sometimes, animals act as if they are working, but they are really only following the dictates of their nature. Beavers build dams. They do so because they are beavers, and beavers build dams. They don’t think, "Yeah, but I’d rather be on a beach in Mexico with my girlfriend," while they’re doing it.
Prosaically, such sacrifice—work—is delay of gratification, but that’s a very mundane phrase to describe something of soul-shattering significance. The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves. Doing so was indistinguishable from organizing society: the discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract—the organization that enables today’s work to be stored, reliably (mostly in the form of promises from others).
Understanding is often acted out before it can be articulated (just as a child acts out what it means to be "mother" or "father" before being able to give a spoken account of what those roles mean). The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay. There is a long conceptual journey between merely feasting hungrily and learning to set aside some extra meat, smoked by the fire, for the end of the day, or for someone who isn’t present.
It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else (and those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you are sharing with your future self). It is much easier and far more likely to selfishly and immediately wolf down everything in sight. There are similar long journeys between every leap in sophistication with regard to delay and its conceptualization: short-term sharing, storing away for the future, representation of that storage in the form of records and, later, in the form of currency—and, ultimately, the saving of money in a bank or other social institution. Some conceptualizations had to serve as intermediaries, or the full range of our practices and ideas surrounding sacrifice and work and their representation could have never emerged.
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings—often precisely those who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behavior. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book. Here’s a productive symbolic idea: The future is a judgmental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work—which is sacrifice now, to gain later.
First question. What must be sacrificed? Small sacrifices may be sufficient to solve small, singular problems. But it is possible that larger, more comprehensive sacrifices might an array of large and complex problems, all at the same time. That’s harder, but it might be better. Adapting to the necessary discipline of medical school will, for example, fatally interfere with the licentious lifestyle of a hardcore undergraduate party animal. Giving that up is a sacrifice. But a physician can—to quote George W.—really "put food on his family." That’s a lot of trouble dispensed with, over a very long period of time. So, sacrifices are necessary, to improve the future, and larger sacrifices can be better.
Second question (set of related questions, really): We’ve already established the basic principle—sacrifice will improve the future. But a principle, once established, has to be fleshed out. Its full extension or significance has to be understood. What is implied by the idea that sacrifice will improve the future, in the most extreme and final of cases? Where does that basic principle find its limits? We must ask, to begin, "What would be the largest, most effective—most pleasing—of all possible sacrifices?" and then "How good might the best possible future be, if the most effective sacrifice could be made?"
The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons, immediately follows the story of the expulsion from Paradise, as mentioned previously. Cain and Abel are really the first humans, since their parents were made directly by God, and not born in the standard manner. Cain and Abel live in history, not in Eden. They must work. They must make sacrifices, to please God, and they do so, with altar and proper ritual. But things get complicated. Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not. Abel is rewarded, many times over, but Cain is not. It’s not precisely clear why (although the text strongly hints that Cain’s heart is just not in it). Maybe the quality of what Cain put forward was low. Maybe his spirit was begrudging. Or maybe God was vexed, for some secret reasons of His own. And all of this is realistic, including the text’s vagueness of explanation. Not all sacrifices are of equal quality. Furthermore, it often appears that sacrifices of apparently high quality are not rewarded with a better future—and it’s not clear why. Why isn’t God happy? What would have to change to make Him so? Those are difficult questions—and everyone asks them, all the time, even if they don’t notice.
Asking such questions is indistinguishable from thinking.
The realization that pleasure could be usefully forestalled dawned on us with great difficulty. It runs absolutely contrary to our ancient, fundamental animal instincts, which demand immediate satisfaction (particularly under conditions of deprivation, which are both inevitable and commonplace). And, to complicate the matter, such delay only becomes useful when civilization has stabilized itself enough to guarantee the existence of the delayed reward, in the future. If everything you save will be destroyed or, worse, stolen, there is no point in saving. It is for this reason that a wolf will down twenty pounds of raw meat in a single meal. He isn’t thinking, "Man, I hate it when I binge. I should save some of this for next week."
So how was it that those two impossible and necessarily simultaneous accomplishments (delay and the stabilization of society into the future) could possibly have manifested themselves?
Here is a developmental progression, from animal to human. It’s wrong, no doubt, in the details. But it’s sufficiently correct, for our purposes, in theme: First, there is excess food. Large carcasses, mammoths or other massive herbivores, might provide that. (We ate a lot of mammoths. Maybe all of them.) With a large animal, there is some left for later after a kill. That’s accidental, at first—but, eventually, the utility of "for later" starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice develops at the same time: "If I leave some, even if I want it now, I won’t have to be hungry later." That provisional notion develops, to the next level ("If I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for") and then to the next ("I can’t possibly eat all of this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long, either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth, when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some mammoth later. That’s a good deal. And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me, more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever"). In such a manner, "mammoth" becomes "future mammoth," and "future mammoth" becomes "personal reputation." That’s the emergence of the social contract.
To share does not mean to give away something you value, and get nothing back. That is instead only what every child who refuses to share fears it means. To share means, properly, to initiate the process of trade. A child who can’t share—who can’t trade—can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade. Benjamin Franklin once suggested that a newcomer to a neighbourhood ask a new neighbour to do him or her a favour, citing an old maxim: He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged. In Franklin’s opinion, asking someone for something (not too extreme, obviously) was the most useful and immediate invitation to social interaction. Such asking on the part of the newcomer provided the neighbour with an opportunity to show him- or herself as a good person, at first encounter. It also meant that the latter could now ask the former for a favour, in return, because of the debt incurred, increasingly their mutual familiarity and trust. In that manner both parties could overcome their natural hesitancy and mutual fear of the stranger.
It is better to have something than nothing. It’s better yet to share generously the something you have. It’s even better than that, however, to become widely known for generous sharing. That’s something that lasts. That’s something that’s reliable. And, at this point of abstraction, we can observe how the groundwork for the conceptions reliable, honest and generous has been laid. The basis for an articulated morality has been put in place. The productive, truthful sharer is the prototype for the good citizen, and the good man. We can see in this manner how from the simple notion that "leftovers are a good idea" the highest moral principles might emerge.
It’s as if something like the following happened as humanity developed. First were the endless tens or hundreds of thousands of years prior to the emergence of written history and drama. During this time, the twin practices of delay and exchange begin to emerge, slowly and painfully. Then they become represented, in metaphorical abstraction, as rituals and tales of sacrifice, told in a manner such as this: "It’s as if there is a powerful Figure in the Sky, who sees all, and is judging you. Giving up something you value seems to make Him happy—and you want to make Him happy, because all Hell breaks loose if you don’t. So, practise sacrificing, and sharing, until you become expert at it, and things will go well for you." No one said any of this, at least not so plainly and directly. But it was implicit in the practice and then in the stories.
Action came first (as it had to, as the animals we once were could act but could not think). Implicit, unrecognized value came first (as the actions that preceded thought embodied value, but did not make that value explicit). People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. A great idea begins to emerge, taking ever-more-clearly-articulated form, in ever more-clearly-articulated stories: What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? And the answers become increasingly deeper and profound.
The God of Western tradition, like so many gods, requires sacrifice. We have already examined why. But sometimes He goes even further. He demands not only sacrifice, but the sacrifice of precisely what is loved best. This is most starkly portrayed (and most confusingly evident) in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, beloved of God, long wanted a son—and God promised him exactly that, after many delays, and under the apparently impossible conditions of old age and a long-barren wife. But not so long afterward, when the miraculously-borne Isaac is still a child, He turns around and in unreasonable and apparently barbaric fashion demands that His faithful servant offers his son as a sacrifice. The story ends happily: God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s obedient hand and accepts a ram in Isaac’s stead. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really address the issue at hand: Why is God’s going further necessary? Why does He—why does life—impose such demands?
We’ll start our analysis with a truism, stark, self-evident and understated: Sometimes things do not go well. That seems to have much to do with the terrible nature of the world, with its plagues and famines and tyrannies and betrayals. But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values (much more on this in Rule 10). If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.
There’s an old and possibly apocryphal story about how to catch a monkey that illustrates this set of ideas very well. First, you must find a large, narrow-necked jar, just barely wide enough in diameter at the top for a monkey to put its hand inside. Then you must fill the jar part way with rocks, so it is too heavy for a monkey to carry. Then you must to scatter some treats, attractive to monkeys, near the jar, to attract one, and put some more inside the jar. A monkey will come along, reach into the narrow opening, and grab while the grabbing’s good. But now he won’t be able to extract his fist, now full of treats, from the jar. Not without unclenching his hand. Not without relinquishing what he already has. And that’s just what he won’t do. The monkey-catcher can just walk over to the jar and pick up the monkey. The animal will not sacrifice the part to preserve the whole.
Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity. Something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord. What is most valuable, and best sacrificed?—or, what is at least emblematic of that? A choice cut of meat. The best animal in a flock. A most valued possession. What’s above even that? Something intensely personal and painful to give up. That’s symbolized, perhaps, in God’s insistence on circumcision as part of Abraham’s sacrificial routine, where the part is offered, symbolically, to redeem the whole. What’s beyond that? What pertains more closely to the whole person, rather than the part? What constitutes the ultimate sacrifice—for the gain of the ultimate prize?
It’s a close race between child and self. The sacrifice of the mother, offering her child to the world, is exemplified profoundly by Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pietà. Michelangelo crafted Mary cradling the nearly naked body of her adult Son, crucified and ruined. It’s her fault. It was through her that He entered the world and its great drama of Being. Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Every woman asks herself that question. Some say no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily, knowing full well what’s to come—as do all mothers, if they allow themselves to see. It’s an act of supreme courage, when its undertaken voluntarily.
In turn, Mary’s son, Christ, offers Himself to God and the world, to betrayal, torture and death—to the very point of despair on the cross, where he cries out those terrible words: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46, KJV). That is the archetypal story of the man who gives his all for the sake of the better—who offers up his life for the advancement of Being—who allows God’s will to become manifest fully within the confines of a single, mortal life. That is the model for the honourable man. In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrifices Himself—God, His Father, is simultaneously sacrificing His son. It is for this reason that the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme—nothing greater—can be imagined. That’s the very definition of "archetypal." That’s the core of what constitutes "religious."
Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance, to a greater or lesser degree—and greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, there can be no doubt.
Everyone holds this knowledge in their souls. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering—who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.
Abridged, from Wikipedia: "The Ark of the Covenant was a lidded, gold-leafed wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to various texts within the Hebrew Bible, it also contained Aaron's rod and a pot of manna. God was said to have spoken with Moses "from between the two cherubim" on the Ark's cover. The biblical account states that the Ark was created a year after the Israelites exodus from Egypt, according to a pattern given to Moses by God at the foot of Mount Sinai. Thereafter, the gold-plated acacia chest was carried by its staves while en route by the Levites in advance of the people (when on the march toward the Promised Land) or at the head of the Israelite army. In transport, the Ark was concealed under a large veil made of skins and blue cloth—carefully hidden even from the eyes of the priests and the Levites who carried it. When at rest, a portable building, the tabernacle ("residence" or "dwelling place"), was set up to house the Ark. It was build of woven layers of curtains, along with 48 boards clad with polished gold standing like vertical blinds. Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem superseded it as the dwelling-place of God some 300 years later."
There has to be a bridge between the finite and the infinite.
There has to be a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal.
There has to be a bridge between the knowable and the unknowable.
There has to be bedrock at the foundation.
The ark, which is the portal to God, is to be carried on the shoulders of those who are Holy. It is not to be touched. To touch the ark is to risk death. There are holy things that cannot be touched except at mortal risk. Those things that cannot be touched are at the very foundation of the community.
The ark must be placed at the center of the temple. The temple must be placed at the center of the community. The community must be arranged around what is untouchable and unshakeable. The untouchable and unshakeable is what is axiomatic. The people following the ark have determined to journey toward the eternal Promised Land.
The city arranged properly around the ark of the covenant is eternal Jerusalem.
Something must be axiomatic, or everything shakes and falls. The axiomatic cannot be expressed fully in words. The axiomatic, untouchable and unshakeable, is instead what makes communication possible. The axiomatic is a spirit, a process, a living force. Its manifestations, however, are concrete. That is the transformation of the spirit into matter. That is the generation of the Tablets of Stone.
The ark of the covenant contains the Rules that are derived in the first order from the axiomatic principle. That principle is the Spirit that made the Rules manifest. The Spirit is the ultimate inhabitant of the ark, and the rules the result of its action. That Spirit is the creativeLogos.
The ark of the covenant and the temple is replaced by the cathedral at the center of the community. The cathedral is the cross in architectural form. The cross is where the transformation takes place. The transformation is the incorporation of the body of Christ. That incorporation is a dramatic pretense; is the embodiment of the decision not to believe in Christ but to act Him out, which is to believe in a much deeper manner than to merely believe.
Christ is He who transcends death by voluntarily accepting death. Christ is He who rejects the kingdoms of this world for the Kingdom of God. Christ is He who speaks the truth that creates the habitable order that is good from the chaos of potential that exists prior to the materialization of reality.
Christ is He who wields potential as the sword that cleaves death. Christ is He whose radical acceptance of the conditions of life defeats the hatred, bitterness and vengefulness that the tragedy and malevolence that taints Being otherwise produces. Without the acceptance of death, bitterness rules, and Hell triumphs.
Christ is the potential of man and woman.
It is said that man and woman alike are made in the image of God, and that God is He who uses the eternal Logos to generate habitable order from the chaos of potential. This is the axiom. This is the diamond at the center of the world. This is the Spirit in the ark that is untouchable. This is the bedrock of the culture that brings peace and prosperity and that respects the dignity of man. This is the Great Truth. This is the responsibility whose acceptance allows each of us to live despite the catastrophic fragility of our limited being. Our likeness to God gives each of us a value that transcends the finite. Individual and society alike are charged with the ethical demand to respect that value. This is not only the presumption that grounds the idea of the Rights of Man. It is the presumption that lays upon each of us the Ultimate Responsibility that is the inevitable corollary of those Rights.
Face the chaos of the future.
Employ the Logos of which you are a part to transform that chaos into the habitable order that is Good. Speak the truth. Embody the truth.
Accept, impossibly, the limitations that make Being possible. Dispense in that manner with resentment, hatred, and the desire for infinite and unbounded vengeance and all the cruelty and evil that accompanies it. Pick up the cross of your tragedy and betrayal. Accept its terrible weight. Hoist it onto your shoulders and struggle impossibly upward toward the Kingdom of God on the hill.
In the beginning, only the king was sovereign. Then the nobles became sovereign. Then, with the Greeks, all men became sovereign. Then came the Christian revolution, and every individual—male, female, beggarman, tax collector, prostitute and thief—became, so impossibly, equally sovereign. Then our cultural and legal systems wrapped themselves tightly around that ultimately unlikely narrative of individual sovereignty and made it their central, unshakeable pillar. Now we all give each other the respect of individual citizens who are sovereign without remembering or noticing that we are simultaneously accepting the proposition that every singular one of us is a divine center of Logos—a divine center of the eternal Word that brings habitable order into being through the voluntary, truthful confrontation with chaos and the unknown.
And if any one of us is not treated in this manner—if anyone no matter how powerful reacts to any of us no matter how downtrodden as if our free will is illusory or our role in choosing the outcomes of our lives non-existent then we get offended and angry and agitated and insulted—and rightly so. Our spectacularly and miraculously functional Western legal systems are predicated on the acceptance of the intrinsic value of the individual; predicated on the idea that each person can step forward, voluntarily accept the burden of being, transform positively in consequence, and share the results of that transformation with others. It is in that manner that each of us pushes everything away from the abyss, and a bit more Heavenward. Is the apparent necessity for such insanely high regard an illusion? It is certain that it is at least functional—and, therefore, not so obviously illusory. It is also equally certain that we have not outlined any more viable materialistic alternative.
You might well ask: is the hypothesis of intrinsic human value justified? Is our apparent ability to face the as-of-yet unmanifest future and decide on the nature of its realization in the present genuine and real? Is it true despite its incomprehensibility that we are free, conscious beings and that our conscious freedom plays a role in constructing the cosmos? It could merely be, as the cynics and reductionists hold; that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of materialistic processes, that there is no free will (or at least none of any genuine import); that there is no accompanying moral responsibility or freely-chosen destiny. There are, however, valid and not-so-simply-dispensed-with reasons to avoid too premature and casual acceptance of such conclusions.
Even the greatest of us do not understand consciousness, not a bit—much less comprehend the role it plays in Being. We have no idea, currently (seriously no idea) how the material substrate of the brain produces the awareness—and, more, the self-awareness—that seems so vital to the existence of the cosmos. If there is no center of experience to experience something—anything—then it is very difficult to say in what manner that something or anything exists. Reality requires an observer and, as far as we can tell, that observer is consciousness (even more so, self-consciousness). Our awareness—our self-awareness—appears to confront the unformed potential of the future and to cast it into the concrete reality of the present. Our consciousness acts on possibility like the Logos of the Father acted on the pre-cosmogonic chaos at the beginning of time. It is in that manner that we are made in the image of God. And we all demand to be treated as if that was true. And who would dare to deny that such a demand is made for valid and perhaps even ultimately valid reasons?
Consider the evidence, from our actions. When you treat yourself as if you matter, then you thrive. When you treat those around you as if they are inhabited by a spark of divinity, then your relationships stabilize and grow, simultaneously.
When we produce societies predicated on the great idea of the inherent value of each individual (from saint to criminal) then men become free and productive and capable of living the meaningful and productive lives that lend dignity to the tragedy of their limited existences—and when we fail to do so then our societies degenerate into the tyrannical and murderous tribal structures that seem to exist as the only certainly manifest alternative. Is this not all indicative of the existence of some profound truth? Obviously, we are constrained (and severely so) by the manner of our corporeal being. We are subject to deterministic rules in a seriously profound manner. We do not have the power to shape things in any old way, whatsoever, at any time or place—but we can certainly and demonstrably and apparently wilfully advance in the direction of our imagination and in quite a staggering and compelling manner. Is this not indicative of who we genuinely are? Is this not a—perhaps the—primal, existential truth?
We are in danger, in the West, of abandoning our culture, of leaving our great foundational stories to die on the altar of our inquisitiveness, cynicism and carelessness, of degenerating into nihilism or returning in a reactionary manner to an archaic and destructive tribalism—of the right or of the left (it matters not). These twin dread paths will not lead us to where we would want to be, if we decided to be conscious and careful.
Such abandonment will weaken us, fatally, as individuals. It will lay us open to possession by all manner of demonic conceptual alternatives. It will make us vulnerable to our enemies, within and without. It is psychologically true that each of us should open ourselves up to the tragedy of being. It is psychologically true that we should pick up our tragic burdens and crosses, die, continually, and renew our souls, continually. It may be more than psychologically true, as well. It may be a truth of cosmic significance.
That is the death and the resurrection, celebrated by Easter, and it is time for us to wake up, become conscious, and recognize it as such. It is not possible to encapsulate within any finite written account the total import of the idea of Christ’s death and rebirth. The impossible claim of the bodily resurrection of one man, conjoined with the notion that this event was both of world-redeeming and cosmic significance, simply cannot be understood once and for all within any singular frame of interpretation. Even for die-hard atheists of the scientific type (think Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) a great mystery remains: why has this strange and thoroughly implausible story exercised such immense impact?
It is because life is a tragedy, tainted by malevolence. It is because life is suffering, as we all are each of us vulnerable and ignorant, made all-too-frequently bitter, resentful and angry because of just that, and more than willing to make things worse in that anger. But we all admire courage and the accompanying willingness to abide by the truth, no matter how terrible, in the face of that suffering. We all recognize in such courage and truth at least by our admiration of it an antidote to the catastrophe of life. We all know that in the absence of such courage and truth mere catastrophe degenerates all too frequently into hell.
Imagine that acceptance of vulnerability and ignorance is the precondition for growth. Imagine that confrontation with the terrible unknown, with its paralyzing manifestations of tragedy and malevolence, is necessary to catalyze both wisdom and maturity. Imagine, finally, that human consciousness plays some central and as-of-yet poorly understood role in the reality of the cosmos (at least as necessary observer). Imagine all of that. Then, ask yourself: what is the absolute hypothetical limit of human attainment, when vulnerability and ignorance are fully and completely accepted, when the unknown is squarely confronted, and when consciousness is given its due as the very centre of the world?
That’s Christ’s acceptance of the crucifix. That’s His willingness to be betrayed—subject to the evil of his closest companions and the state—and His embrace of brokenness and death. It is pure truth that even a small leaven of humility and courage engenders resilience, progress and growth. It is pure truth that resentful rejection of the price of finite being multiplies suffering endlessly and unnecessarily. What is the ultimate expression of those truths, taken to their final conclusion? Who is to say what who we are, and what we might be capable of achieving, if we developed the courage to accept our terrible fates, live in truth, and stumble uphill? This is the question posed by Christianity, in its very essence: Would you put everything you have and everything you are on the line so that you could learn to conduct yourself in the best possible manner? Would you be willing to allow who you might be to continually and painfully triumph over who you currently are? In the most ancient religious language: would you sacrifice what you love most to God to find out who and what you are?
We are, in the final analysis, neither structure nor chaos. Each of us is instead best understood as a process—as a living, dynamic process: as the very process by which what we know (what we know so insufficiently) is transformed into what could yet be. That is the process by which our continued forward movement through life is constantly and inevitably dependent. To understand that, and to welcome it: that is voluntary acceptance of the necessity of eternal transformation, as an alternative to nihilistic despair or desperate and fatal identification with the state. This is the idea enacted during the ceremony of the Christian eucharist. Incorporation of the body of Christ is the symbolic transformation of the participant—not into a believer of a set of facts, religious though those facts may appear, but into the active imitator of Christ; into the person willing to undergo whatever death is necessary to bring about the next and better state of being; into the person willing to embrace his or her confrontation with the tragedy and malevolence of life, to learn from that process of embrace and to move one step closer, in consequence, to the eternally-receding City of God.
The idea of the dying and resurrecting God is one of the oldest ideas of mankind, widespread and exceptionally variant in its forms. It forms part of the set of presuppositions that underlie the most ancient shamanic rituals—carried over, perhaps, from the Stone Age itself. It is echoed in the foundational stories of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece.
It manifests itself in allegorical forms—in the figure of the Phoenix, for example, which immolates itself, regains its youthful form, and rises in triumph from the ashes. It recurs repeatedly in the tropes of popular culture, as well, bringing even those entirely devoid of religious education under the spell.
Marvel’s iconic Iron Man plummets like Icarus from sky to ground after saving the world from demonic, serpentine other-world forces and then arises from his death.
The child-wizard Harry Potter must ultimately die and be reborn to defeat Voldemort, a very-thinly-disguised Satan. All of that creative variation-on-a-theme speaks of a deep, ineradicable and eternally re-emergent psychological reality.
We all see this in our day-to-day lives, and we all know it, because we see it. A small failure—a small disappointment, frustration, or disenchantment—engenders within us a small death, a small descent into the underworld, a small requirement for rebirth. A large failure produces a proportionately large catastrophe and transformation. When you are compelled to talk to someone because you face divorce, or the failure of a treasured ambition, or the illness or death of someone close, you are walking yourself through the eternal narrative: stability-crisis-death-transformation-rebirth. That’s the story of our lives. That’s the fall and the re-establishment of Paradise. The idea that the Savior is the figure who dies and resurrects is a representation in dramatic or narrative form of the brute fact that psychological progress—indeed, learning itself—requires continual death and rebirth, of lesser and greater magnitude. If you are engaged in a serious interpersonal conflict or argument, or facing a true crisis in your life, the new information confronting you cannot be incorporated without the oh-so-painful demise of your previous conceptions (and all of the resistance comprehension of that pain necessarily entails). That’s part and parcel of the process so famously described as assimilation and accommodation by the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: we each confront the world with a set of pre-conceptualizations whose function is simultaneously to delimit and render pragmatic our very perceptions, thoughts and actions.
In the absence of this a priori we simply cannot function. Nonetheless, it is still insufficient. No one ever knows enough, and what we each do not yet know will at some moment of crisis become of vital importance. When something new and hydra-like confronts us and shakes us to our core what is old and anachronistic within must therefore immolate itself and die. It is very rare indeed to learn something profound without suffering the terrible pain of dashed dreams and the soul-shaking terror of uncertainty and doubt.
This means that none of us should identify in the most fundamental sense with what we currently know and presume (means, as well, that we should all come to understand that, so that we do not remain confused about who we are). This means that it is never sufficient to be conservative, or to identify with the past, or to become ideologically or dogmatically committed, or to remain stubbornly anachronistic and unchanged. The environment transforms headlong around us, and we all must run as fast as we can—as Alice’s Red Queen well knew—just to stay in the same place. It is not sufficient, either, to abandon tradition and structure entirely in a headlong and irresponsible rush toward the anomalous and revolutionary. Structure is insufficient, but it is still necessary, and the ethical requirement for respecting and maintaining it is still of paramount import. We each must as well similarly avoid falling prey to the temptation of identifying with the chaotic, depressing, anxiety-ridden and nihilism-inducing state of affairs engendered by the terrible confrontation with the genuinely unknown. Even when thrust into the underworld by the dread events of our lives, we must not characterize ourselves as permanent inhabitants of that dark and dread place, lest we lose hope, despair, and seek revenge.
To progress, psychologically, you must let go—sacrifice—time and again, in the face of successive obstacles. You must abandon those things that (and, often, those people who) are impeding your progress, despite the fact that you may have held them very close to your heart. When you’re wrong, when you’ve missed the mark (when you’ve sinned, because that is the meaning of sin), you must let the part of you that is wrong and aiming improperly die. Then you must allow the new spirit manifesting itself within to spring to life. That new spirit: that’s the terrible information contained in whatever error you committed in living conjunction with the now-transformed structures you originally employed to frame the situation. That new spirit: it’s a manifestation, as well—and in other words—of the potential within you that had not yet been called forth by the previous travails of your life.
Christ is, symbolically, the Way and the Truth of Life—and no one comes to the Father except through Him. Embracing the process of voluntary death and rebirth that is identical with psychological development means determining to move forward and upward despite the horrors of life. It means, as well—symbolically speaking—rejuvenating the dead Father, or rescuing Him from stagnation and deterioration in the eternal underworld. Forthright individual confrontation with the unknown renews the individual, but also catalyzes cultural revitalization. This is the essence of Christian ritual and belief, articulated as a psychological principle: We must identify with that part of ourselves that is always stretching beyond what we currently know and has the faith to let go of old certainties so that new patterns of being can be brought into place.
It is through identification with the process symbolized by Easter that we are each redeemed and our cultural revivified and salvaged. We are all the slaves of Pharisees and lawyers—of those who place dogma above spirit at the cost of spirit. We are all subject to betrayal, by ourselves and by all those who surround us. We are all facing extinction, in the most torturous of manners. But there is a spirit within us with sufficient courage to confront the true horrors of existence forthrightly, to allow the transformation (even death) that such confrontation catalyzes to occur, and to leap forward, renewed. How is it that Life might prevail, in the face of Death and Hell? With arms open, embracing its fate.
We are all fallen creatures—and we all know it. We are all separated from what should be and thrown into the world of death and despair. We are all brutally crucified on the cross that is the reality of life itself. To rebel against that fate merely worsens it, transforming what could be mere tragedy into something indistinguishable from hell. To argue bitterly and despair around the deathbed of a loved one—to take a single example—is to turn all the pain of death and loss into something far worse. To accept, instead? Is that, simultaneously, to transcend? It’s certainly courage and truth and perhaps even love and those three forces are something to behold. Are they more powerful than despair and the desire for vengeance? That is the Christian suggestion. And the Christian command? To act out the proposition that courage and truth and love are more powerful than death and despair and to accept what transpires as a consequence. That is Easter, and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. We forget or remain blind to such things at our great peril.