This article is recovered from before the big Mythodrome crash. I originally posted it in April, 2011.
The recent Easter holiday passed without much comment among the select bloggers I follow, which I suppose is not so surprising. Religious holidays in general don’t have much to do with collapse, decline, economic and/or environmental devastation, or any of the other myriad issues about which the doom-o-sphere worries.
But beneath the alarm of the day, the Easter narrative has more to do with these things than almost anyone realizes. The story of Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection is intimately tied to Western demise and powerfully illustrates the timeline of our civilizational bubble.
What is Easter?
Easter is the premier holiday around which the Christian liturgical year revolves. In its most basic form, Easter spans the Friday before Easter Sunday, and Easter Sunday itself.
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and echoes the traditional Jewish sacrifice of the Passover lamb. On this day the ruling Jewish hierarchy, who considered Christ a dangerous heretic, handed him over to the Roman authorities to be put to death. He was tortured in various ways by the Romans and eventually nailed to a cross, where he died a slow and excruciating death. According to tradition he died at approximately 3:00 p.m., and was subsequently buried in a donated tomb.
Christianity holds that during his crucifixion, Christ took on the sins of all humanity and suffered the punishment due every individual, since every individual is sinful and worthy of death. Part of this punishment was a descent into hell for three days. Then, on the following Sunday, Christ busted out of hell, reinhabited his body, then transcended both hell and death to become physically immortal. Because he did these things all of humanity has the opportunity to participate in immortality as well, simply by having faith that Christ’s death and transcendent resurrection will make it so.
It all sounds very bizarre and foreign, yet this is the worldview of 2.2 billion people and the basis of the world’s largest religion.
I find it utterly compelling that the Christ story is an almost exact reproduction of the underworld journeys taken by those resurrection deities that preceded him. While names and places change, the resurrection story has remained basically intact since the very beginning of civilization, surviving empire after empire. It has never been forgotten nor superseded by decree, tradition, or popular whim. These things beg the question: why does this mythology seem to define Western religion, spanning empires and cultures over thousands of years, and not some other?
Resurrection or Rebirth?
Any quick survey of resurrection mythology will reveal hundreds of similar stories from cultures everywhere. Nearly every culture, it seems, has a story of a deity who dies and is reborn annually, typically in concert with the seasons and the sun’s waxing and waning over the course of the year. This appears to be true of Christianity as well, but only to the degree that Roman authorities plastered Christian names and themes onto pagan holidays. The Christian mythos actually has little relation to the paganism ancient rulers tried to bury beneath it.
These efforts were tragic not only for paganism, but for the Christian mythos as well. Possibly the most important distinction lost in the mashup is that between rebirth and resurrection.
Rebirth is a very different beast than resurrection. Rebirth demonstrates a cycle that has a definable beginning, middle, and end. Rebirth mythologies envision their deities living many lifecycles, over and over again, each discrete from the one before. These divine lifecycles are connected to the cycles of agrarian life: planting, growth, harvest, and winter. Rebirth is the mythology of cyclical time.
Resurrection does not demonstrate a cycle, but rather a single, anomalous phenomenon that occurs only once. The annual celebration of the resurrection event is an observance of its anniversary, not of its reoccurrence. Resurrection is the mythology of linear time.
Linear Time, Revisited
Linear time is a concept largely credited to the ancient Hebrews. I have speculated elsewhere (though I can’t find it now — I’ll link up when I locate it) that the idea of linear time may have been a necessary construct to grok what the Fall had unleashed: a long-lived aberration that will finally end because that is its only possible outcome. The cyclical time as understood by Paleolithic and early agrarian societies could not account for this bizarre deviation from the obvious circles of the known world; cyclical time provides no mechanism for anything like a linear countdown spanning untold cycles, and so one had to be invented. This mechanism, conceived for the purpose of anticipating the end of the Fall aberration — that is, Western civilization — is the linear time to which we Westerners have assigned ourselves.
We know that linear time is synonymous with a death sentence. We experience time as a depleting resource — we save it, maximize it, invest it, and scramble madly to avoid running out of it. And just like the bell curves of all depleting oil fields add up to Hubbert’s grand curve, so too do all of our depleting timelines add up to a mass The End. We seek immortality — a continuation of experience that extends along an infinite linear timeline — because we do not want an end, and we cannot conceive of time in any other way.
Resurrection myths fulfill our fantasy of an infinite linear lifespan. Everyone knows this. But there is a deeper level here as well, hidden in the sequence of events that comprise the resurrection myth. Each step in the process illustrates a stage in the development, demise, and transcendence of Western civilization. It is our own linear timeline, our own knowledge of our evolutionary journey into and beyond the abyss, preserved in the story format of our Paleolithic forebears.
Descent & Transcendence
Most of us are probably used to seeing growth and decline represented as a bell curve that goes up, then back down. But it is equally valid to flip that graph upside down, and view growth and decline rather as a descent and subsequent ascent. This would certainly have been the perception of the ancient proto-Hebrews, recorders of the Genesis “Fall” narrative, who observed the advent of farming, understood its corruption and wanted nothing whatever to do with it. The spread of cities and the rise of empires were, to them, a great tragedy.
From this upside-down perspective, the growth of civilization is evident in the underworld descent phase of the resurrection myths. Our progress, which we envision as proceeding upward, is actually a sharp downward motion — a “fall,” if you will. We have built for ourselves an underworld of death separate from the life — i.e., normality — going on above us.
And just as the divine protagonists’ descent into the underworld was an anomaly of a limited duration, so too is civilization’s reign over the natural world an anomaly of limited duration. It can and will end because it has to. It is simply not sustainable in any fashion.
Most indications are that when the Big Crash happens — be it over a century or a decade — the new “normal” will reset itself at a lower level than the “normal” that preceded the civilization bubble. That is the nature of bubbles. In our Western-dominated global economy, this would equate to a “dark age,” which, like the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, could potentially last a thousand years or longer.
But again, this view can be flipped upside down. The “lower” reset level then becomes “higher,” illustrating not just an ascent out of an underworld anomaly, but a transcendence above the conditions in place prior to the “fall.”
In resurrection mythology, the deity emerges from the underworld in a transcendent state of immortality. He or she experiences death, and subsequently overcomes both death and the underworld supernaturally. In the resurrection myths with which I am familiar, the deity causes his or her own resurrection via connection to an outside deity, often the ruler of the pantheon.
So too is our own escape from our underworld dependent upon connection to a source that exists beyond it. For us, that source is the awesome power of nature, personified in Genesis as Elohim. The natural world is truly our only hope, and I don’t mean in the form of tidal power or “clean coal” or any of the other media fantasies that pollute our collective conscious. Our transcendence will come when we finally accept that the natural world can and will sustain us, that we can not only survive but thrive in its abundance, as long as we are willing to adapt ourselves to it and not vice versa.
If the Fall event marked a cognitive shift in which humans came to see themselves as separate from nature, the transcendence illustrated by the ubiquitous Western resurrection myth marks another, equally epic cognitive shift: deliberate, premeditated adaptation to our environments. This is something quite new under the sun, something humans have ever done before on any collective scale. Hunter-foragers, while adapted to their environments, did not plan or deliberate anything; it was not proactive, but rather reactive.
This level of adaptation is not going to cut it in the future. Our accumulation of technological know-how means that simple-minded reaction could easily spiral out of control on a planet with a compromised immune system. We will, instead, have to choose which technologies we will use and which we will not use. We will have to learn to forego convenience and artificial wealth on purpose, in order to maintain homeostasis within our environments; and we’ll have to figure out ways of doing government, commerce and religion that are also deliberately adaptive to the environment.
That is a tall order, and I have no expectation that these things will happen without a global demonstration of the consequences of not doing them. There is no avoiding the logical outcome of what we’ve created, and there is no immortality — that is, no sustainability — until Western civilization has burned itself out. Once that has happened, however, there will be no more constraints on wisdom. For the first time in human history we will be both willing and able to do what needs to be done; and I think most here would consider work with that depth of meaning to be a blessing and a joy. This is the transcendence in our future and, like collapse/decline, I think it is inevitable.
In new agey terms, crucifixion and resurrection represent ego death and personal rebirth; on a mass scale, that is precisely what we are facing. Another new age term I come across frequently is “conscious evolution” — our deliberate adaptation is, I believe, the “conscious evolution” new agers have been anticipating for the past 30 or 40 years.
The narrative of Easter, of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, follows the same shape as our own civilization’s descent into madness, self-destruction, and subsequent cognitive evolution. It is, I believe, a collective unconscious recognition of the nature of what we have created. We know in our bones that things are not right, haven’t been right for a long time; our mythology reminds us, if we care to remember, what exactly the problem is.
The hope I find in Western resurrection mythology is not the same as those who adhere to the religion that grew up around it. I don’t know if I will live forever in a heaven after I die; I don’t believe I am personally in need of an abstract salvation. For me, the hope is in understanding that just as we are culturally programmed to kill ourselves, so too are we culturally programmed to resurrect ourselves and achieve things about which we can now only theorize. We are not going to destroy the entire planet or all of humanity, and we are not destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again forever as if chained to rebirth wheel. We will not only survive, we will rise above. I can hardly imagine a better future for Western civilization than that.