The day the Christian world calls Easter Sunday is just about over. But if we seek to the larger and still undeciphered significance of why we celebrate Easter, we have to set aside in our minds many of the most familiar as well as popular traditions, iconographies, and spiritual practices which we associate with the day.
The word “Easter”, according to the general philological consensus, derives from the old Saxon word ēastre. However, that is where the consensus also ends. Many Christian scholars have assumed for some time that ēastre refers to an ancient Nordic goddess, who was in turn the archetype for the renewal of all life every year.
Some have gone so far as to trace the term to phonetically cognate names of even older fertility goddesses from the Middle East, such as Ishtar or Astarte (which may be more a coincidence than a linguistic fact). But there is no doubt, etymology notwithstanding, that the Christian holiday with its of folklore magic bunnies and colored eggs has long, cultural entanglements with pre-Christian pagan customs, as does Christmas and many other forms of religious festivity.
The rites of Spring and the distinctive Christian belief in the resurrection of their faith’s founder from the dead as an actual occurence in time and space have an unmistakable correlation with each other within the symbology of many, many peoples. But Easter in no way constitutes simply the “Christian” version of what Mircea Eliade, the chief architect of the present day academic field of religious studies, labeled “the myth of the eternal return.”
As noted Biblical scholar N.T. Wright remarks in his voluminous book investigating the background to the Easter story entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God, what happened that spring morning just outside Jerusalem on the weekend following Passover must be interpreted as a change in the very perspective from which we view history. Wright contends:
No wonder the Herods, the Caesar, and the Sadducees of this world, ancient and modern, were and are eager to rule out all possibility of actual resurrection…[What took place was an] event…which demanded to be understood, not as a bizarre miracle, but as the beginning of the new creation. It is the real world that, however complex this may become, historians are committed to studying. (737)
Ever since German academics in the nineteenth century launched the exhaustive, but ultimately futile, project we know today as the quest for the historical Jesus, there have been innumerable arguments and counter-arguments concerning whether the resurrection should be considered historical “fact” or “fiction.” As Wright himself points out in the introductory pages to his book, the quest itself in the narrowest sense of the word “historical” is an impossible undertaking. “All the arrows of history cannot reach God,” he quips sententiously.(11)
Of course, if all the arrows fall short, does that imply that the resurrection itself is “unhistorical”? Does it mean, as so-called “fideists” have insisted, ever since such a theological stance first emerged in the late Middle Ages, that the only ground on which the claim of Jesus’ resurrection can be legitimately advanced is the so-called “leap of faith.” Tertullian’s well-known credo quia absurdum (“I believe it because it is absurd”), even in a more recent era, has been the touchstone for operative Christian faith in both the evangelical and Catholic spheres of intellectual influence.
The other option, especially among liberal Christians and so-called “post-Christians”, has been to dismiss the “literal” interpretation of the event, even though the same constituency has wholeheartedly embraced Jesus’ death on the cross as exhibiting some trait of historical palpability, even so far as the so-called “death of God theologians” in maintaining that death and resurrection, like wave and particle in quantum physics, are simply two complementary aspects of the same fundamental reality.
Whether Jesus rose “in fact” (whatever that connotes) from the dead, according to the latter formulation, does not really matter, because something happened on Easter morning that brought about an alteration of human lives and a redirection of the historical trajectory.
These largely non-Biblical and non-Christological expressions of the notion of resurrection are by and large “political” in a certain manner. I put the term “political” in inverted commas, because it is not my aim to make the question of the resurrection simply a pragmatic of how social or moral lives were changed because certain peoples that came to be known as “Christians” tended to behave differently, and affirm different legal, juridical, or cultural standards as the output of their conviction that “he is risen”.
The most important book to accede to this line of reasoning in the last quarter century (or even perhaps since Bruno Bauer composed his Christ and the Caesars in 1877) has been Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Unlike his nineteenth century forbears, Badiou is not so much interested in the historical Jesus as in Paul of Tarsus, who forged the theology for what would come to be known as the “church universal.”
Badiou sees Paul’s theology as inherently political, and “political” in the most radical extension of the term. For Badiou, Paul is the “poet-thinker of the event,” one who frames the idea of political “militancy”. “He brings forth the entirely human connection…between the general idea of a rupture, an overturning, and that of a thought-practice that is this rupture’s subjective materiality.”(2)
Badiou, in effect, chooses Paul to write about because in Logics of Worlds, the second volume of what he considers his own magnum opus on the philosophy of the “event”, he regards the concept of resurrection itself as the anchor term, or what Jacques Lacan would designate as the “quilting point”, for a theory of “eventalism”, so far as human history is concerned. “Resurrection,” according to Badiou, is a “destination” term that “reactivates a subject in another logic of its appearing-in-truth.”(65)
What this statement says, stripped of Badiouian jargon, is that resurrection is the absolute historical condition for “revolution” in the broadest application of the locution itself. But it should be noted that in Logics of Worlds, as in earlier works, Badiou is establishing a theory of history on a radical theory of the subject.
His theory of the subject is not about revamping, or repositioning, the life of the individual. The theory of the subject – or, as Gilles Deleuze would say, of “becoming-subject” – concerns the forces, processes, and contexts in which collective existence is completely remade, and whereby personal experience is dramatically re-oriented toward the future in a creative, powerful, joyously anticipatory, in-surrectionary manner. The “event”, like a giant wave arising from a tsunami, signifies this switching of the course of history, and the pivotal incidence of all history is The Resurrection itself.
At the same time, I do not think we need Badiou’s hyper-sophisticated vocabulary (even if it works somehow for the secular despisers of theology as a whole) to appreciate the ramifications of what he is genuinely driving at. In order to undertake a little empirical research this past holy week, I visited a variety of different Christian services to see how the theme of the resurrection was framed in different settings.
As one would expect, most of the messages were centered on experiencing at a personal level the “new life in Christ” that one could of course acquire by entering into Christian fellowship – more specifically, by becoming involved with that particular fellowship.
But one large charismatic service, made up of people of many different races and ethnicities bused in from around the country, including even more who had come from different nations around the world, had a quite different thrust. Held on the Saturday of Passover rather than Sunday morning, it emphasized both the continuity – and what we might also call the “intersectionality” – of the story of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets of Israel with the Christian witness to l’eventement (as the French would say) of the Resurrection.
The inspiration I received was not that Christianity needs to be more “inclusive.” Given its own history and what is happening in the Global South, as I wrote a decade ago in my own book GloboChrist, we can certainly say that it is. It is not that our current “post-Christian” condition in the West compels us to turn faith into political action for whatever contingent cause we consider righteous and just.
In Badiou’s paradigm, the Christian “insurrection” emanating from the The Resurrection challenges the very assumptions on which we, especially today, are so “righteously” mobilizing in pursuit of abstract ends we barely have thought through.
It is that perhaps “resurrection” means (a la Badiou perhaps) the revelation of a radical and revolutionary new form of human relationality that is coded in something stranger, unimagined, and far more fateful than church doctrine, “Judeao-Christian” ethical teaching, or even universalistic and humanitarian aspirations.
Perhaps it is an event we have only barely begun to envision, let alone act upon. That is why we need to start calling days like today not Easter Sunday, but Resurrection Day, the Day of the Event.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and managing editor of Political Theology Today. He is the author of many books, the most recent of which are Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016). His Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017) is scheduled for later this year.