March 30, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Who is the God of Easter?

Cynthia DewesWe’re heading down the home stretch to Easter. This Sunday, Palm Sunday, is the day Jesus began his Passion, his inevitable and “freely accepted” death on the cross. If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, you’ll have a distressing knowledge of what this was like.

This central fact of Christian faith, this death of the God-man at the hands of humans that leads to his divine resurrection, is hard for some to believe, let alone understand. That’s because we’re not God, but you’d never know it judging from some of the notions that people embrace.

Recently I read Susan Cheever’s book, American Bloomsbury, about the colony of authors and thinkers who gathered in Concord, Mass., in the mid-19th century. These intellectuals included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson Alcott, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, among others.

Cheever called this a “cluster of geniuses,” and so it was, with Emerson the core person around whom the others gathered. They were drawn to his ideas, but he also gave them financial and emotional support. Thoreau, in particular, because of his impracticality, owed Emerson a large part of his livelihood throughout his short life.

These people were idealists who did not accept all the prevailing attitudes of their times. Emerson, for example, left his family’s traditional male profession as a Puritan minister because he couldn’t agree with the idea that Christ was God, among other things.

Louisa Alcott was one of the first feminists, in reality if not in name. In her novels, the women characters were strong and self-reliant and not dependent upon men for their identity. Perhaps much of that was due to her parents’ personalities.

Her father, Bronson, loved to spend his time philosophizing, although he could do wonders at carpentry and landscaping when he chose to. Mostly he didn’t choose to. Her mother was a flighty sort who went along with Bronson’s inattention to paying bills and eating, while Louisa and her sisters suffered the consequences.

Thoreau was another impractical sort, although his main interest was nature and the human place in it. He felt that people had wandered too far from their natural roots, and were too involved in things like nice clothing, making money or acquiring possessions. Imagine what he would think of society today!

The Concord group was called the Transcendentalists because they believed in realities beyond human understanding, but not necessarily Christian realities. They thought that if they used their own inner perceptions they would become one with other people, one with nature and thus one with God.

While Transcendentalism is certainly idealistic, highly moral and socially ahead of its time, it leaves little room for the Christ of Easter. There’s a kind of New Age idea within it, that by sheer force of will we can unite with God and share God’s glory. It seems to leave no necessity for, or possibility of, God’s grace.

The Transcendentalists believed in true equality between the sexes, and among people who differed in economic class, education or anything else. They revered nature and believed in being good stewards of it. In these and other things, they reflected the love of their Creator.

But, in the Christ of Easter, we see the epitome of love, freely given only by God’s grace. That is the God we are not, and can never be no matter how much we will it.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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