Easter Hope During Covid-19

Posted: April 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

Easter Hope During Covid-19

1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

On Friday I spoke of a Crucified God and while it was a slight confirmation of what has traditionally been the norm for Good Friday it was an attempt to make it align with a ‘Progressive’ understanding of where or thinking on God might be today. The reality of the human condition as binary, or good verses bad or right vs wrong assumptions was challenged. I suggested that events such as the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping the world was the result of an excess or can be termed as an evil event as a result of excess and that such an excess was when humanities creative responsibilities overtook evolutionary limitations. When scientists go too far too fast, when human expectations and actions put the whole creation at risk. When human aspirations overtake common sense and social responsibility. When human imagination escapes moral responsibilities.

The English Standard Translation of our Corinthian Text reads “At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to the Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.”— 1 Cor 1:22–25, SV trans.

“This is a theology that begins in atheism,” Caputo says, but he also says that this is just that—a starting point. Caputo’s statement needs to be understood by drawing upon Paul Tillich’s idea of atheism, where God is “always that which precedes this division [of subject and object].” When something becomes real to us, it enters subject-object relations, but we need to resist this tendency when it comes to God because it naturally leads to misguided attempts to “prove” God’s existence or nonexistence. When a theology begins in atheism the question of whether God exists or not is a question of no value. Another way I think of putting this is to say like Richard Kearney suggests that There is Theism illumined by atheism and then there is ana-theism, God after that God, God of the death of God if you like or maybe even a call to look for Easter Sunday, a God of the empty tomb.

The concept of a supreme being, an entity among entities, is unavoidable as history has shown us yet is also half-blasphemous and mythological. The concept of God a supreme being projects an idea of God as somebody like us, only bigger, better, smarter, who out-knows us, out-wills us, and out-wits us at every turn, a God who casts an eternal, relentless eye on us. It’s no wonder that we grow up understanding fear better than love when as an infant we are often told that God is watching over us all the time. This notion of God is almost impossible to avoid and yet it’s theologically spurious! It anthropomorphizes and finitizes God. It renders nature as uninformative, and it encourages a dominion over, irresponsible exploitation such as it seems has created the Covid-19 virus. No one is suggesting that the arrival of Covid-19 was sitting around waiting for an opportunity to act on us. The proper theological and religious response to this “God on high” is atheism, but as Our text reminds us, that’s the beginning of theology, not the end. There is ana-theism, a God after that God, there is the Easter Sunday Hope of a new heaven and a new earth. As Caputo puts this is a Good Friday context when he says; For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.

The Easter Sunday message, the resurrection story or at least the beginning of the story has the Gospels being far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have got there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of “fear and great joy.” Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do?

This is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs—have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. Here we have the challenge of another way of seeing weakness or ambiguity and uncertainty. The story doesn’t have the ring of great drama. But somehow it does have has the ring of truth to it. It sounds like life as we know it. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt. How or why the Covid-19 virus came upon the world is not certain, yet at least because we hear all the speculation, but the fact that it is here and that it coming was unimaginable is without doubt.

This reminds us that the symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He was not in the tomb. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face. This is the Easter story of Hope. This is the story of an emptiness to be filled, an end to what is and the birth of a new Heaven and a new earth. Covid-19 is an evil unimaginable event the ramifications of which is an emptiness waiting to be filled with a new way of being. It was unexpected, unwanted and confusing and it brings an emptiness waiting to be filled. This is the hope of Easter. God does not exist but the insistence of God is calling us to live a Kingdom- life.

One of the helpful approaches to this change in thinking is to remind ourselves that we don’t want to lose the unlimited depth of God. If we’ve got a problem with something, change the metaphor, Tillich says. In this case, we need to think of God not as on high over and above but rather in the depths. Think of God as the womb, or the ‘Almost’. Tillich uses the word “unconditional” to describe God. Caputo, in response, goes as far as to say this: “If God exists, that would ruin everything. If God exists, that would ruin what we mean by the Kingdom of God. He says that the unconditional demands that God not exist. For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.”

Ok! Now we might say that if God doesn’t “exist” the way an object exists, then we might need to think of God as “unconditional,” but what do we mean by that? Well1 Maybe we need to consider it from two different directions.

The first is from the point of view that there is an out there, a reality that can be spoken of. Starting there suggests that the unconditional from “out there” breaks in and seizes us without giving us any say in the matter. There’s no compromise or barter. It’s coming at us without our invitation and maybe even against our wishes. This is not a projection from us but a projectile coming at us. We might even like it to go away! It wakes us up in the middle of the night and it won’t let us get back to sleep.

The second is from the point of view of the self; that suggests that the unconditional in this sense is something we affirm. We hope for this if we’re worth the oxygen we are breathing. This is the sort of thing for which there is no small print. A good example of this is the ideal of welcoming the other. The unconditional is about welcoming the other and being hospitable in the best sense of the word—not how we normally do it, inviting only people we like and need and who somehow serve us. What would it be like to welcome the Other? An excerpt from a poem I wrote might suggest something about the unconditional nature of this welcoming the other.

………… The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Maybe we wouldn’t use the word “invitation” when thinking about the empty tomb and its challenge to us but rather the word “visitation”—it’s the emptiness, the open, unencumbered nothingness that invites us to enter, it’s the knock of the door in the middle of the night that invites us to open ourselves to risk, to chance a new future or a new tomorrow. Is it a stranger in need of a cup of cold water, and the challenge is to not miss the message by thinking that there might be someone there to do you harm? The risk of genuine hospitality is irreducible. If there’s no risk, it’s all about welcoming the same. This means that, yes, whether we like it or not, the unconditional includes disaster and unforeseeable harm and evil. Nothing guarantees that it is good. But if you play it safe without opening yourself to this moment, if you’ve taken every precaution to remove every possibility of danger, you’ve also drained life of its vitality. It we allow the Covid-19 situation to fall into the vibes of a supreme, almighty, untouchable, God then we have denied the ‘Almost’, we have denied the Crucified, vulnerable ambiguous, unexpected God of the empty tomb.

One other way to put the “unconditional,” drawing from Jacques Derrida, is the “impossible.” What we mean by God may indeed be just this—in the phenomenological sense, not the logic of P and not-P. We go through life with a horizon of expectations. When we turn the corner, we expect to see the old familiar place, not a sea of nothing! Such predictability in life is necessary to our survival. We work with what is possible within a range of expectations. Again, here I might suggest is the ‘Almost’ as God. Nobody wants to gainsay the importance of the possible in this sense. We foresee what is likely to come, the ‘almost’ and we make preparations along the terms of the relatively stable world in which we live.

When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do. The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. Here is the challenge of the Covid-19 virus; will the rules that helped us manage the virus become the norm or influence the rules we adopt. And yes, there’s also a relative instability to be acknowledged. It’s possible to turn the corner and discover that the place we know has been torn down. Something can shatter our horizon of expectation. If it weren’t, life would be same-old, same-old. When something shatters our horizon, it forces us to reconsider everything from the ground up. When we have been betrayed by someone we trusted unconditionally. When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do! The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. This distinction between the horizon of expectations and the in-breaking of surprise cuts into all aspects of life.

We depend upon the relative stability of life, life is not a bed of roses, life is very much like good Friday and the cross, we all bear it often but we also need the open-endedness, the absolute surprise, the challenge of the invitation to be unconditional, to love the other.. Though we want stability of the world put right, we also want a certain amount of chaos, the open, empty tomb, what James Joyce called “chaosmos.” The name of God is the name of the great “perhaps”—I again would say the name of the great ‘almost’ not in the sense of vacillation or not yet or even the probability but in the sense of a possibility, of the impossible, a newness never before known. This is a miraculousness to life that can’t be discounted. This is the Kingdom, Kin-dom, Realm of a life of promise

In summary then, we don’t need to get rid of God, but we need to rethink what we mean by God. We don’t stop at the literal meaning of a text (if we can even find it); we start there. We ask ourselves what the meaning of Christianity is and we remind ourselves that we don’t need it to be calcified. Trapped in fear of the unknown or the unknowable, nor does it need to be trapped in the fears that are created by those who would make us think like them. Christianity is the ongoing living activity of the tradition. The name of God is the deep deposit of that tradition that invites and in fact insists that we live a post Easter life.

And what is the Kingdom of God? It is the very works of compassion that are the living spirit of it, not the result of a rewards and punishments system, not based on an exchange value system. The Kingdom of God is incarnate in the people who are naked, hungry, and imprisoned and is enacted in administering works of compassion. That’s what it is, if it is at all—and, in fact, it is not or it is ‘almost’ to the extent that people remain naked, hungry, and imprisoned without being administered to. That’s why the Kingdom of God is always becoming, the Kingdom for which we hope and dream and pray. The Kingdom does not exist, but insists. It calls and it is ‘almost’ Amen.

You might like to hear the above in another way. If so, you might like to watch the video below

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