Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Final Belief

Ok, I'm trying to recreate what I lost because I'm an idiot the other day.

I'm starting at the end of that lost blog with a quote from the American writer Wallace Stevens that goes like this:

"The final belief is to believe in a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe in it willingly."

Go to your Bible and read the four stories of the Resurrection in each of the four gospels that made the 'cut' and got into the canonical scriptures. Remember this, Mark actually ends after verse 8 of chapter 16--the rest, every reputable scholar agrees, is a later gloss added to the gospel.

Read them all yet? If not, let me tell you this--they are like four different stories. The only constant between them is that it was women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. And why not? It is women who are always there when things are tough. But even the cast of women differs from gospel to gospel.

Matthew 28:1--Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
Mark 16.1--Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome
Luke 24.10--Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother James and the others with them
John 20.1 Mary of Magdala

So, go figure. Ponder that under your own Castor Oil Tree for a bit.

Always and only Mary Magdalene (of Magdala) who the Roman church besmirched for nearly 16 centuries before--a few years ago--admitting she wasn't a prostitute. Mary has her own gospel, well worth reading, and was considered to be 'the Apostle to the Apostles' by the earliest church. There are wondrous legends and stories about her after the resurrection that are well worth knowing about. One of which (via not only the DI VINCE CODE) is that she was carrying Jesus' baby when Joseph of Arimathea sailed off with her to France. Let that bit of esoteric stuff go, just remember that besides her, there is no consistency in the accounts of who first showed up to find the tomb empty.

Stop right there--that is the only consistent report of the four gospels...that it was women who discovered the resurrection...and even that constant is inconstant in the texts. There are lots of inconsistancies--guards or not, how many angels or 'young man in white' from Mark, 'don't touch me' vs. 'touching his feet', how the disciples figure in, etc. I'll leave them to you to make a list of--how many differences there are in the four Easter narratives.

Given that, I must admit I have no idea whatsoever about what really occurred on that long ago morning. All we are left with is 'story'--'fiction', if you will--about the most important moment in all Christian theology and devotion. We--you and I--conflate the stories into one and couldn't, unless you just read them (you did, didn't you, when I asked you to?) distinguish out the four stories that make up our 'fiction' about the resurrection.

Let me be clear at this point, lest I be thought to be heretical or worse: I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS ON EASTER MORNING. Got that?

And my 'belief' is in a fiction, 'there being nothing else'.

Everything is a 'fiction', by my definition. Stuff happens and then we talk about it. The 'talking' we do about 'what happened' ISN'T 'what happened', it is the fiction we invent about it. Talk to your lover about your first kiss and I guarantee you that you that you'll end up with two 'stories' about what happened. Both are 'fictions', there being nothing else, about 'what happened' in that lovely, truly holy meeting of your lips.

Everything is like that. What we experience is NOT what we say about it to describe it to another. The domain of 'presence', the domain of 'experience' and 'happening' cannot be reproduced in language. Yet all we have to try to pass on that experience IS 'language'. And all language, I contend, is, by definition, "fiction". Language is a story we tell about what happened. I cannot 'give you' the experience of holding my newborn child for the first time. All I can do is tell you a story about that experience. "Telling the story" makes it a FICTION. That's what I say about it. If you disagree and think 'the telling' IS 'the happening' then stop reading now...please....

"The final belief is to believe in a fiction".

Easter is a fiction to me. I hope you can comprehend what I mean. "Something happened", but the four stories I have about it are all remarkably different. In one of them the dead are walking the streets of Jerusalem. In another, the Risen Christ looks like a gardener (he's been depicted in Western art many times with a farmer's hat and a hoe when he meets Magdalene!) In another story, he doesn't show up at all and the women fled from the tomb full of tromos kai ekstasis-- fear and wonder, terror and joy--however you translate it.

So, what we're left with is a 'fiction'--or four 'fictions' if you wish. If the folks who put together what we call the New Testament back in the 4th century didn't notice how disparate the four stories were, they weren't the greatest theologians and thinkers of the church we give them credit for being. I think they realized they were dealing with 'fiction' and left the stories out there for us to grapple with and wrestle with and wonder about and ponder.

So, when I say the Resurrection is a "fiction"--or, at least four "fictions"--I don't mean it isn't True. Fiction, as an old English major, is more True that 'fact' from the get-go. I'm just saying that for me--a Christian of the Anglican (more accurately these days, 'the Episcopalian' persuasion) I have finally come to 'the final belief'--the belief in a fiction, there being nothing else.

I don't even long for a video of Resurrection Sunday. I'd rather wrestle with the multiple fictions that have been handed to me as 'stories'. I don't want FACT, I enjoy fiction too much. Fiction gives me room to roam in my imagination and my ponderings and my wonderings and my faith. Faith, to me, is present in metaphor and simile and paradigms much more powerfully than it could ever reveal itself in substance and reality and 'don't question me' dogma.

The Resurrection is, in Wallace Stevens' words, "the exquiste truth" of knowing it is all a fiction and believing in it willingly. Just as poetry is more engaging than prose, for me, fiction is more the "stuff" of believing than fact could ever be.

"Alleluia, He is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!"

What a life-giving fiction. Something to build a faith upon--and the final faith is to not get too attached to FACT. Let us celebrate the exquisite truth of the Fiction of our faith.....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.