4 Year Olds & Moon Gods
The other day my daughter asked me if the moon was God? Immediately, my mind drifted off, thinking of the number of cultures throughout history, even in Israel’s time, when people believed that the moon was a god. Before I lost the moment, I engaged her question with a theology of Creation from the book of Genesis. In the Bible’s creation story, the moon is referred to as a “light” that governs the night rather than as the moon, its deified identity in solar religions. Scholars believe that not naming this “light” was an authorial decision to avoid any confusion between the prevalent solar religions of the day with the religion of Israel’s God, Yahweh. So while I was thinking all of that, I did not explain that to my daughter. Why? Because I could still teach her that the moon was not a god because God created it, yet later I can explain why it’s no called the moon in Genesis. Leaving out the authorial intention is not wrong, it is an attempt to make the story sensible to a 4 year old’s capacity, a capacity that will grow into an ability to learn more of the complex ideas encased in Genesis’s story of Creation.
So, sometimes we teach our children foundational yet simple truths that encapsulate a fuller version of said truth, but only in latent form. We teach these things to our children anticipating the trajectory of their ability to learn more and more complex ideas once they have the capacity to do so. God in Christ, has done the same thing for human societies throughout history and continues to do so with us. The Cross is one such story.
The Whole Truth And Nothing But the Truth: Unhelpful to God?
Awhile my back, I bought an extendable baton for our family walks to ward off food-seeking monkeys. My daughter asked me on the walk if I could protect her with the baton. As her father, I immediately responded with an emphatic YES! Of course papa would keep her safe and protect her from all harm. I then drifted off to my imagination, where I conceived of multiple scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to protect her. Though I would try, there are some things that I just could not protect her from. But I knew that if I explained to her that in certain scenarios there would be nothing I could do to protect her, though true, it would be immoral to communicate this to her.. Why? Because she doesn’t have the capacity at 4 years old to embrace the complexity of that truth without it harming her. For the sake of her development and emotional security, I had to tell her something that wasn’t altogether true, knowing that later in her life, she would have the capacity to absorb this truth; a truth that would eventually protect her, though today it would harm her.
So, sometimes we tell our children age-appropriate “lies” in order to raise them well. Later, they will find out we weren’t necessarily telling lies, but we also weren’t telling them the truth, and it will be ok. God has done the same throughout history in communicating his purposes to Israel through the sacrificial system he instituted, which he eventually did away with.
Believe it or not, this is what Good Friday and even Easter Sunday are about. They are about God doing for us that which we have a capacity to embrace, but also intrepidly that which we don’t have a capacity for all at the same time.
Easter Eggs, Holy Saturday & Hanging Out In Hell
Today is Holy Saturday, the day between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While this weekend tends to make sense to Christians, there are some things that just don’t make sense, or at least shouldn’t. Let’s be honest, when Peter writes that after Jesus died, he went to preach the Gospel to the dead in hell in the book of 1 Peter, we have no idea what to do with that. We tend to stick with what might make sense, Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection, rather than Jesus hanging out in hell on Saturday. Or take for instance the fact that the Zoroastrian religion, which predates the Easter week by far, also has an egg dying tradition to commemorate new life and the New Year called Nowruz. It is celebrated near the same time frame (March 21) as Easter weekend. Many have refuted this connection, as they probably should, given that the Easter egg has many origin stories. I only write this to point out that there are many stories which mirror the narratives in Scripture and in our Christian tradition, many of which predate or coincide with the claims of Christianity. It is not enough to ignore them or dismiss them, given that the questions they produce are real and aren’t going away. Even if the Nowruz egg decorating tradition has nothing to do with why Christians celebrate Easter with the same tradition, the questions surrounding why are not going away and we would be foolish to ignorer these conversations.
Similar Stories & The Mustard Seed of Difference
Recently, the website www.liberalamerica.org posted an article highlighting 5 near (not exact) identical myths to the story of Jesus that all predate the story of Jesus. The article focused mostly on aspects of Easter weekend found in other religions that mimic the role Jesus played. This website isn’t the first to propose these similarities, but the response to their article caused quite a stir, suggesting that there are many people out there who still don’t want to know these things, even if they are true. Or, we don’t want to figure out why these remarkable connections exist.
The connections shouldn’t surprise us really. There are many aspects to the Jewish and Christian traditions that are not unique to them – even those that God himself instituted. Circumcision, the OT sacrificial system, our creation story, our flood story, the design of the Jerusalem temple, etc. The list goes on and on and on. Most of Israel’s religion either borrows, mimics or is surprisingly similar to the other religions that surround it and predate it – even many of the ways (not all) that Yahweh performs theophanies or describes himself mimics the gods of the ancient Near East, particularly El and Baal. In fact, the names of God like El Elyon, El Shaddai, Elohim and El and a few others belonged to the Canaanite high god El long before Israel made use of them for Yahweh. While it might be unsettling, it shouldn’t surprise us that the story of Jesus borrows and mimics in the same capacity hundreds of years later. Thankfully, the way in which the Jewish and Christian traditions copies or appropriates the religious memes of others also includes a “mustard seed” of striking difference. That “mustard seed of difference” is remarkably similar and consistent throughout the development of the Jewish tradition developing into the story of Jesus. Knowing what that difference is, is the key that unlocks all of these mysterious connections and for our purposes, the Cross.
Transcending & Including our Scapegoats
This weekend for Christians is the most important time of the year for our faith. The cross and the empty tomb are symbolic and real events that our entire faith revolves around. For many years I reveled in the cross and its meaning. That Christ would die for me to take away my sins has been and continues to be a reality that stuns me. It’s incredible. That was until I started reading about the role of sacrifice in other religions and then bumped into Rene Girard. Girard’s sociological ideas that violent societies look for scapegoats to unleash their violence onto in order to regain an era of peace, which then only lasts for a time, leading to a never ending search for scapegoats struck me to my core. His suggestion that sacrifice is a concept created by humans, rather than their God, to achieve redemption and peace unsettled all of my previous assumptions regarding the God I followed. By no means am I letting go of anything I believed previously about the Cross, but I’m not staying put either. It is becoming more and more clear to me that instead of God needing the Cross, we needed it. Where do I go with this? In the words of Richard Rohr, I am learning to “transcend and include”.
Purple Pills & The Cross of Christ
So then if sacrifice is not God’s idea, how is it that God sent Jesus as a sacrifice for my sins and why would God incorporate a sacrificial system at the center of the faith He was the progenitor of? If sacrifice is a bad idea to begin with and only accomplishes peace for a time rather than a peace that passes understanding and is perpetual, why would God incorporate a sacrificial system into the center of Israel’s faith? Why would Christ be required to be a sacrifice for our own sins?
When I first began to question this dynamic, I felt like Neo from the Matrix. The blue pill represented the static beliefs I had been taught about the Cross and had held, and still hold as true and sacred…but I began to feel like that wasn’t enough. The fact that the problems in the world could not only be traced back to a “Fall” by the first humans deconstructs our notion that the Cross is only about redeeming humans. There was a rebellion against God’s desires long before humans ever came onto the scene and the Cross had to deal with that problem as much it did the problems created by humanity’s rebellion. The Cross has to be about so much more. As a result, the red pill began to represent the direction that Girard offered in understanding the Cross, sacrifice and a whole new matrix of truth surrounding them that I hadn’t even conceived of yet. But there was a problem. The problem was that I didn’t see God extending a blue pill in one hand and a red pill in the other, as if there was a choice. Rather both pills were being offered at once, to be taken together, i.e. when the Cross finally arrived, it was neither red or blue, but both.
In Part 2, we will look at where the “Mustard Seed of Difference” takes us after Easter.