My father died on Easter Sunday. Its one of those facts for which there’s no proper emotional taxonomy. Does the anniversary change what Easter is? Would I be this sad on any other day? Surely the day’s meaning is heightened and aggravated—I struggle, whisper more than usual, wring my rags of faith, grieve, wish for life everlasting. Meantime I miss my father. Meantime I wish the meanings of his life may have significance in the sky. How silly this is—how I know it. What is faith? Is it a weakness of the mind as many shrewd people suppose? Its possible. At the very least, faith struggles with facts, or as W.H. Auden noted: “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”
And so Easter may have its poetry but its margins are shadowy. I can’t say what faith is. Maybe I’m not brave enough. Perhaps I’m too wise. Faith and poetry are easy enough to challenge.
“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
But Easter is all about cognitive dissonance. If we want nothing more than the here and now we may be giving away something more than faith. Hitchens insists he feels complete living in the intensities of now. Alongside this, and in contrast, consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”
Hitchens would say God in the world is hearsay or superstition and for all I know he’s right. But suffering is not sub-Cartesian: that is, not thinking about it doesn’t make it go away. Being among the like-minded doesn’t transform it. Like-mindedness is easy, much easier than faith. Bonhoeffer again:
“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).”
Hitchens would say there’s nothing Christians can do that atheists can’t do better. He’d also likely say Christianity, like all religions, is a hodgepodge of superstitions and proves itself hieratic, dishonest, even tyrannical.
And he’d be right. The history of church persecutions is long and dreadful.
“Evil-doers and mockers surround us.”
Who can say there was a risen Christ? There’s no more complicated debate than the one between believers, skeptics, and scholars about the historical events surrounding the gospels’ depictions of Jesus’ resurrection.
Did it happen? Paul said Christ appeared to 500 witnesses. He noted many of them were still alive, in effect, saying: “Would I dare to make this up?”
In the end I like the word “commission” for work is at the core of faith, not folk tales or magical thinking. Skeptics get this part of faith all wrong. On Easter I am strong. I will be strong next week. Strong because I come back day after day to the troubled world and strive in it.
My father was a striver. That’s why I miss him most of all.