The Negating Tree
I had the pleasure of taking this morning's service at the Ipswich Unitarian Church. (see audio below).
“And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!"
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.”
This is an historical event which has perhaps been written about more than any other. The death of a man, the death of a rabbi, the death of God… But what does the death of this man mean? What does it mean to Unitarians? What does the death of Jesus say to us today? I’m not going to start here however – I’m going to start much more personally – with the time I encountered death in my own life.
When I was ten years old and living in Texas, my mother died from a brain haemorrhage. She got headaches, and occasionally stayed in bed during the day, but I never thought she was that sick. On Halloween day 1998 – after an evening of trick-or-treating, I was told that she had died. It was an earth-shattering shock. Within the week, my extended family had been flown over from the UK, so we could all be together in the lead up to her funeral.
I was not a religious child at all. In fact I only have two memories up to this point of anything religious: back when I lived in Scotland, I remember my mum taking me to Church one time, and once after school in Texas I went with a friend to his Bible study class. I did not last long - a child being unable to look up a Bible verse in Texas is just not a believable position. But religious baggage accompanied my mother’s death. There was a girl in my class, a good friend of mine, who told me that she could not come to a ‘godless funeral’. This is a very strange thing for a child to say, and at the time I had no idea what that even meant.
My nanny at the time told me that the rain was my mother’s tears, because she was so sad that she could not be with me as I grew up. Another time I was told she had set the car alarm off because she was upset at someone. And most memorably of all, an older family member told me that her death on Halloween had spiritual significance – it meant that she was not going to purgatory, but straight to Heaven, because God could not bear to spend any time without her angel.
I did not know what to make of any of these strange ideas at the time, and it was years later that I started exploring religion for myself. Thinking back now, it strikes me as pretty amazing how such elaborate stories could build up around the death of a normal person today. When people are grieving, weaving elaborate mythologies seems almost instinctual.
Jesus was the focal figure of dynamic community trying to inaugurate a radical new ethic of love. People were swept up in his words, they believed this new ethic, this new Kingdom of Love was at hand. But then, their charismatic, wonderful leader, just died. The pain must have been unbelievable. A loss of hope, of purpose, of meaning.
Mythologies are not about opting out of the world, or pulling wool across our eyes, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it. Out of this grieving community was not the outpouring of a perfectly conceived Christian metaphysical worldview, but rather reality as they experienced it, or sensed it intuitively. This mythology helped them to orientate themselves within an increasingly confusing world. In this sense then the myth that grew up around the death of Jesus is true because it was effective, not because it was factually accurate.
It is a valid myth if it works, if it forces us to change our hearts and minds, and gives us a new hope. Only when the myth becomes a reality in our own lives do we see its value. Like when we play a new board game – the rules only begin to make sense when you’re actually playing.
One of these initial myths surrounding Jesus was that he was God. There is some debate around how quickly Jesus was divinized after his death: it appears as if devotion to Jesus characterised Christianity right from the get-go. It was an instinctual, experienced reality to those early Christians. On the cross then just a man died, but it was experienced and continues to be experienced by many as the ultimate act of that incarnate Godhead. Incarnation which culminates in crucifixion, or culminates in the mythology borne out of the crucifixion – namely resurrection – the experienced imminent reality of Christ.
But the mythologizing which poured out did not stop there. Christ’s imminent presence culminates in Acts with the ascension; culminates in Jesus’ resurrected body floating up into heaven above. In this single move, the revolutionary brilliance of the whole incarnate man myth is undone. And this is why I read and love the children’s book, the Giving Tree. In the Giving Tree the Gospel is re-framed in such a way that I can get on board: in its re-telling it becomes a compelling narrative once again. I believe the incarnation to be a myth, but it is a myth that can work. It can be a force to change our hearts and minds, and can even give us new hope.
And, I would go so far as to say that in the entire Bible there is nothing that annoys me more than this bit in Acts we had read to us - this bit about the flying Jesus. The absurdity of the ascension is probably best captured in the sculpture at Walsingham, in the chapel of the ascension. The sculpture, if you’re not familiar with it, shows two feet dangling down from the ceiling as they disappear into golden clouds, surely a sight that can only invoke laughter.
In the ascension, the incarnation is diluted of all meaning, for no longer can we say that Jesus self-renounced his divinity, for he stands out amongst mortals, just like Superman. We cannot say that God fully entered into humanity, for clearly he kept back his primordial form in his primordial realm. In this Christianity it is only Jesus’ humanity which suffers death upon the cross, and not the divinity of Christ. It is the human form which is sacrificed on behalf of us all that we too might return to our pre-sinful, original, primordial condition. Christianity here understands itself as a backwards movement, a return to Eden. Or a return to the Shire if you will.
Thomas J J Altizer proposes a Christian vision, a new living myth that can make sense of our shared religious heritage. In Altizerian theology God fully enters into the human condition. He does not divide himself into parts, into a Trinitarian form, but rather wholly takes leave of the heavens. He self-empties, taking on human form in its totality. In the crucifixion then we have the very real death of God. Not merely a slight of hand, but the self-negating of the ultimate other. So painful a reality that almost as soon as it happens Jesus’ disciples imagined it away; for grief will summon up our most vivid dreams and fantasies of empty tombs and resurrected bodies.
As quickly as God dies, he is reimagined into the heavens, the die is recast, and the priests’ cultic work resumes. For Altizer, the Gospel, the Good News, is that at the cross God really does die. For our sake he self-annihilated, in order to truly liberate us – liberate us from the daddy in the sky who can never leave us alone, never let us grow up, never let us move forward. God self-negates so that the divinity once located up there is re-located in each one of us. The Tree loves the boy so wholly that she is willing to self-negate, so that the boy can grow up.
When I was an Anglican Priest I took the symbolic representation of the God man, the wafer, I held it up and broke it. Once broken it was distributed into the congregation, never to be reconstituted, never to be made whole again, as the tree is never to be made whole again. For God is in perpetual negation, ever ceasing to exist, ever liberating us from the alien other.
So herein lies the brief tragedy of Calvary. That group standing around those crosses stretched out into the blackened sky. A Galilean convict, pressed to the lips of ages. Hear the involuntary shriek of Mary, as the spear struck upon the lifeless body.
A brutal laugh. A mutual jest. An act of Love. The death of God.