If I ask people what Easter is about, and if they give the answer the minister is assumed to want, I receive some version of the Cosmic Transaction Theory. According to this there is another higher realm or reality where Jesus’ death and resurrection buys our freedom. The Cosmic Transaction, which is very hard to understand, means we will not go to hell, but will go to heaven. Jesus has paid for our sins.
Now when a Richard Dawkins, or similar, says something like this, lots of Christians get very upset because he is misunderstanding the faith. He is making a caricature of it. Things are much more subtle, and more refined than this. Except that when I ask the question at church, this is what the answer boils down to! It is what people believe when you push them for an answer.
Unfortunately, Cosmic Transaction Theory no longer works as a theological explanation. I suspect the reason many of us have found the new atheists so annoying is that they are speaking this truth with a new clarity. Quite apart from all the rudeness, and the “straw man” arguments, and flying spaghetti monsters, people agree with them, and so, heart of hearts, do we. We feel the truth of what they are saying. The Cosmic Transaction Theory no longer works.
One proof of this is that people no longer come to church. It’s true the social odium of non church attendance has decreased, although it hardly existed here in Australia anyway. (We only ever had 30% weekly worship attendance at best.) But all the other reasons with which we berate ourselves for people’s lack of interest were always there. There were always hypocrites in the church. There always were judgemental people, and child molesting clergy (and members) and ministers running off with the organist. We knew, but we came. We came because of the power of the Cosmic Transaction. Now we do not come. We do not believe... although the majority of us have a sense of the spiritual, and even believe in something god-ish.
Another indication that Cosmic Transaction Theory no longer works is that we only trot it out if we have to show our credentials. Many of my Christian friends are uncomfortable and embarrassed by this part of our heritage. Out of the shadow of the cathedral and around a campfire, which is one place Australian men do honest, no bullsh*t theology, cosmic transaction theory is ignored, denied, and even ridiculed.
In fact, since I am making sweeping statements, I think we only carry the Cosmic Transaction Theory card in our theological wallet because it comes as part of the package. We have other experience of the Divine, and of church, which we value, and Cosmic Transaction Theory is just there. It’s a bit like the conference I’m attending in Melbourne after Easter. If the special hotel promotion I’ve found includes tickets to an AFL match on the weekend, fine... but I couldn’t care less. I’m in Melbourne for other reasons.
As a minister I inherit an expectation, which comes from my earliest days in a small country church, my detour through fundamentalism, and the occasional anxieties of parishioners. The expectation is that during Easter I should be concentrating on saying something fresh about Cosmic Transaction Theory, and defending it, and re-presenting it to the congregation. Then everything will be alright.
It irritates me every Easter Sunday. I feel the expectation to preach something I don’t believe, and which I find irrelevant.
I ask myself, “Why not concentrate on my experience of the faith rather than trying to say something fresh about the package each Easter?” We already do this with Good Friday, and it works well. My Good Friday tradition has focussed on the experience of death, and loss, and desolation. We relate to this without effort because it is our human experience. We know death and loss. We know desolation. We know fear. We know betrayal. We drop railroad spikes in a bucket as each stage of the last night of his life is read, and it’s like the clang of the nail in the quiet church is very the hammer that pierces our own heart.
What then, do we relate to on Easter Day?
I found I could not answer this question without the cosmic transaction theory getting in the way, so I put Easter to one side, and asked, “Campfire honesty, what is the core of my faith experience?”
It comes down to three things. Being a Christian gives me Purpose, Meaning, and Belonging. In living out the faith I find these three things in an ultimately satisfying way.
The words “ultimately satisfying” are what count here. Currently, I am planning and training for a four day audax. This is a long distance bike ride, which will cover 860km over the four days. There is purpose in that. It is consuming time in planning and training. I’m quite focussed on it. Like cricket, audax has a big mind component. However, it has no ultimate purpose. There will always be someone who can ride further and faster, and in a few years I won’t be able to do it. I wouldn’t live for audax; it’s not big enough. It’s not a reason to live. Much midlife crisis is fuelled by the discovery that the purposes to which we have devoted ourselves are not big enough, not worthy of a life.
The church has also given me a place to belong. It’s been a home to me from my earliest days. The family has sold the farm. My wife and I are living in our 24th house since we married. But church, and the friends we have made in church-- they are the church, after all-- remains. In the anxieties and uncertainties of life, church has been remarkably constant, even when I have been at war with it!
And there is Meaning. Slowly, as I have struggled to understand what life is about, what it means, it has begun to distil down into one word; Compassion. This has been transcendent. Compassion means seeking to live in empathy with all others. It is what Jesus models for us in the gospel stories. With all its implications of justice and equality, and its repudiation of exploitation, it grips and energises my life with the sort of power you would expect from a cosmic transaction! It provides a meaning and purpose for life which is big enough to be worthy of a life!
I do not come to this easily. Compassion is hard work. I am deeply introverted, and seem to becoming more so as I get older. People and emotions are hard work. But in the moments where I am able to serve, or even just be there for another person and not worrying about how to respond or what to say next or needing to provide an answer, I am profoundly free.
How does this relate to Easter day? In all the traditions of Paul and the gospels, there is one constant through all the variations on the story. He has risen; death is not the end of Jesus, or what he was about.
Some of my colleagues are able to expound upon this in great detail. They preach Paul and his attempts to explain the implications of Christ crucified and risen with a puzzling precision. They present Paul’s understanding of Jesus as definitive for now. Sometimes it almost seems like Paul was giving a technical explanation of the actions of God. There is almost a modern day gnosticism about it; some secret known only the initiated. I am plainly not one of these initiated. I’m a little jealous of them, that it is so clear.
The poetry of the epistles occasionally inspires me. There will be verses here or there which speaks to me. But the system doesn’t stick when I shut the book! It does not work for me, or ring true. It is a world of ideas and subtleties that are a world away. It reminds me a little of afternoons in the desert, when the old men would sit me down in the shade and tell Pitjantjatjara tales of the world. Fascinating tales which formed part of the landscape and foundations of their lives, but which for me, illuminating as they might be, were ultimately just stories. They were not my foundations.
The only foundation I have is that the story teller Jesus who was killed, one more Galilean troublemaking dreamer, who ought to be long forgotten. They’ve had a funeral at the University this morning, under my window. The spire flags on Bonython Hall were at half mast when I arrived. Hundreds of balloons were let loose at the end of the service, just before the hearse left. I noticed that even while there was still the odd balloon breaking free of the plane tree branches, and people were still talking at the doors, the flags had already been raised! The task of forgetting is well under way. Jesus should not have been even this significant. And yet we still remember him!
And as I seek to be compassionate, I begin to see why. Life comes together for me.
Some may ask, “What about dying? What about freedom from dying, and the fear of death? How can this happen if there is no Cosmic Transaction?”
I began as a Christian with the understanding that the Cosmic Transaction meant I would have life after death. Training as a biologist, and as I grew older, I began to understand just how dependent our consciousness is upon our organic brain. I decided there was mechanism by which I could survive death. The funeral liturgy says “while death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God.” I got the end bit, but decided the other bit was wrong; just poetry.
In the messy serendipity of life it was about then I had begun to understand compassion a little better. Despite my disappointment that death would interfere in a life I had finally begun to enjoy, the insult and affront of death began to fade. A compassionate life began to be enough life. An ending did not seem such a problem. It was as though taking Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God seriously, and seeking to live it out, had begun to overcome death!
I am a conflicted person. When a truck started to run over me as I was riding home, the amygdala and basic self preservation kicked in very smartly! When the yearly blood tests come back, there is always a small frission of anxiety. But as I practice compassion death is losing its power. As it happens, I’ve come to suspect that the idea that biological death is the end is too neat and easy, and a result of wanting to make all of life explainable in scientific terms. But compassion stands on its own, and is transcendent now. Compassion is full of grace.